Saturday afternoon, and it appears that the town of Stockport has escaped the clutches of that occasional virulent malady, FA cup fever. Instead, the smattering of die-hards who have braved the wintery conditions to spread themselves thinly among the wind-battered Edgeley Park seats for today's first round tie with Huddersfield Town look more likely to contract pneumonia during the ensuing couple of hours. Only a healthy-looking contingent from across the Pennines- huddled together as if for warmth under the low roof of the Vernon stand- looks likely to send the attendance figure creeping above a still-pitiful 3000. I take my seat in the lower tier of the Cheadle end- one of several empty ones available in the vicinity- and prepare for another County comedy show.
Mind you, the build-up to the game has been farcical enough, even by the recent side-splitting Stockport standards. The week began with the news that Luke Beckett, the star striker who more or less single-handedly saved the Hatters from relegation last season, had been sold to divisional rivals Hull City for a much-needed £50000 fee. To replace the departing forward, manager Sammy McIlroy used his inside knowledge of that hotbed of footballing talent, his native Northern Ireland, to secure the services from Preston North End of one Andy Smith, an ex-Glentoran man with a record for the season so far of played fifteen, scored none whatsoever. And then, just as the less-than-prolific Ulsterman had put to pen to paper for a month-long loan deal, the Beckett transfer fell through, leaving McIlroy with something of a quandary for the Huddersfield game: does he pick a high-scoring centre-forward who has spent the week trying to get as far east as possible from Edgeley without actually falling into the North Sea, or one who seems very keen to be here but can't hit a barn door from two yards?
It is hardly the sort of dilemma of which glorious cup runs are made- so it is fair to say that few of the sparse crowd in attendance, as County kick-off attacking the Cheadle End, will have made enquiries about hotel rooms in Cardiff next May. But then something surprising happens. From a seventh minute right-wing corner centre-back Ashley Williams rises to head firmly into the bottom corner of the net. The crowd hesitates for a moment, and then, remembering the correct response to a home goal, leaps three feet in the air. Williams has thought his own reaction through more thoroughly, and duly celebrates his strike by walking several steps towards the stand in the style of a chicken, before being engulfed by his even-more delirious colleagues.
The goal, and perhaps the break the cup offers from an increasingly desperate league campaign, have tranformed County, who proceed to dominate the first-half with wave after wave of venomous attacking football. No, really. At the centre of everything is the on-loan Smith, who is looking very confident, cocky even, for a man without a goal in fifteen games. With a feint here, a run onto a through-ball there, and a clever reverse pass into the path of a colleague over there, the new man is bringing that rarity- murmurs of appreciation- from the Cheadle End regulars. And he looks the part too. Tall, lank and menacing, in a combination of snazzy white boots and a shock of peroxide blond hair, Andy Smith is the spitting image, at least when viewed from sixty yards away, of Alan, his namesake at Manchester United. Perhaps McIlroy thought that was who he was signing. Right now the Cheadle End couldn't care less- 'Sign Him On, Sign Him On, Sign Him On', we sing. Meanwhile Luke Beckett, the terrace hero of this time last week, sits in stony-faced silence in the main stand, perhaps reflecting wistfully on the majesty of the Humber Bridge, gale-force North Sea winds, and crates of fresh haddock at 60 pence a pound. A week is a long time in football.
As the forgotten man dreams of Hull, his erstwhile team mates get on with the job of getting one step closer to Cardiff. A fine crossfield ball from our new hero Smith sends Warren Feeney away to score an unlikely second, and the same scorer latches onto a mix-up following a left wing corner to scramble a barely credible third. The Cheadle End rubs its eyes and takes another look at the scoreboard. As half-time arrives, it really does read Stockport County 3, Huddersfield Town 0. In the Connors Bar at half-time, sober types sip coffee and grin to themselves, while the more raucous element sings 'We're gonna win the cup' at the top of its voice.
In the second half County use up a good proportion of the luck they will be needing to get anywhere near the final stages of the competition. Visiting forward Abbot flashes a succession of shots just off target, while his partner Mendes sees a close-range drive blocked by Hardiker, who, appropriately enough given the inclement conditions, traps the goal-bound ball between his ankles in the style of a king penguin protecting his young from the Arctic winter. At the other end Andy 'Sign Him On' Smith continues to help us all forget about Luke 'what's his name again?' Beckett, at least until he gets near to goal, when he reminds us of the one chink in his armour: the fact that he can't hit a barn door from five yards. But when you're three nil up you don't mind your centre forward peppering the stands with wayward shots that go out for throw-ins, as long as he has snazzy white boots and a shock of peroxide blond hair. 'Sign him on, sign him on, sign him on', we are still singing, interspersed with 'We can see you slipping out', directed at the stream of Huddersfield fans heading for the exits, and the early train back across the Pennines, as the minutes slip away.
We don't even pause for breath when Abbot dribbles round the entire County defence to score a beautiful, but entirely meaningless, injury-time consolation goal. The only person in the ground who looks at all bothered by this late development is County goalie Spencer, who must have had a few quid on himself to keep a clean sheet, judging by the way he yells angrily at his defence for a good half-a-minute before going to retrieve the ball from the net. His colleagues shrug their shoulders at the strange antics of that eccentric breed, the goalkeeper, and shuffle off out of earshot. Meanwhile the final whistle blows, and the crowd crowd cheers, then sneezes. The loudspeakers announce loan-star Smith, deservingly, as man of the match. We sneeze, cheer again, then walk out into the street.
Is this the onset of cup fever, or just a touch of the flu? When the draw for the second half is made on Monday we will have more idea. In the meantime we will rub our eyes, take another look at this morning's papers, and satisfy ourselves that it really does say there, in the column marked FA Cup, first round proper:
Stockport County 3 (A Williams, Feeney 2)
Huddersfield Town 1 (Abbot).