My mam and dad are in town for the weekend, and it is both of their birthdays. My mam gets a German scarf, bought from the nice Polish lady’s stall at the Manchester Christmas market, but my dad is arguably less lucky; I tell him that the 64th anniversary of his arrival on the planet will be marked by a trip to watch Stockport County play Walsall, whether he likes it or not.
But it is the man’s birthday after all, so I let him use his encyclopaedic knowledge of real ale hostelries the length and breadth of the land to select the pre-match pub. After due consideration of the appropriate textbooks, a short-list of five establishments is scrawled onto a post-it note, and we board the 192 bus determined to find the first of these, the award-winning Arden Arms. A woman on the bus reckons it is just behind Asda, which doesn’t sound too tricky, but we have reckoned without Stockport’s quaint split-level town centre. Half an hour, six short interviews with head-scratching locals, and much animated criss-crossing of the steep cobbles later, we are none the wiser; far from finding the pub, we have almost managed to lose each other among the stalls in the packed Saturday market. And then suddenly, just as our thirst is reaching dangerous levels, we find it- hidden on a street corner at the bottom of a particularly tortuous incline.
The search proves to have been well worth the effort; the Arden Arms appears to be a well-kept secret among Stockport’s bohemian population. This Saturday afternoon it is full of interesting, arty-looking types, many of them tucking into the reasonably-priced pub meals. Me and me dad content ourselves with a pint each of Robinson’s Unicorn bitter, and then head back out into the steep, winding streets, and after a swift couple more in the handily-placed Unity, arrive at the ground just in time for kick-off.
On the way to the ground I have time to explain to my dad some of the recent developments at Edgeley Park, which have seen struggling County sell their star centre-forward to Sheffield United and, in the last week, dispense with the services of manager Sammy McIlroy. The fans’ talk on the way to the ground is of who might be brought in to replace the hapless Ulsterman at the helm. A bloke in the gents is all in favour of ex-Burnley boss Stan Ternent, but as we take our seats it is clear the Cheadle End have come to a consensus. ‘Davie Jones blue-and-white army’, they chant, in homage to the currently unemployed ex-Everton player who earned his managerial spurs at County during their unlikely rise to the heights of the old Division One in the mid 90s, before departing for less successful spells at Southampton and, until earlier this month, Wolves.
Amid the clamour for Jones, Walsall kick off, and immediately the ball lands at the feet of their chunky, vaguely recognisable number 10, who essays a light-footed stop-start shuffle before drilling a perfectly weighted ball to the left winger. This cameo is immediately recognisable as the signature move of the visitors’ player-manager, the ex-Arsenal and England playmaker Paul Merson, now in his mid-thirties and enjoying an Indian summer with the Black Country outfit. Merson subsitutes himself after 70 minutes, and his departure is marked by that rarity- a sporting, heartfelt round of applause from the home support. The old-fashioned gesture is well-deserved; the ex-international has captivated the Edgeley Park faithful with a virtuoso display of the finer arts of the game. The high-point comes in the 14th minute when Merson picks up the ball on halfway and proceeds, by way of an intricate series of passes exchanged with colleagues, to manoevre all twenty outfield players around the turf with the expertise and certainty of a skilled chessman. The inevitable checkmate arrives with a slide-rule ball into Wrack on the edge of the penalty area, who dispatches with venom. As the shot nestles in the bottom corner of the net, the Cheadle End sighs.
During what remains of the first half, only the plaintive shouts of the schoolmasterly type in front of us (‘Give the ball to bloody Lambert!’) punctuate the air of practiced resignation. And, of course, the delightful play of the singular Merson, who, one suspects, is enjoying this afternoon stroll among 4000 appreciative spectators more than many a high-octane North London derby, back in his early-nineties pomp, in front of 12 times that number of more partisan big city fans. Here in League One there is still room for humour amid the footballing hype, and when, at the set-up to a corner kick, the Cheadle End burst into a chant of ‘You Fat Bastard’, the ex-Arsenal star responds by mimicking the bloated, clumsy gait of a twenty-stone couch potato. The home fans dissolve into laughter as Merson swings the corner in. The whole scene is so far removed from the petulant, soup-throwing banality of the modern Premiership that it seems like a different sport altogether. It is not, of course; it is merely football, stipped of its modern self-importance, and reminding me and my dad of what made us fall in love with the game, all those years ago (a few more in his case) on the terraces of St James Park, Newcastle.
Back in present-day Edgeley, despite Walsall’s subtle promptings- and a barrage of heave-ho up-and-unders from the home team that appear to pose more danger to the low-flying aircraft crossing the pitch on their way out of Manchester Airport than they do to the visitor’s goal- there is no further scoring. The nearest Walsall come to adding to their lead is when County’s Griffin somehow clears a goal-bound Leitao effort off the line, while for the home side the ever-enthusiastic Feeney nearly gets a foot to a loose ball in the goalmouth, and Barlow- on for the full league debutant Le Fondre- has the glimmer of an opening, before his shot is blocked. It never really looked like a goal, and as the referee brings an end to proceedings a bloke near us says ‘it’s been one of those days, hasn’t it?’. His mate is less forgiving- ‘Aye, another one of those bloody days!’, he replies.
Well, it is maybe just another Saturday for those two diehards. But for my dad, it is a special day: the 64th anniversary of his arrival on the planet. As the final whistle blows, and we troop out into the Edgeley sidestreets, he turns to me and says thoughtfully, ‘I won’t be forgetting that one in a hurry!’. He is right; it has been quite a day. Thanks to the quaint split-level cobbles of Stockport, the enterprising landlords of the Arden Arms, and- last but by no means least- the footballing and comic genius of one Paul Merson- I don’t think either of us will be forgetting this afternoon for a while. In particular, we will always remember an ex-England midfielder walking to the corner flag doing a passable impression of Giant Haystacks, and this scoreline:
Stockport County 0
Walsall 1 (Wrack, 14)