This season, partly due to the increasing feeling that we are all being taken for an expensive ride on the Premiership bandwagon, I have decided to ramp up a notch or two the hitherto casual relationship I have enjoyed with my nearest Football League team, the eternally useless Stockport County. Attendance of most of the home games, and the odd away trip to somewhere namby-pamby like Huddersfield, will not be enough any more. If I am truly going to become a member of the Hatters faithful (for such is my aim) then a statement of intent is needed- an Act of Faith, if you like. These are my thoughts as, bleary eyed and slightly hungover, I get on an an early Saturday morning bus to Piccadilly station. It is the first part of a 12-hour return journey that will take me nearly to the North Sea and back.
Even finding out the best way to get to Boston, Lincolnshire, for the afternoon's Division 4 fixture has been an adventure. I had seriously considered booking a £15 place on a supporters coach but felt this to be too sudden an immersion into the ranks of the Hatters faithful for a relatively new supporter, so resolved to take the train instead. Only, it wasn't going to work out cheap; official sources (the Stockport County and national train websites) had the fare as a prohibitive £40 return. Thankfully the helpful lady at Levenshulme station saved the day. 'Get two return tickets- one from Manchester to Nottingham, the other from Nottingham to Boston- it'll work out at £25'. Lesson number one for committed away travellers- make friends with the helpful lady at your local train station.
The first leg of the bargain train journey passed off without incident, and in no time at all I was at Nottingham station. Finding that I had a half-an-hour to spare for my onward connection, I retired to the nearest licenced counter- an establishment going by the name of the Granville Hotel, which some time ago had evidently attempted to shake off its shady image with the help of an outside coating of bright pink paint. The gambit had failed; the flaking paintwork now lent the place an uninviting air, which was not helped by the half-dozen strong deputation from the local constabulary guarding the door.
I swiftly realised the reason for the uniformed presence- the darkened room was full of middle-aged hardmen in casual gear- no club colours here- huddled in fives and sixes muttering conspirationally over bottled lagers. At this early hour the provenance of these old-school football hooligans was uncertain- they may have been an advance party across from Lincoln for the afternoon' game at Notts County, or a Chesterfield firm passing through on the way to wreak havoc at Rotherham- but the air of barely-stifled menace was unmistakeable. I sipped as inconsipicuously as possible at the first Guinness of the day, slipped back through the Police cordon, and hopped onto the 12:33 for Skegness, looking forward to a peaceful second leg of the long journey East.
By 12:35 such hopes had been dashed- the carriage was full of noisy, impatient hordes intent on destruction. But the hooligans had not moved from the Granville Hotel- what the helpful lady at Levenshulme train station had neglected to tell me was that on the second Saturday of the school holidays this particular train would be choc-a-bloc with the entire junior school population of Nottinghamshire, decamping en masse for a week's holiday at the seaside. It was pandemonium. The train heaved away from Nottingham with demob- happy seven year olds pumped up with Sunny Delight hanging from from the light-fittings and wrestling in the luggage racks. In the seat next to me there were two freckled young fellows, one sitting fidgeting on the other's knees, while the mother of one (I never found out which) struggled to maintain control from three rows back. 'Ashley!', she would scream at eleven-second intervals. 'Jordan! Stop that right now or you're not getting the bunkbeds!' It was going to be an excruciatingly long journey East.
As the train rattled unhurriedly through the Eastern plains I nursed my now-returning hangover and seriously considered getting off at Sleaford and starting a new life as an arable farmer, just to get away from the unbearable bedlam. And then, salvation! Looming into view behind- well behind nothing at all, given the extreme flatness of the county of Lincolnshire- was the Boston Stump, the tallest Parish church spire in England (so now you know!). The train shuddered to a halt, and along with two other lone members of the travelling Hatters army who had survived the Kindergarten Train From Hell, I stumbled out onto the platform, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried to get my bearings.
It was easy enough- other than the Stump, the stadium floodlights were the only notable features of the small-town skyline. On the way towards them I popped my head around a couple of promising-looking pub doorways, only to pop it back out again on being confronted by, in one case a gang of scary-looking heavy metal fans, and in the other, no-one but a bored-looking barman. The third doorway, that of The Ship Hotel, proved more welcoming; a gaggle of Boston supporters were heckling good-humouredly as a twenty-strong representation of County fans- the biggest group I had seen so far- belted out some awayday favourites, hardly any of which I had heard before.
I recognised a face- it was the unofficial head of the Stockport County chorus, who I had talked to after last season's Bournemouth game. 'Oh, we don't sing these songs at home', he explained. 'These are just for away days- I'll send you the book!' I scribbled my address down on the back of a beermat and fell into conversation with some less raucous members of the Hatters faithful who were curious to know why a broad-accented Geordie, resident in Levenshulme, Manchester, would spend his entire Saturday, and the best part of fifty quid, on a Stockport County awayday. I attempted an explanation, but was saved by the clock- it was 10 to three and the Hatters army were moving en masse for the Boston United turnstiles....
TO BE CONTINUED...
The second and final instalment of 'Across The Pennines With County...', coming to these pages later this week.....