A Saturday lunchtime at the wrong end of the month, and my dwindling finances will not stretch to £16 to watch my nearest team- the resurgent Stockport County- continue their battle to retain League status in a home derby against Bury. So I scan the local fixtures for budget football options, and my eye alights on another derby- Flixton Town versus Ashton United, in the North West Counties League (Division Two). I make a call to make sure the fixture has beaten the Manchester drizzle, and a chirpy female voice answers. At first, though, she doesn't seem sure which game I am wanting to see:
'Is the game on? You mean, inside or out?'
'Er, out, I suppose. You know, the Ashton game'.
'Oh, Flixton! That's on all right. Three o'clock kick off, love.'
By twenty to three I am standing in the still sparsely-populated clubroom bar of Flixton FC- opened in 1995, a plaque above the door reminds us, by none other than Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. A giant screen on one wall is tuned in to an Arabic station with the sound turned down, showing adverts for Pepsi Cola and Snickers bars. The phone rings.
'Inside or out?.... Yes we've got it on the big screen, love.'
The chirpy barmaid/ club secretary fields four more such calls during the next fifteen minutes, and soon the bar is filling up with 'big screen football supporters'- the type of people who will sit in a darkened room to watch illicit transmission of Bolton Wanderers against Manchester United in Arabic, while their local team plays a top-of-the-league derby in the flesh, just outside the bar-room door. As three o'clock strikes I drain my pint- pointedly, in a way designed to express my disdain for these so called 'fans'- and stride out into the windy afternoon to take up my position, along with a smattering of like-minded diehards, on the touchline.
I suppose at this point I should make an admission- in a gesture not entirely in keeping with this stance of Saturday afternoon solidarity with grassroots football, I had just tried to get into the match without paying. You see, the turnstile bloke had let me come into the ground via a side gate, so I could bring my bike in- and he didn't seem in any hurry to get any money off me, and... well, like I was saying, it is the end of the month, and, you know, maybe my support for non-league football would be better expressed by spending a fiver in this convivial-looking barroom here than at the turnstiles... I mean, it amounts to the same thing, doesn't it- er, yes, I'll have a pint of Grolsch please, thanks very much- what's that you got on the big screen, Bolton v United is it, fair enough...
A tap on my shoulder interrupts my train of thought. It is the stern-looking old codger with the blazer and moustache who had accompanied me through the turnstiles. Well, he had gone through the turnstiles while I nipped round the side.
'Excuse me son. You haven't paid, have you?'
'Oh! I'm sorry, you're right. I was confused by having to lock the bike up, you see, and-'
'Aye, nice try son. Turnstile is back out that door'.
Of course, on the windy touchline, I find myself alongside the gruff old codger again. Maybe he has identified me as a potential troublemaker, and decided to keep an eye on me, in the manner of a wily old full-back keeping tabs on a pacy visiting winger. As the game kicks off I decide to keep my head down for a bit, and not indulge in any racy terrace banter during the opening exchanges. I've made an arduous journey across Greater Manchester via train and bicycle to take in this one- the last thing I want is to be thrown out into the streets of Flixton for general cheekiness before a ball has even been kicked.
As the match gets underway I am beginning to question the value of that reluctant five pound outlay. The wind swirls, and the ball spends more time in sky than on the unreliably bobbly surface. The Flixton right-back is a nervy-looking young lad of maybe seventeen. Every time he gets the ball his centre-back, a stout non-league yeoman twice his age, yells 'Just relax!', and of course the youngster panics, and slices his clearance straight over the main stand and out into the street. For a good fifteen minutes this looks to be about the sum of the entertainment we are going to get for our fivers- but then, somewhat surprisingly- a football match breaks out.
The protagonist is the home right winger. His name, I gather from the terrace diehards, is Kieron somethingorother, and he has a look of Kieron Dyer, the Newcaslte wideman, about him- as well as the same abililty to torment defenders with sheer pace. On twenty minutes he scores the opener -a blistering cross-shot following an arrow-like run into the box ('Geronimo!', shout the locals, somewhat confusingly). As half-time approaches the home team's balding, paunchy centre-forward, who looks like he would be more at home on an allotment than a football pitch, adds a second- and when this wily old campaigner is again on hand to convert a close range chance with an hour on the clock, it seems the match is over as a contest.
However the visitors are made of stern stuff, and, despite playing against the swirling wind for the second half, they mount a spirited late comeback which is rewarded by two goals, both close-range bouncing rebounds snaffled with aplomb by onrushing forwards. Somewhere along the way the Ashton goalie gets in on the act, too- diving to his right to parry a harshly-awarded penalty. Now things are really getting interesting, and with the tackles flying in thick and fast, and the coaches on the far-side rising enraged from their benches it seems for a moment we are going to rouind the afternoon off with a brawl. The referee, though, has other ideas, and brings proceedings to a close with a short sharp blow on the whistle that says 'enough is enough'. The crowd murmurs appreciatively for a moment, then turns its back on the departing players and heads for the clubroom to take in the last moments of Bolton v Manchester United in Arabic.
Myself, I've got a train to catch, so I detach the bike from its railings, and, still avoiding the gaze of the old codger with the the blazer and moustache (although he mellowed towards me in the second half and told me a story about how the Flixton goalie once scored a last-minute cup-tie equaliser with his head), I get on the bike and race back through the suburban streets to the deserted Saturday tea-time branchline station. Fifteen minutes later I am back at Oxford Road. There is a bloke coming down the stairs in a Stockport County shirt.
'How did they get on this afternoon?
'Lost- one-nil. We were bloody dire. Bloody dire!'
Sixteen pounds for 'bloody dire', or less than a third of that for a five-goal thriller, in a little ground nestled between the Old Trafford and the Manchester Ship Canal, with a saved penalty, an encounter with a bona-fide non-league codger, and just the suggestion of a late brawl thrown in for good measure. I even got to catch the last five minutes of Bolton v United on the big screen, and marvel at the Arabic commentators heroic attempts to master the pronunciation of 'Wayne Rooney'.
His best effort was something like 'Huwayne Huroonary', which I would say is worth a fiver on its own, at any time of the month. You know what? I may return to leafy Flixton one day- and next time I might even pay quite willingly to get in. I certainly don't want to risk the wrath again of the scariest old codger in the whole of the North Western Counties League (Division Two). Something tells me he's got my card marked.