Stockport County are away, their latest annual peregrination of penance through the non-league smalltown obscurity of the National League (North) taking them this afternoon to Brackley, which Googlemaps tells you is near Milton Keynes, so therefore most definitely in the South. It’s certainly too far away to get you there and back in time for the semi-finals of Strictly Come Dancing, so in search of Saturday afternoon footballing diversion you clamber aboard the 1406 Northern Rail stopping service destination Buxton, which swishes you out of the suburbs and deposits you just twenty minutes later in the fog-shrouded wilds of Derbyshire- or, as the sign on the platform more prosaically puts it- New Mills Newtown.
Straight out of the station you pass the largest of the mills that gave the town its name and contributed to its rapid growth during Victorian times to become a sprawling settlement boasting not one but two train stations serving separate lines out of Piccadillly- Newtown for Buxton, and Central for Sheffield . The towering greystone edifice is now occupied by the Swizzles Corporation, by some distance the largest employer hereabouts since the last of the actual mill operations closed in the 70s- and as the roadbridge heads over the Peak Forest canal, the fizzy playground scent of a million freshly-minted lovehearts bouncing off the 24-hour production line mixes with the acrid smoke from the resident narrowboats to produce a unique and not displeasing concoction of sensations. Even if the fog was to close in sufficiently to render you effectively blind (and that is not a possibility you’d ever be wise to rule out in New Mills, certainly not in December), you would know exactly where you were.
Ten minutes later you pass by a quaint white sign bearing an arrow pointing due East, along with the words, etched in chipped black paint: ‘New Mills AFC. Next Home Fixture’;. Underneath, individual letters and numbers, also somewhat the worse for many years of interchangeable use, have been slotted into a patent wooden frame to read: ‘ Daisy Hill FC. December 2nd. Kick-off 3PM’. You head off where the arrow tells you and just minutes later, in exchange for the standard North Western Combination League (First Division) admittance fee of six pounds, gain entry through cast-iron turnstiles into Church Lane, a ramshackle football ground nestled in the town’s central valley, and hemmed in on its four sides by the main Buxton Road, a graveyard, a Stagecoach bus garage, and the foothills of the Pennines.
The turnstile spills you out into the Buxton Road end, where an expansive raised area allows ample space for the forty or so paying spectators to amble out of the clubhouse’s front door at three minutes to three clutching Styrofoam cups of coffee or plastic pint pots of Becks Lager, and take up roomy vantage points behind the goal-line. At two minutes to three, a hitherto unnoticed side-door to the clubhouse springs open, and a black-clad referee emerges, accompanied by two linesmen, twenty-two players, and approximately half-a-dozen assorted subsitutes, coaches, and other track-suited members of the respective sides’ entourages. The clackety-clack of their metal studs down the concrete steps to the pitchside is enough to hasten the last few straggling spectators out of the warmth of the clubhouse just in time to hear the referee’s shrill whistle signal the commencement of the afternoon’s proceedings.
As a vigorous first-half of helter-skelter non-league combat gets underway, the two sides reveal themselves to be evenly-matched, save for the home side’s pacy number eleven, who according to the bloke beside you ‘has just had a trial at Northwich Victoria. Mind, they sent him straight back’. Seemingly unaffected by this cruel rejection, this forward’s ability to penetrate the visitors right flank with sashaying runs seems the best chance we have of an opening goal. For the most part however, the game passes by its most accomplished protagonist, as a succession of hefty clearances provide more threat to the windows of the parked buses behind the right touchline than to either goalmouth. As half-time approaches the entertainment on offer stems mainly from the uncompromising exchanges of views between the players, quite audible above the low murmur of the sparse crowd. As a corner-kick to the visitors leads to a free header dropping just narrowly wide of the goal, the home captain’s patience is running thin, and, forehead furrowing in anger atop a six-foot-three frame seemingly hued directly out of Pennine stone, he admonishes his colleagues to ‘Wake the fuck up’, adding ‘It’s all too fucking slow lads. And too fucking quiet. Fucking talk to each other!’.
Perhaps jolted into life by this heartfelt plea for communication, the home team is suddenly roused into action, and a quickfire exchange of slick passing quite out-of-keeping with the lumpenness of the foregoing proceedings releases the number ten into a promising position which he converts, by way of a double-shimmy past a statuesque central defender, into a shooting opportunity, and presently, a goal. The joy in the Buxton Road End is short-lived, however, as the visitors advance immediately from the restart and- taking advantage of some hesitant goalkeeping by the Millers’ pink-clad custodian- score via a close-range header. The interval arrives with the teams all-square and the smart money on a tightly-fought second forty-five. As you make your way towards the clubhouse, you suggest to the bloke beside you that Millers can go on and win this one, if they can just get their number eleven on the ball more often. The bloke considers for a second, and sighs: ‘I’ve supported this lot for a long time. We’ll see’.
As the second half gets underway the pessimism of the long-suffering home fan is proved well-founded, as the visitors, now kicking towards darkening Pennine ridges dot-to-dotted with copper-orange streetlights, register not once but twice before the hour mark, both goals resulting from swirling long-range efforts which leave the hapless Millers’ goalkeeper grasping blindly through the mist. The goals serve to puncture all vigour out of the home team, and save for a couple of mazy runs by the number eleven which end with him face down in the mud amid half-hearted and vain appeals for freekicks, there is no threat of a comeback. Indeed, even when the visitors’ centre-half contrives to get himself sent off with twenty minutes remaining for foul and abusive language, in the form of calling the referee ‘a cheating fucking c*nt’ to his face and in full earshot of the Buxton Road End faithful, the home side cannot react- and when their own number six is sent to the dressing room for a carbon-copy case of dissent (although this one eighty yards away, so you aren’t in a position to quote it verbatim), the game is well and truly up.
Almost absent-mindedly, the visitors add two more goals- a scrambled effort after a corner is half-cleared, and a runaway strike by a fresh-legged substitute cutting in unchecked from the Stagecoach bus side. With the game won, there’s really no need for the visitor’s goalkeeper to wind down time over the taking of a goalkick, but he does anyway, and when the referee orders him to ‘get a move on’, his quickfire response – ‘Aye OK ref, but have I just got time to do up me shoelaces?-‘ brings a rueful chuckle from those in the Buxton Road end who haven’t already given up on the football for the afternoon and retreated to the clubhouse.
With the glare of the floodlights now isolating the hundred-yard open-air theatre against the pitch-dark of a Derbyshire winter evening, the referee decides the Millers have suffered enough, and blows for time at ninety minutes one second precisely. The protagonists (save for the two foul-mouthed early exiters) clackety-clack back in through the clubhouse side door to a smattering of applause from the remaining spectators, who, for all the grumbling of the previous ninety minutes (typical example: ‘get the fucking thing on the fucking floor, and fucking play it Millers’) have evidently quite appreciated the endeavour on display from their battling favourites. They will end the day more or less where they started- seventeenth in the North-Western League Division One.
As you wend your way back up to Newtown station to catch the 17:45 back to Stockport, you find via your mobile that County will return pointless from their trip South in the National League (North), Brackley having emerged on top, 3-2. But that’s not enough to dampen your spirits. Taking into account the pint of Becks from the clubhouse, a sausage roll from the adjacent co-op, and the train fare, the day out has cost you twenty quid, for which you’ve seen six goals, two sendings off, and a half-dozen mazy runs by a one-time Northwich Victoria triallist, the last of them ending with him being shoved by his fullback slap-bang into the advertising hoarding two-feet in front of you, from which low-point in his personal afternoon you were able to hear him as he climbed gingerly to his feet mumble to himself ‘aargh, fucking hell, yer fucker, that fucking hurt’. Which is not the sort of experience you can put a value on, not, at any rate, in your own considered view. .