Though next weekend involves a working Sunday, putting a premium on Saturday relaxation (and shopping) time, I have discovered a need to tie up half the day by visiting my local football team, Stockport County, to watch an FA Cup Third Qualifying Round tie.
I haven’t been to Edgeley Park for over a decade, and having thought about it carefully, I think this is going to be only my fifth ever visit, which is not a particularly impressive record for someone who has lived in or about Stockport for over fifty years (the Nottingham years excluded).
And it’s not as if I’m going to support the Home Team, either.
Though I didn’t actually start to live in Stockport until 1987, my family had been on the border – literally: the pavement was in Manchester, the road in Stockport – since December 1966. United and City were both in the First Division and doing well, and I first became aware of County through the regular posters promoting “Friday Night is County Night”, the Club making Friday night their home slot to avoid clashes with whichever local giant was at home each week.
At the time, I was too young to be interested in football except for kicking the ball most unsuccessfully in the schoolyard or during games, and when professional football started to penetrate into my consciousness, a couple of years later, my thoughts did not turn to County, who were probably languishing in the Fourth Division in those days.
My first visit to Edgeley Park was at the instigation of my old schoolmate Steve Callaghan (pronounced Calligan). Cally was interested in non-League Football before I started to take up with Droylsden, his allegiance, for some reason, being to the long-deceased Sandbach Ramblers, Cheshire League members.
County weren’t involved. We were going to some form of local Cup Final, possibly to do with the infant Northern Premier League, founded 1968. This game was taking place in, I am certain, 1970, and featured Macclesfield Town and Northwich Victoria. Steve backed Macc, as the ‘local’ team, but I was attracted to Vics’ green shirts, which were a bit of a rarety then, as now. Anyway, the game ended 1-1, and I never discovered the result of the replay.
Sometime within the next twelve months or so, he dragged me back to see County this time, or at least their reserves. The game bored me: my only recollection is wandering around during the second half, ending up at the top of the cinder bank that served as standing terraces at the town end of the ground, and running to play ballboy at one point, to return a misdirected shot that had ballooned up to my ‘lofty eyrie’.
Time went on. We left school. I went to University, Cally into employment. Sometimes he’d go along to Droylsden games, and we’d meet on the bus, or else he’d appear, smiling around a cigarette, under the uncertain floodlighting. After he stopped coming, we lost contact.
It was thirty years before I entered Edgeley Park again, and once more it was for two games, albeit in separate seasons. County were at the peak of their success, fully-fledged members of the First Division (i.e., the old Second Division of my unconfused youth), bogeymen to the Bitters, doing the Double over them each season they shared that level.
Both occasions were courtesy of the Club, or rather free family tickets distributed to my younger stepson’s school. My stepdaughter was far from impressed, but everybody else enjoyed our visits, especially as County won both. The first was against then-Division leaders Norwich, who were beaten 2-1 thanks to a debut goal for ex-England international and new player-manager, Carlton Palmer. On the night, if a stranger had been asked to decide which side were leading the Division and which were hovering above the relegation zone, he’d have made the wrong selections.
But with two wins under our belt, and County struggling, we used to joke that the Club should send us free Season Tickets, since we invariably brought success with us.
I enjoyed the visits just for the change of scene, because I was no longer going to see Manchester United, and because they enabled me to put vital ticks on a mild obsession. Between various Clubs, I have to date seen football matches at every level in the Pyramid, or the English League System (which is a bloody stupid and non-descriptive name when the Pyramid was so spot on), except for Level 5, i.e., the Conference/Alliance Premier.
County gave me the second tier in that list, though I can’t remember where or when I saw a Level 3 game, unless my memory of both County games being in level 2 is incorrect, and the latter of them followed relegation.
But back to next Saturday. County’s fortunes have fallen far since that Level 2 spell. They were relegated from the Football League in 2011 and went through the Conference stage. For the last three seasons, they have been marooned in the Alliance North, level 6, which status they share with FC United of Manchester.
Since County have wound up in the same division as FC, I have wanted to see such a derby. Unfortunately, home games at Broadhurst Park have always been all-ticket, and the return matches at Stockport have all clashed with me being on shift. Not so Saturday week. I am going to catch a Derby, I am going to cheer on FC United. My only previous experience of an FC Derby was against Droylsden, both games going 4-1 to FC, but on the other hand, I have never seen County lose.
Incidentally, if we’re playing the completist game again, as to the FA Cup, I have the complete set: I have seen games in every round from the Preliminary Round through to the Final, so a Third Qualifying Round is familiar territory for me.
Though I have always had a fondness for County, and a wish to see them do well (especially when playing Manchester City), and though there will be a certain oddity about supporting the visitors in a stadium that is far closer to my home than my team are based, I will be up for’t’ Cup with FC United.
Roll on next Saturday!