Sometimes seeing English soccer games feels like watching Single-A baseball. Such was the case when…
Stockport County May Be What It’s All About
There are a lot of reasons I love going to soccer games, and I came across quite a few of them on my trip to Stockport County.
I try not to “rate” my groundhopping experiences too much, mainly because turning one’s passion into one’s profession, something fun into a series of checkboxes, is a sad business. Of course, some days are more fun than others, and sometimes I project that experience onto the club, and I wind up saying things like, “That place doesn’t have much going on.”
And then I have nights like I had at Stockport County, and I find myself really wishing I could bring people directly into that particular experience.
A brief introduction: Stockport County is in what I would call a suburb of Manchester. I know Brits would disagree, and say that it’s actually a borough, or a district, or a town, though not a market town, and definitely not a city, and not a suburb, and I don’t bloody well care. I do find it funny that there is not now, nor was there ever really, a county called Stockport. And all of this makes me like it even more, because I love how stratified and seemingly important all this stuff is to British people.
Anyway, Stockport is the last stop you’ll go through on a train from London to Manchester, and their football club is visible from that train, the roof of the Cheadle End standing proudly just west of the tracks. And here’s another reason I love football: because you can see something from a train, come back later to check it out, and have a terrific experience.
Ultras Members: Read our detailed Stockport County profile.
Football is Life, Or At Least a Way to See It
It’s like there are tiers to the groundhopping experience, same way there are tiers to the tourist experience. On your first trip to London, you go see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and all that, then the next time you focus on historic pubs or something, and then you keep digging deeper until you find Brixton Market and wonder how one city can hold so much.
It’s the same with watching soccer. On your first trip, you stick to London for a Premier League game or two. Or maybe you’re a City or United fan, so you go up there. And maybe you’re looking out the window and see the Cheadle End and say, “Huh, what’s that?” And then a few trips later you’re sat at an FA Cup replay hearing stories from the 1950s in this same ground and watching a guy get a hat trick to set up a very winnable Third Round game that could lead to some real excitement in the Fourth, and you know exactly what all that means, and knowing that just leads to more fun conversation.
But we get ahead of ourselves.
When “Doing the 92” Actually Works Out
All this started with snow in Manchester, and me wondering exactly what I’m doing with my life. I looked outside, saw the snow, and contemplated a 7:45 p.m. kickoff and a temperature of 1 degree celsius, which a friend of mine describes as Mother Nature giving us the finger. Some games not far away were being called off due to frozen pitches. But I soldier on, because I like to complete things, and I saw that stand from a train years ago, and I want to go there.
Walking over from the station, which you exit on cobblestones, you’re reminded that Stockport is very much the standard northern English town … or whatever it is. They used to make something (hats and silk in this case), they don’t anymore, it’s now what you could economically disadvantaged, but they’ve got big plans to bring it back. And they have a football team that used to be good.
If you’re lucky, said club still plays in the old place. And County has played in Edgeley Park since 1902. The main stand, named for a former manager who actually got them to Wembley four times, is a relic in the best way. “Stockport County AFC” faces out onto a street, across which is just apartments, because clubs like these are part of the community. There’s a few good pubs, a proper chippy and a good Indian place a block away, all of this 10 minutes from the station, which is 15 minutes from Manchester Piccadilly, and which very few non-Brits ever visit.
But I do, and I know that AFC stands for Association Football Club, which is where the word soccer comes from, and I know that the Hatters spent 110 years in the Football League before crashing out, and this is their first season back up in it, after they tore up the National League last season. The new owners are local and seem to get it, the city actually bought the ground years ago so it wouldn’t get torn down, and for a while the supporters even owned the club so it wouldn’t die. So there’s a lot of love and dedication and history in this old place — which is not always the case, it must be said. So “points” for County there.
So I already loved it before I even saw little touches like the players’ “tunnel” actually just being a walkway through the main stand; I had to wait for a moment to let some players walk by to go warm up on the pitch.
But this wasn’t all I loved. I loved the youth team waving flags before the players came out, in freezing temps. I loved the “supporting pillars” in my way. I loved that the “tunnel” is so narrow the teams have to come out in single file. I loved the old rusty roof over my head. I loved that the announcer introduced the referee as just “Mr. Oldham,” then told everyone to “Get your pencils out, as I’ll be giving you your lineups in just a moment.” Pencils!
I also love that they still have replays in the FA Cup, but only through the Fourth Round, because the giant clubs can’t be bothered. They are busy in Europe making more mountains of money. Tonight was in the Second Round Proper, the “proper” being another great British quirk I love, and the opponents were poor Charlton Athletic from London. They have only recently rid themselves of criminally poor ownership, but now sacked their manager and were winless in eight games. So a midweek trip to Stockport County, from a league below, wasn’t of much apparent interest. I’d reckon one coach load of them were on hand.
Football: The International Language
But what I really love is that, with all this knowledge in my head, I can turn to the elderly gent sat next to me, mention that it’s my first time, and then — if he’s up for it, which thankfully he was — spend the rest of the evening talking football and travel and stories and everything else.
I never got his name, which is also typically British, but when I asked how long he’s been coming here, he said “Since I were a wee lad. Me dad came home from the war and started taking me.” Literally since Nazi Germany fell, the man has been at this ground, probably in this same stand, watching this club play. In 1950 when they had 27,000 for an FA Cup game against Liverpool. In 1965 when they were bottom of the Fourth Division. In 1972 when they knocked West Ham out of the Cup. For all those, he was here, the place I saw from the train.
He told me about his trips to America, and I told him where else I’ve been in England, and he also carried on a conversation with the guy to his left which was so thick with Lancaster accent that I could not tell you what it was about, although I think it was detailed analysis of this player or that, which formation seems most effective, and so on.
Something was working, though, because after County scored a crazy own goal, they completely took over the game, and a certain Will Collar got a hat trick. I had to look him up, of course. Born south of London, came up through the Brighton youth system, went off to Scotland for a relegation-scrap season, then came to County a couple years ago. Before tonight he had played 163 games and scored 17 goals. But he was on hand for a rebound to get one, then lashed in another rebound for a second, so when County won a penalty late on, he probably told whoever normally takes penalties to go jump on the railroad tracks.
He promptly tucked that away, got his hat trick, finished the game, convinced some Charlton folks maybe they’d wait out the rest in their coach, and therefore inspired some County folks to sing “Cheerio,” as one does.
By this point, a 3-1 lead with a few minutes to go, I considered it safe enough to ask about the next round in the Cup. Walsall here, I was told, and we agreed that shouldn’t be too much trouble. Of course, I’ve watched football for more than 10 years now, and he for more than 70, so we know better.
Still, I dared to ask if, assuming they make the Fourth Round, he would prefer a big club come here, a big club away for the paycheck, or just something winnable so you can move on, maybe make it to Wembley. He leaned towards “big club having to come here,” while his mate was more of a payday guy, what with the ground needing some work and the roster needing a refresh now we’re back in the league. I asked about last season, when Bolton of League One came in for a replay and got whipped, 5-3, and for a second even those 80-year-old eyes had a twinkle in them. “That was a fun one,” he said.
Afterwards, my new friend and his other mate suggested that while he did score the goals, Collar shouldn’t have been Man of the Match, but that gets picked by sponsors anyway, and what do they know? Should have gone to somebody who’s name I couldn’t understand, another midfielder I think.
I went down to help clap the lads off the pitch, which at Edgeley Park is from about 10 yards away, then a crowd of folks watched Collar be interviewed for the telly, sporting a big grin and holding the game ball.
And then my friend and I decided that now we’re not under the roof anymore, it’s quite chilly, innit. I said I would head back to Manchester, and he said he’d go home and put a kettle on, maybe have a piece of toast, and for a moment I wanted to hug him, but I settled for a quick handshake, then we walked different ways down the street.
All of this — the history, the community, the stories, the hat trick, the singing, the posts in the way, the promise of another round in the Cup — because I saw a football ground from a train and decided to go and check it out. I think Stockport County, and places like it, are what it’s all about.