SIX WEEKS OFF! This can only mean two things: firstly lots of people moaning about how little work teachers do and how lazy they are, “bloody holidays” etc. and secondly, lots of preseason football. I decided to indulge in some preseason football around Greater Manchester to fill in some of the time since I have all this time off.
Something that only really dawned on me after moving to Manchester was the sheer amount of football there is going on in Manchester. Away from the two goliaths of City and United fighting each other at the summit of the Premier League, there are great league clubs such as Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham – Wigan is also only just down the road. Even further down the leagues in the Conference divisions there are an abundance of Mancunian based clubs, such as Hyde FC, Mossley, Altrincham and Droylsden to name just a few. It occurred to me that I had visited very few of these non-league grounds and made it my preseason mission to get around to as many of Manchester’s non-league arenas as possible. My quest was to begin on a warm(ish) Friday night as I headed for the glamour of Vegas…
Stalybridge (locally known as ‘StalyVegas’ to explain the previous reference) is situated about 8 miles east of Manchester city centre in the thriving non-league region surrounding Tameside. Stalybridge Celtic play in the Conference North, along with their Tameside neighbours Droyslden and, until last year, Hyde FC who achieved promotion to the Blue Square Premier; I had actually visited Hyde FC earlier in the year to watch Manchester City Reserves v Tranmere Rovers Reserves (I went along to watch Swansea legend Andy Robinson play) and many have, perhaps cynically, suggested that Hyde’s promotion came about through the financial aid they are receiving from Manchester City. The Conference North also features Altrincham FC who are only a short journey away in South-west Manchester, meaning that the Conference North will have another season plentiful with Mancunian derbies next season. On this Friday evening, Stalybridge Celtic would be taking on a Manchester City XI; for those that aren’t as well-versed in preseason friendlies, the ‘XI’ usually means a team of youth players and rejects, as the first team have more important business to deal with (in today’s case Manchester City’s first team squad were taking on Besiktas out in Innsbruck).
I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly shortly before six o’clock and I was soon on a very, very cramped train heading to Middlesbrough with the first stop being Stalybridge. Whilst being pressed against a door by commuters, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to expect from the place Stalybridge or what Stalybridge was actually like, having heard nothing about the place apart from the fact that it was comically referred to as ‘StalyVegas’; I wasn’t even sure if the ‘StalyVegas’ tga was a self-mocking jibe or a serious declaration by a glitzy town. After a squashed ten minutes, I finally escaped the train and stepped out onto Stalybridge soil (well, concrete platform). From the station, looking out on the town, it looked like a very nice, quaint part of Greater Manchester with the Peak District as a rural backdrop to the town.
Conveniently for any football fan dismounting at Stalybridge platform 1, there is a pub situated right on the platform and within 30 seconds of getting off the train, I had a pint in my hand. Good stuff so far. On looking around ‘The Buffet Bar’ (that was the name of the pub by the way) I found the wall decorated with several CAMRA awards, meaning it must be pretty good with its real ales for those real ale drinkers out there. After a quick pint, I headed down the slight hill into the town centre.
Apparently the ‘StalyVegas’ tag began in the late part of the 20th century as a jibe at the crumbling, financially-stricken mill town, however, at the beginning of the 21st century, the town underwent a huge rejuvenation, focussed around the now pleasant waterside area. As a copy of the Manchester Evening News put it in 2001:
“While the town centre is still poles apart from the glitzy Nevada hot spot, its burgeoning nightlife, scrubbed-up streets and attractive waterside have made it a place to see and be seen.”
Also what could be more glamourous than being able to say that one of the local football team’s ex-players was glamour-personified, Lee “Magic Daps” Trundle. who played for the club between 1997 and 1999.
I can honestly not remember walking into too many town centres in recent years and seeing so many open pubs and bars, unlike the streets of closed down shops and pubs you witness in most satellite towns these days. The place even had its own ‘Strip’ in the form of Market Street. In fact, everywhere I looked there were open pubs and bars and lots and lots of kebab shops – I almost began looking at how much it was to rent a house in this small town!
As happens on many of my travels to strange towns to watch football, my reliance on my Google Maps App came back to haunt me, as it was trying to tell me I was still in Manchester Piccadilly and I soon realised I did not have a clue where the ground was. I looked around me to see if I could see any floodlights towering into the sky, but no luck, and obviously there was not a large crowd to follow. I ended up in a Wetherspoons called The Society Rooms where I sought directions (and another pint).
I was soon on my way to the ground which was situated about ten minutes away I was told. I began the long ascent up the hill which I was told would lead me to Bower Fold, the home of Stalybridge Celtic FC.
After a couple of minutes of walking there was still no sign of a football ground and there appeared to be nothing ahead apart from trees and hills. Suddenly, just ahead poking out from the trees was a sign for the ground and the ground jumped into view. The reason I could not see the ground from the town was because it is completely enveloped by the forestry surrounding it. I paid my £6 and I was in.
I have to admit, my first impression of the ground was very good, with all four sides having stands – two standing terraces behind each goal and seated stands on either touchline – always a good sign at a non-league ground. The ground can hold approxiamately 6,500 fans, but unsurpisingly Stalybridge get nowhere near capacity, as they averaged arpund 500 fans a game last season. In fact, the nomadic FC United of Manchester, who usually play at Bury’s Gigg Lane but are forced out when their home fixtures clash with Bury’s, have had much higher attendances than their hosts Stalybridge when they have been forced to play their home fixtures at Bower Fold.
The stewards were all very friendly and there was a nice little hot food vendor tucked away in the corner where I entered the ground. On my right was the clubhouse, where I headed to next to get another pint before kick off. As soon as I had purchased my pint, I looked out the window to see the match kicking off – I had made the schoolboy error of assuming that every evening game has to kick off at 19:45 (this game kicked off at 19:30) and now felt foolish as I watched the opening ten minutes through the clubhouse window, which had a small, irritating steel grid going across it.
From my window view, I had noticed that both sides were clearly trying to play neat, passing football, with the City select perhaps fairing slightly better in the opening exchanges. I perused the pitch for any recognisbale faces in the City XI and noticed the captain was the easily recognisable, blond-highlighted Ryan McGivern, who I couldn’t quite believe still played for City. I have witnessed McGivern, now 22, play on several occasions, all on loan at teams lower down the league; I remember him being particularly good in a stint at Leicester. I think it’s time he accepted that he won’t be supplanting Gale Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov for City’s left back spot anytime soon and move on. He would be a decent signing for a Football League team in all fairness. I also spotted young Reece Wabara, who I had been very impressed with when I watch City’s reserve thrash Tranmere 5 months before. Safe to say, I was not acquainted with any of the Stalybridge line-up – even after a gaze down the team sheet on my phone, no names were recognisable. I eventually finished my pint and headed to the front row of the standing terrace behind the goal that City were attacking in the first half. Then I heard someone shouting from the sideline and I witnessed a true legend of the game patrolling the touchline: about 20 yards away from me was Attilio Lombardo. Wow. The ‘Bald Eagle’ is now the manager of Manchester City’s Elite Development squad and judging from his frantic actions and shouts from the sideline, he did not see this as a friendly (admittedly, he did calm down as the game developed). Some may remember that this was not Lombardo’s first time in a managerial dugout, as the former Sampdoria, Lazio, Juventus and Italy winger had a period as a player/manager of Crystal Palace in 1998.
The first half was fairly quiet, although there was some nice passing football by both teams. I made a quick break to the toilet only to be greeted by cheers of the first goal on my way back – 1-0 to the City XI. From the opposite stand to me, there was a small group of young City fans rapturously singing through the whole City songbook much to my entertainement. Despite this being a home game for Stalybridge, it was safe to say that there were far more City shirts on show than the blue and white of Stalybridge Celtic (I must admit I do really like both of City’s new shirts for next season). Soon after the first goal came City’s second, which I did not miss, as Albert Rusnak rolled the ball into the far corner when breaking into the Stalybridge box. 2-0 at half time to City with goals from Alex Nimley and Albert Rusnak.
At half time I headed to the clubhouse again, hoping for a less rushed pint this time and to watch some of Team GB’s effort (I was soon to learn that had been very little of that) against Brazil. Whilst watching the Team GB v Brazil game, I was greeted by a familiar face in Mike who writes the blog Six Tame Sides; I had encountered Mike at the Football Blogging Awards under a week earlier, where he had won the Best Veteran Blog award. Mike, who takes photos of the games around the Tameside area, informed me that Stalybridge always play good passing football, but with very little end product – they basically sounded like Sousa-era Swansea! I finished my chat and my drink with Mike and headed to the toilet before the second half kick-off. I lamented how this poor club couldn’t even afford urinals in their toilets, before realising mid-piss that I was in the ladies’ toilet! I finished up and sprinted out the door much to the horror of the women that were just entering the toilets.
After the toilet mix up, I headed back to my standing spot behind the goal that Stalybridge would be attacking towards in second half – a wise choice it proved to be to stay behind the same goal (you can spot me very easily in the top right corner of the video below for pretty much every goal, as I am wearing my bright green New York Cosmos tracksuit top). The second half was a much more entertaining affair with both teams attacking, but still playing the neat passing football from the first half. The introduction of Dennis Sheriff and Mitchell Austin by Stalybridge proved to be inspiring as they started to open up the City defence. When Stalybridge were awarded a free kick after the hour mark, Rory Coleman’s effort was handled by a City player in the wall and a penalty was awarded. Up stepped Sheriff to slot home, sending the City keeper, Angus Gunn, the wrong way – a comeback was now on.
Stalybridge added a second about fifteen minutes later, after a fantastic one-two played in French trialist, Allan Kimbaloula, who calmly slotted away past City goalkeeper Gunn. With ten minutes to go Stalybridge smelt blood and they looked the more likely to score the decisive goal. After a free kick was blocked on the far side of the the 18 yard box, Callum Warburton received the ball again and made a mockery of City defenders by shimmying past them and cutting the ball across the box; after a some pinball action in the box, the ball tricked into the goal to make it Stalybridge 3-2 Manchester City XI. Stalybridge would hold on for the final few minutes to secure an excellent fightback and an excellent victory.
Whilst I wandered back down the hill, I thought to myself what a decent game I had just witnessed and how much I really liked Stalybridge Celtic – perhaps it was for their Swansea-esque passing game. A ten minute walk later, through the glitzy streets of ‘StalyVegas’, where it was a peaceful Friday night, and I was back on the platform ready to go back to Manchester.
Highlights: Pub on the train station platform, nice town, lots of pubs/bars/kebab shops, the glamour of ‘Vegas’, good non-league ground, friendly stewards good game of football with some really nice goals, Attilio Lombardo. Football is back!
Low Points: Misjudging the kick-off time, the ground hiding from me!