Lost in…Irlam (Irlam Steel)

Irlam Steel v Westbury Sports

Irlam Steel Recreation Ground / Manchester League Division One / 17th May 2016

My wanderlust has seen me spend very little time at my Salfordian home over the past 5 years. If I’m not galivanting about the place watching football, it’s usually because I’m in work and for me work is Irlam and Cadishead College. To this day, people still always seem dumbfounded when I reveal to them the fact that I’m an English teacher, despite the fact that I have been one for the past 5 years. I’m still yet to decide whether I should be offended by the incredulous reactions or not. With me working in Irlam for the best part of 5 years, it got me thinking about whether in the last 5 years have I spent more time in Irlam than anywhere else in the country? I’d guess the answer is probably ‘yes’. And it’s for this reason why I find it shocking that I have only visited one of Irlam’s two football clubs. Irlam FC of the NWCFL was ticked off a long time ago and has been revisited a couple of times since, but Irlam Steel FC was unchartered territory for me. More shockingly, I didn’t even know there was an Irlam Steel FC until about 6 months ago.

Irlam Steel currently play in the non-league nether regions of the Manchester League Division One; this is the 8th tier of non-league for those less versed in the Mancunian football pyramid. Another reason why I’m so shocked I hadn’t discovered the ground was due to it being about a 5 minute walk from my place of work  -although I would later learn on this particular trip that the ground is rather hidden away. With the ground so close to work, a couple of midweek pints in Irlam followed by some Manchester League football seemed a good way to break up a particularly busy week in work. Plus, it seemed that quite a collective of a my ‘football friends’ were descending on Irlam on this warm Tuesday evening, so there was no excuse not to go whatsoever.

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Tonight’s destination.

Undoubtedly, if there is one word that teachers in this country fear over all others it is ‘OfSTED’. Think of the fear struck into the heart of all those magical folk when someone dares whispers the name of ‘He-who-must-not-named’ in the realms of Harry Potter and I still think you’re not doing justice to the fear that OfSTED strikes into the teaching world. An OfSTED inspection of a school lasts 2 days and on this Tuesday I had just got through Day 1 of ours. I needed to unwind and fortunately I had done all my preparation the night before ready for Day 2, to ensure that I didn’t have to think of the dreaded O-word the next evening and so that I could visit Irlam Steel FC stress-free.

At 4.30pm, I exited school as staff flapped about around me and headed to the bar at Irlam train station just minutes away from my school.

A train station bar may seem a strange place to begin the evening, but then again, there are not many train station bars quite like Irlam’s. For years and years the building at Irlam train station remained an abandoned, derelict structure and a haven for rats. Then, a couple of years ago, someone had the bright idea to renovate and turn it into a living, breathing coffee shop-cum-bar. I once actually met the gentleman who was renovating the building before it was completed and he told me that it was going to be like ‘Starbucks on speed’. Well, I wouldn’t exactly say its as ravenous as place to dub it as ‘on speed’, but it is nonetheless rather swanky and completely unique to most train station pubs or bars; although that also means it does bring a higher price with it. A pint of Beerdo was purchased for £3, just as I spotted the first of the gang to arrive.

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Irlam station cafe bar.

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Beerdo.

Aaron later stated that he had only ever really driven through Irlam and this showed as he made a debacle out of trying to find the entrance to the bar from the train station platform. In his defence, the gate is well-camouflaged into the fencing around the building and I’m fairly sure that I endured the same struggle on my first attempt to visit the bar. Soon, we were joined by George and as they both finished their pints, I stated that such an upmarket environment did not truly reflect Irlam life and that we should pay homage to such life by visiting a ‘proper’ Irlam pub.

Chiefly because it was the first pub we came across and I had visited it a couple of times before after work and found it ‘alright’, we headed into the White Horse on Liverpool Road (of course it was on Liverpool Road, as Irlam pretty much IS Liverpool Road – a one road town if ever there was one). We definitely stood out as ‘not from around here’ as the locals turned and watched us enter, whilst one lady hammered away at the jukebox -a  jukebox she didn’t take one step away from for the entirety of our time spent in the pub.

Clearly someone who was struggling to come to terms with my decision to relocate to Slovakia next year was my regular groundhopping compadre Gibbo, as he hadn’t attended a game with me since the news of my departure for pastures new arose over a month ago. His breakdown was to such an extent that immediately after my future in Central Europe was unveiled, Gibbo booked trips to outposts like Berwick and Gateshead by himself to clearly reflect on his boyo-less future. But here he was this evening with his uni pal Ollie. Both have been working at Old Trafford this week at United’s education department (clearly I’m a role model to Gibbo as he’s decided to go into teaching too) so the trip over to Irlam was not an arduous one or a long one for them with Ollie driving.

Troublingly for me, the parent of a student from my school began chatting to me in between sips of their pint at the bar  and I started trying to hurry the others along,as I felt this was a sign to leave. I didn’t want me or the aforementioned parent saying anything unnecessary outside of the confines of the school. Onwards up Liverpool Road to Irlam Steel’s Recreation Ground!

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There’s a football ground past those bowling greens.

George had scouted the place out once before without visiting and Aaron had even refereed at Irlam Steel a couple of times, so locating the ground was easy enough. However, it did occur to me why I had missed the place in the past with it being one of the more surreptitious of football grounds. There is no real sign directing you to Irlam Steel FC, although you’d have to be  a bit silly not to take a wild stab in the dark that it might be near the building entitled ‘Irlam Steel Recreation and Social Club’. An unassuming alleyway takes you towards the entrance to the social club and right ahead of you you’ll see two bowling greens, but take a longer glance and in the far distance you’ll spot the football ground. Admittedly, it was a hell of a lot easier to spot on this evening as the game had already kicked off it seemed, even though there was still 5-10 minutes until the scheduled kick-off time. There was a panic amongst us (well, ‘panic’ may be too strong a word there) as we speculated whether we had made a hash of reading the kick-off time, but we soon learned that the game had kicked off just 5 minutes before our arrival. This was much to the relief of the long-haired gentleman, clearly another groundhopper, who, like us, was also trying to find the entrance to the football pitch area of the grounds.

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There’s the game!

Eventually, someone beckoned us through the door with the words ‘PLAYERS’ ENTRANCE’ above it, as there was no other entry. Through a small hallway clouded in the smell of Deep Heat from the changing rooms we headed and then out onto the ground, where a cricket pitch crossing was needed to reach Irlam’s ‘other’ footballing arena. It wasn’t exactly the best first impression of the place as we saw smoke streaming into the air from behind the stand; we assumed it to be a fire of some sort in one of the neighbouring gardens, although we hoped that it was a sign that Irlam Steel had some mentalist Ultras who were being exuberant with their pyro (the former proved true sadly).

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Match action.

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Match action.

Irlam Steel’s ground is a basic one as you’d expect at this level with the one sheltered standing area resembling more of an animal pen than a stand for spectators to watch a football match. However, it does look rather quirky due to the fact that it runs the entire length of one side of the pitch. As for the rest of the pitch – it’s entirely open, which was fine on a pleasant evening like this one.

Also in attendance tonight was another friend of Lost Boyos and the man now simply known as ‘Mr. B.’. You may remember him featuring on these pages under the moniker ‘Football Spoon’, but his football adventures are back in his new guise (read here). I was disappointed he rejected my new proposed, Prince-inspired name for him though:’The Football Groundhopper Formerly Known as The Football Spoon’. Anyway, he informed us that we had witnessed some mindnumbingly boring football so far and that we may as well have stayed in the pub for a bit longer.

Having lavished praised on Eagle Sports shirt at Whaley Bridge on Saturday, I was quite annoyed to find Westbury wearing the exact same luminous orange number. Westbury were much lower down the league than Irlam and towards the league’s basement, but were clearly the better team in the first half. This came as a surprise to us as we had learned beforehand that Irlam had to win their last two games to make it into the league’s playoffs (according to the Manchester League Twitter anyway). We were expecting a more inspired Irlam showing.

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Match action.

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#NoFlatCapNoParty

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The stand. Lovely.

The only moment of excitement in the first half was the opening goal, which, on the run of play, rightly went the way of the away team. A ball through to the Westbury striker saw him cleverly lob the onrushing keeper to make it 1-0. There were some calls for offside, but the makeshift linesman (there were two volunteers on the lines with the referee being the only ‘official’ official present) was having none of it.

The game was a boring one and our conversation turned to whether we thought the social club – which felt miles away from our perch in the animal pen- would let us drink pitchside. With not much happening on the pitch and with 5 minutes left, we figured we may as well go find out there and then.

Half-time: Irlam Steel 0 – 1 Westbury Sports.

After the long walk back to the social club, we were unsure of which door to head through inside. We opted to head into the one without the ‘Members Only’ sign. Bad choice. We had stumbled upon a Slimming World meeting. A few of us looked around at each other, debating whether any of us needed such a meeting, but clearly we all felt comfortable and content with our bodies and so we exited and headed towards the ‘Members Only’ door. One man was on our case straight away and asking could he help us. When we braved to ask could unworthy ‘non-members’ like ourselves possibly take beer out to the football, he was more than obliging. We all waited for our beers to be poured in plastic glasses, but we were given the real thing instead.

“As long as you bring the glasses back!” That seemed a fair deal to me. None of us were too bothered about a memento glass from Irlam Steel Recreation and Social Club.

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The Pavilion next to the cricket and football pitch.

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Recreating Brian Potter’s parking space from Phoenix Nights.

We must have left pitchside for a matter of minutes, but George, who’d remained there, texted me saying that in our brief absence we’d missed a goal and the score was now 1-1. I stated this to the others, who looked confused, as if I had got the score from the Sky Sports News screens littered around the room. I’m not sure Jeff Stelling is even interested in Manchester League Division One football.

Back at pitchside, we decided to bask in the Irlam sunshine and sit on the grass for the second half, away from the animal pen stand. And fair to say the second 45 minutes was a far, far more entertaining encounter.

It now dawned on us that we were not the only groundhoppers in attendance tonight and how puny our groundhopping efforts actually were. From our position across from the stand we could see a huddle of people who were unmistakably groundhoppers (I’m not sure what the collective noun is for groundhoppers – a ‘gaggle of groundhoppers’ maybe?). These were the sort me and Gibbo would call ‘proper groundhoppers’; this usually means they have some sort of notebook with them. Respect to them though as we later learned that some had travelled from as far away as West London and Scotland to visit Irlam Steel tonight. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised knowing that there is a drought of football across the country with most leagues finished for the summer months and the sheer determination of some groundhoppers to ‘tick off’ a new ground. Well, we were all treated to a riproaring second half.

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Ollie, Aaron and Gibbo enjoy the comforts of the grass…

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…so I thought I’d join them.

As mentioned previously, Irlam had to win to earn a playoff spot and they took the lead with a beaut of a goal. The ball fell to the edge of the box for an Irlam Steel player to wallop home emphatically, leaving the keeper with no chance 2-1.

The tackles were flying in now and it was a proper non-league game with the ref completely ignoring some tackles that would be certain red cards in the Premier League. It was great fun!

To make things interesting, Westbury equalised too. A simple corner was met by a towering header, which went in off the post. The increasing intensity of the game saw the away team celebrate it in an intense manner too.

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Match action.

However, it would be Irlam who would eventually grab the winner. We were right down by the corner flag when the home team earned a corner and so we offered the corner taker some words of encouragement. So when the ball sailed towards the box, took a deflection and went in, we were taking credit for it, thanks to us giving the taker such confidence. It seemed we were all Steelers fans after all, as we all cheered emphatically and without thought. I even ran at least a whole yard onto the pitch for possibly the most dramatic pitch invasion seen in Irlam Steel’s history.

Full-time: Irlam Steel 3 – 2 Westbury Sports.

As promised, we took our glasses back to the social club like the honest citizens we are and then debated our next move with 40 minutes or so until the train back to Manchester. Pub it was to be.

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The swuad for the night: Gibbo, Ollie, Mr. B hiding at the back, me, Aaron and George.

Gibbo and Ollie headed back and so it was just me, Aaron and George remaining. We opted to do another ‘proper’ Irlam pub and so we we found ourselves at The Ship – a pub synonymous in the area with the local veteran bikers’ gang. So we were all expecting to walk in to a pub full of Harley Davidson leather jackets and Motorhead playing. Instead we found the tunes of Justin Bieber slamming out; but don’t worry, it’s apparently cool to like him these days as I’m told repeatedly. A rather bland pint of Foster’s was purchased to accompany the Bieber Fever enveloping the gathering at the bar and the pool table.

Soon, it was time to leave and we went to head off, before Aaron decided that he was going to hang around an extra 15 minutes in the pub by himself as his train back to Warrington was a bit later than ours. We let him be, although I was a bit worried about leaving him in an Irlam pub by himself. In fact, I’ve not seen or heard from him since we left him, although he’s due to come to London with us this weekend for Non-League Finals Day on Sunday and the small matter of my birthday celebrations on Saturday night (although it’s not my birthday until Monday 23rd May for those who want to send presents). If Aaron doesn’t show then we can only assume that he was taken by the Irlam night.

Highlights: the 1923 Railway Bar, ground easy to get to from work, beer in a glass by the pitch, good game.

Low Points: poor first half, basic ground.

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