Saturday, 29 September 2007

Stalybridge Celtic 1 Hyde United 0

Attendance: 790

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round

Goodness gracious. Only three ties into the FA Cup trail - and fully three wins from the first round proper - and I think I've come across a big match. I can actually identify where the game is taking place from the people milling around; the ground has stands on all four sides; fans wear replica shirts; and, horror of horrors, there's a foreign name on the team sheet: Celtic's No 11 is Carlos Roca.

Only the gents (an open air, painted wall and trough job), the clicking of the turnstile beside it as I widdle and a goalkeeper called Paddy Gamble assure me that I'm not going to be suffering altitude sickness from having gone too far up too soon.

The crowd soon disperses - or rather changes end as happens at non-league games. The Hyde fans leave the Joe Jackson stand (surely not named after the eighties pop star) and head past the Lord Tom Pendry stand to the other end. Their journey isn't much further than their trip to ground - a mere four miles. I am at the other Manchester derby - or, more strictly speaking, the Tameside derby. Celtic are, according to their fans' scarves, "the pride of Tameside" after all.

Apart from me I reckon there are probably only two people inside the stadium (one of my all-time scenic favourites - see pinched pic above) that have come from the other side of the Pennines. They are Neil Tolson and Chris Brass, both formerly of York City. The programme's reference to Brass is euphemistic. "Has managerial experience with York" it says. More precisely, in his one and only full season as player-manager the then 27-year-old presided over a spectacular post-Christmas collapse in form that saw York drop out of the league on the final day of the season. And so to Harrogate Town, Southport, Bury and Hyde United ...

Five years on you can't fault Brass's application. He was kicked around the park all afternoon and required three visits from the physio. In fact, the whole match was played in a highly competitive spirit and was nip and tuck from start to finish, Gaby. Celtic took an early lead with a slick header from a cross and, surprisingly, that's the way it stays despite loads of chances and a late rally from Hyde.

I ended the match with the smells from the ground's Indian restaurant wafting past while standing on the terrace with spaces for those in wheelchairs. The only user today was a young father sat next to his son in a pushchair.

After the final whistle the Celtic players punched the air and came over to clap their supporters. Outside the Hyde fans spat out "Oh, Stalybridge is full of SHIT!" with such venom that I thought that a most enjoyable afternoon was going to be capped with a punch-up. (It wasn't).

The result, even at this early stage of the competition, clearly mattered. Second Qualifying Round? Second Round Proper, more like.

Historical footnote: Hyde's ignominious claim to fame is that the town's former club was on the wrong end of the biggest thrashing in English football history - 0-26 against Preston North End in an FA Cup tie in 1887.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Chester-le-Street Town 1 Harrogate Railway Athletic 1

Attendance: 100
FA Cup, First Qualifying Round

I wasn't the only Reading fan travelling up the A1 in Co Durham this afternoon. I didn't turn right to Sunderland, though, but left to Moor Park, home of Chester-le-Street Town.

Had it not been for the website directions referring to how the ground was behind a pub I'd still be searching for it now. It was actually behind the pub and hidden by some allotments down a stoney track. This is a long way from Wembley Way in more ways than one. A sign beside the pay hut said "Keep dogs off the pitch" which seemed a little churlish. Surely, a dog on the pitch makes a match.

Surrounded by trees, the ground is decrepit. A wall behind one side is made from sheets of corrugated iron roughly attached to a home-made metal frame and the one stand rusts. A shelter behind one of the goals looks like it came from a railway platform and has weeds growing out of the roof and, above it, is a derelict Portacabin. Executive boxes of the future, perhaps. (Perhaps not).

The PA crackles into life (all that's missing is a
"one, two" test) and then The Eye of the Tiger comes out of the speaker as the teams trot out. No tittering now, please. The Cestrians are sporting blue and white hoops! Did Reading turn left too, I wonder. Things become all the more confusing as I watch some of the match listening to the commentary from the Stadium of Light from the radio in the burger van. My loyalties are divided: should I support the hoops or the team from just down the road from where I live?

The match starts dramatically with a converted penalty for Railway in the second minute. No-one knows what it's for but the ref tells us afterwards (you get that sort of personal service at these games) that it was for shirt-pulling. Then, five mins later, Chester burst through to equalise. We're now starting to wonder if we're in for a repeat of the 19-goal FA Cup Second Qualifying Round tie between the two sides from 2002. The first match ended 5-5 and, in the replay, Railway came from two goals down to win 7-2 and so unknowingly pave the way to the fabled Bristol City tie four rounds later. I was one of the hoards of fair weather supporters at that match so it felt like I was really earning my spurs this time by watching Rail at such an early stage of the Cup and away to boot.

Chester has little Cup pedigree. The programme describes the club's success in the competition as "limited" and, in the absence of victories to report, includes in its round-up of "memorable" matches a "draw at Ossett Albion on a beautiful summer's afternoon in 1987" and "5-0 trouncing at Gretna in 1988". Whatever happened to them, eh?

Surprisingly, there were no further goals in today's match but it remained a tight, keenly fought encounter and a draw was the right result. So we'll do it all again on Tuesday at our place. (I can talk like that now that I've been howay with the lads).

Programme notes: The programme includes a full six pages of pen pictures of Chester players. Andy Armstrong is a "no nonsense defender who takes no prisoners" (a dirty bastard, then) and Shaun Sager is "blessed with two good feet and an abundance of tricks" (in other words often trips over the ball and irritates the hell out of his team-mates). As for Rail, Chris Howarth is "as fit as a butcher's dog ... and a real pain in the backside for any defence to cope with" while Lyle Hillier "knows where the goal is". Always a useful skill for a footballer, that.

Celebrity footnote: Chester-le-Street is the hometown of the king of the comb-over, HRH Ralph Coates.