Soapbox: the Manchester rambler

Internationals weekend means two things. Someone like Ashley Cole will be booed by people like, er, Arsenal fans. And Pete Sixsmith will head out into the vast territories of non-League football…and enjoy a grand day out in somewhere like Lancashire…

What a peaceful, tension-free weekend. No game to wrap yourself up in, just a leisurely look at the fixtures and the railway timetable to decide where to go and what to see.

I chose to leave the North East and head for the Manchester area. There were plenty of decent games at home but I felt that a change of scenery was in order so I consulted various websites and came up with a couple of possibilities.

It was FA Cup weekend and Durham City were drawn away to Stalybridge Celtic. The very mention of the word Stalybridge sends a glimmer of pleasure from my brain, down my spine and back to the part of the old grey matter that rates beer. One of England’s, nay Europe’s, nay the whole wide world’s finest drinking establishments is situated on Stalybridge station.

It is an absolute gem and takes you back to the good old days when the railways were run as a social need rather than a profit-driven business. It has a great selection of real ale, and food that is cheap, tasty and plentiful – sausage and mash, Lancashire Hot Pot, that sort of thing. If you like trains ‘n’ beer ‘n’ comfort food, it is nirvana.

Unfortunately, I have been to Celtic’s Bower Fold ground and, unless there is a really good reason for returning – Sunderland or Shildon playing there, free beer and sausages, a mass burning of BNP members – I don’t like to repeat visits. So, it was a possibility, but no more than that.

A trawl through the fixtures threw up a Vodkat North West Counties League Challenge Cup game between Irlam FC and Chadderton. This was promising. Irlam were a new club at this level and there was a railway station within a mile of the ground. Not much in the way of pubs, but it was a new ground and some of the more dedicated groundhoppers whose company I frequent HAD NOT BEEN THERE!!!

So, Irlam it was. The day dawned bright and cheerful as I set out by Arriva bus, National Express East Coast, First Trans-Pennine and Northern Rail to arrive in Irlam in time for a slap up Turkey Dinner for £3.60 at Darley’s Diner.

Never have I eaten a lunch with so many potatoes on it. They were boiled, roasted and mashed and came with marrowfat peas and tinned carrots and a couple of slices of what I guessed were mechanically retrieved and reformed turkey breast. But it was cheap and filling and there was a decent amble along to the ground to walk it off.

I wouldn’t say that Irlam is a pretty town. In fact, it’s about as pretty as Big Daddy with a broken nose and a black eye, but it’s where people live and they make the best of it. The pubs looked like they last sold a pint of hand pulled beer in 1968 and the shops reminded me of Shildon, Ferryhill, Willington etc – hanging on but goodness knows how.

The football club was an oasis of positivity and optimism. They had made a huge jump from the Manchester League (step 7) into the North West Counties (step 6) and had developed a derelict ground into a functional and friendly stadium courtesy of much hard work and grants from the Football Foundation.

The tea bar was run by Kath, a woman whose cynical and sarcastic sense of humour made Les Dawson sound like Anne of Green Gables. She had family in West Hartlepool (with emphasis on the West; Kath was no monkey hanger) and she treated her regular customers with the casual disdain that comes with years of practice and familiarity. The way she dealt with one of the younger players who tried to convince her that he was the fourth official was a wonder to behold.

The game was interesting rather than exciting and looked to be heading for extra time until a free kick of Sean Thornton like quality settled the game for the home team. The secretary was delighted as were the 100 odd spectators who clearly wanted to be home in front of a good fire, eating barm cakes and supping good Manchester ale while watching England demolish Kazakhstan.

A smooth trip back via Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly and York saw me in No 22 in Darlington for a couple of pints before Arriva dropped me outside the front door. No surprise at England’s comfortable victory over the Kazakhs, but shock at seeing that Durham had won 6-1 at Stalybridge. Still think I made the right decision, though.

Back to normal next week: expensive tickets, poor food and drink, regimentation and being told what to do by stewards and police. There are times when I think the non-League game wins hands down. Fulham here we come.

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