11 Days Away in Search of Promotion.....and a few Beers , Part 3 by Man in a Hat
THE STOCKPORT COUNTY SUPPORTERS’ SAGA
The Stockport County Supporters’ Saga is faithfully reconstructed from the records created by Man-in-a-Hat during his epic 11 day mission to discover whether Stockport County could escape the clutches of regional football.
So, while you’re waiting for the fixtures to come out (Noon Wednesday 3rd July by the way), let me help you relive the final moments of last season through my experiences.
EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE HATTERS
Not that long ago in a regional football league now far, far away…..
Thanks to the wonderful Spennymoor Town, Stockport County just needed to beat already relegated Nuneaton to win the Championship and secure automatic promotion back to the National League.
Man-in-a-Hat has survived Chorley, Bamber Bridge, Preston and Sheffield and is making his way to Nuneaton for the final game (hopefully) of the season.
Hannah Threatens to Ruin Everything (Saturday 27th April)
After staying overnight at Mother’s, I head off for Nuneaton on the train from Sutton Coldfield, changing at Lichfield, where I anticipate encountering the Blue Army.
Storm Hannah is in full swing as I wait for my first train. The weather conditions could be a real leveller today, just what we need - not! Will the game even go ahead?
My Uncle was supposed to be moving his narrow boat this morning and then meeting me in Nuneaton for the game. He’s been press-ganged into action due to his 100% record following County home and away (6 games in all to date).
However, the weather’s that bad, that the boat move has been rescheduled for tomorrow, meaning that he’ll now be meeting me a lot earlier, inevitably leading to more pre-match boozing than originally planned.
I enjoy my first soaking of the day whilst waiting at Lichfield Trent Valley for the 10:13 train to Nuneaton, which is running a little late. I see this drenching as a good sign, evoking memories of Wembley 2008.
Standing room only! The train is packed with County Supporters warming up both vocally and intoxicatingly. I do my best to get some photos.
“His name is Ashley Palmer, he wears a magic hat, and if you throw a brick at him, he’ll head the…..”. Well, you know the rest of the song me thinks.
We arrive at Nuneaton just after 10:30. As we disembark, the sheer scale of the County contingent becomes apparent. Is there anyone left in Stockport?
I’m able to check into the hotel immediately upon arrival, and whilst this is nice, the reality is that yet more time has been freed up for pre-match jollity.
The obligatory rubber sheet is removed, jammies laid out and the heating switched off. I’m all set.
Uncle Sam has arrived, so it’s off to the Horseshoes, a pub I stumbled on October 2017 on a previous trip to Nuneaton following County (we won 3-1, could that be an omen?), when I attended a beer festival at the Griff & Coton Sports & Miners Charity Club.
I didn’t do the Horseshoes justice last time, so it’s time to put that right. It’s in the Good Beer Guide of course and opens at 11am Saturdays.
Screech Owl, a 5.5% ABV IPA from Castle Rock. Let’s get this show on the road! Last time I was here I had the Dark Peak Stout brewed by Raw - I am not a ticker, I’m a scorer!
The beer is in great nick, particularly notable as we’re first in. Clearly, the ales are pulled through before the doors are opened, i.e. the beer that’s been sat in the pipes overnight is disposed of. No wonder this place is in the Good Beer Guide.
I explain the mathematical permutations of the day to Sam whilst we enjoy some nutritious breakfast nachos.
Next up, the Fox Inn at Attleborough for Marston’s 61 Deep, which is rather average.
I’m getting really nervous now. The weather has turned out to be a real let down. Where is the rain? And it’s too windy. The game is going to be a total lottery. We’re doomed!
After poking our heads into the Royal Oak and the Crows Nest, it’s off to the fan-zone at the ground.
It’s a tricky day for flag flying, but Sam doesn’t care, so a flag is procured. The wind is also interfering with my efforts to process the beers I had earlier. These portable 4-berth urinals are just too exposed. It’s getting everywhere, well mostly down my jeans and on my shoes.
We’re supposed to meeting up with Stafford and others, but in the end we just give up. The whole area is hammered. Three thousand plus County Supporters.
There Could Be Tears
We take up our position inside the ground. What a sight! Nuneaton have effectively ceded control of the ground to County. The home fans are squashed into a corner on the far right and County have the rest of the ground to themselves.
By the time the game kicks off, Sam’s new flag is half way to Tamworth, courtesy of Storm Hannah.
I assume that County won the toss, as we elect to play with the wind behind us.
My fears are being realised. Due to the wind, it’s virtually impossible to control the ball, even on the deck. This is just going to play out to a 0-0 draw. I can’t perceive how either side are ever going to score. I’m told Chorley are winning, so the play-offs beckon yet again.
By half-time, County have managed to get ahead with two late goals, including 1 from Matty who is understandably very pleased (Chorley is now a distant memory).
Most supporters seem to think that it’s job done, but what about the inevitable siege that the second half is bound to be? County will be kicking into the wind!
The siege never arrives, in fact, County even manage to score a third. Barring and points deduction for flares and pitch invasions, County are up! As Champions!
I was there to witness only the sixth League Title in the history of the Club, the first title for 52 years.
Memorable scenes ensue.
I choose to just stand and watch, but Sam’s on the pitch with one of the official County flags (still don’t understand how that happened). His record is now played 7, won 7. He must be secretly relieved he hasn’t got to make two trips to Stockport for the play-offs in order to ensure our promotion.
Most are on the pitch.
Mates playfully pushing each other over; some on their knees staring up into the clouds, arms aloft, fists clenched; some hugging; some running around like total lunatics; Fathers with Sons and Grandsons; some just lying there in the mud; some just standing in quiet contemplation; some wandering around dazed; some openly weeping; and my Uncle Sam waving a County Flag, who has started to refer to Stockport County as “We”.
There are groups on the pitch who I’ve no doubt only know each other through Stockport County, friendships forged over decades of loyalty to the Club. The County Community. I’m so proud.
Ooo, what’s this? Lump in throat. Ocular juices slowly accumulating in eyes. Respiration becoming erratic. Hell, I’m having an emotional response!
Better put a stop to that somehow.
Can’t speak, might start crying. No-one wants to see that. Thankfully Uncle Sam is still on the pitch, so I get away with it.
Bizarrely, making a schoolboy error that surely Kenny Boxshall would never make, the announcer informs County Supporters that they will get 3 warnings to get off the pitch otherwise the trophy won’t be presented, and this is the first warning.
Cue most who had decided to stay off the pitch, to wander on. Well, why not, we’ve got 2 more warnings yet.
Announcements about a special train at 6pm are also regularly made. A Special? Have I been transported back to the seventies?
I really feel for anyone who couldn’t make it today for any reason.
We stay to watch the players doing a lap of honour, but when they retreat back into the dressing rooms, we decide to withdraw to the Crows Nest. Ringwood Fortyniner for me, the exact same beer as when I was last here. Wasn’t as good this time though.
The fans behaviour is understandable, all good natured, but very loud. A damn good sing-song.
We’ve arranged to meet some local friends in a rather excellent restaurant called the Crossed Ghurkha, very good indeed. Other County Supporters are doing likewise.
Afterwards, we head for the best real-ale pub in the town centre, the Lord Hop. The Caramel Salted Lucaria from Thornbridge. Very interesting.
A nice mix of County and Nuneaton fans here. All credit to Nuneaton for what they laid on today, we hope it helps them get sorted out for next season. The conversation turns to the 2-2 draw at Edgeley Park, ironically probably the day most County Supporters resigned themselves to another season in National League North.
Well, we’ve been promoted as Champions. So there!
Last orders at the Lord Hop. Uncle Sam folds and I’m left to my own devices. I best check out the Felix Holt (Wetherspoons) just to see if any of the Blue Army got left behind.
A decent pint from Daleside, the Blood Orange IPA, but no County fans in sight. They must all be tucked up in bed somewhere or other? Well, it has been a long day hasn’t it?
It’s nice being on my own at the end of the night.
What’s happened is starting to sink in. I have witnessed the first title-winning campaign since 1967 and there were only 5 other titles prior to that.
I may not be smiling outside (not a good idea sat on your own in a strange pub full of drunken locals), but I am smiling inside. Last orders in the Felix Holt.
As I return my glass to the bar, I spot a mild. I’ll be back tomorrow to try it.
The End of Regional Football - Forever (Sunday 28th April)
Sat there watching the London marathon, I realise that I am about to do the equivalent of running up Pall Mall, I am on the final leg of my personal marathon of 11 days on the road following Stockport County without going home. I am wearing my 2008 Wembley Winners Polo Shirt to mark the occasion.
I’m finally going home after setting off a week last Friday for Chorley. I feel very privileged to have been able to totally immerse myself in the final throes of the season. And what a season!
My first target this morning is Crew, a real ale venue near where I’m staying, which allegedly opens at 11am on Sundays.
I linger as long as I can get away with at the hotel, but even after I’ve acquired a copy of the Non League Paper, it’s still only 10:30am, so I’ll have to try that mild in Wetherspoons first.
However, I have to walk past Crew on the way, and there is someone outside rinsing whatever off the front step (presumably a remnant from last night).
Upon enquiring whether they really do open at 11am, I’m invited in. There are others already there, who have either started very early, or still trying to get home from last night’s gig.
Crew is essentially a music venue, Nuneaton’s Spinning Top if you will, not that I anticipate I will ever enjoy having Mike serve me a pint at 10:30am on a Sunday!
Very dark. The only light is at the bar, so I sit on a stool there to read the NLP, whilst preparations to officially open the venue at 11am continue. The Patron Saints Ale from Greene King is quite good.
I realise that my stool is still wet from having being wiped down, or at least I hope that’s what it is.
The jukebox is being fully utilised, by people with a far better taste in music than I, as you would expect given that I’m probably the only non-musician here.
Let’s check out the NLP.
Nothing much about County on the front page! But, page 10 is good. Looks like they managed to present the trophy in the end.
4 fouls committed during the whole game by County. Surely this has been one of the cornerstones of success this season (hold on, I mean last season, we’re not in the play-offs - ho ho) and a trait of the James Gannon methodology. The game’s hard enough as it is, why make it easier for your opponents?
Again, being on my own means that everything is sinking in nicely. I’m engulfed in a lovely smug feeling. A great weight has been lifted. Enjoy the play-offs you Chorley boys!
52 years! No FA Cup 2nd qualifying round! No qualifying for the FA Trophy! Trips to Torquay, Barrow and Wrexham! Squad numbers! Players names on shirts! Players eligible for SCAN certificates.
And after six years, the end of regional football - FOREVER!
Back to the Felix Holt to try the excellent Highgate Dark Mild. Although the place is packed, there are no other County fans whatsoever. Lightweights one and all. No disrespect of course.
One last pint in the Lord Hop. We Have To Talk from Abbeydale, bordering on perfect. I decide to sit upstairs, which is a great place to watch Nuneaton doing its Sunday thing. Will I ever return to Nuneaton?
A chap called Gary runs the Lord Hop, and when he finds out I’m stopping off at Lichfield on my way home, he urges me to try a new micro-pub there called the Bitter-Suite. “Just say Gary sent you”.
The Black Swan in Hand is my final stop in Nuneaton, where I imbibe more Marston’s 61 Deep, which is pretty decent. Not a single County fan sighted anywhere.
Home At Last
The 13:40 train home goes via Lichfield, so as previously mentioned, a couple of hours there beckons, starting with the Bitter-Suite.
Well worth seeking out. About twice the size of your typical micro with a beer garden to boot. No bar as such. Table service. All ales served by gravity. I indulge in the Padstow Pilot Porter from Padstow together with a cheese & onion barm. All good.
Next up, the Angel Inn, a Joules pub (pronounced jewels, unless you are in the potteries, where it is pronounced jowls). The No Stout About It with a scotch egg and cheese is a winning combination.
I order a pint of Goats Milk from Church End, or at least that’s what it says on the pump-clip anyway. Definitely not Goats Milk though, which was the CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2017, so I’m very familiar with it. If it is a beer from Church End, my guess would be that it is What The Fox’s Hat.
Somehow, I’ve become exposed to “the most exciting premiership title race for a decade”. Surely, given the sheer number of pundits there are these days, one would say something along the lines of “no, it’s obvious that both sides will win all of their remaining games”. But no.
Next thing I know the train is coming past Edgeley Park and the whole season starts to rerun itself in my turbulent and unruly mind.
Stafford wants to meet up in Ye Olde Vic, which I’m duty bound to do, particularly as the Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild is on.
I leave my copy of the NLP there for others to enjoy.
Sat on the bus home, my liver starts to plan its annual party, to which my kidneys, brain and intestines are invited - the football season is over!
As you know, you can find all of the pubs I mention on the excellent CAMRA website www.whatpub.com
Man in a Hat.