“Burkey, have you gone mad?” I hear you scream as you struggle to hold back tears of frustration. “You’ve missed Match 12. You’ve gone straight from Match 11 to Match 13 without doing Match 12. Can’t you count, you imbecile? Where’s Match 12?”
Well, there’s a story there. I went to see Wigan Robin Park v Eccleshall with Effin’ Nicholls last Saturday in the 1st Round of the Vodkat League Challenge Cup (it finished 2-1 to the home side, incidentally), and I’ve just had a busybusybusy week at work, so I’ve not had the chance to write it up. Normally, I’d have got it done the next day, but I ended up making a Sunday roast for half of Manchester, and they didn’t bugger off home ’til it was too late, hence no Match 12 as of yet. Anyway, I went to see Rhyl v Oldham pre-season, and you’re not moaning about that.
We went up to Wigan because I’d heard that their home-made peppery steak pies have been whispered about as potential Glossop beaters, and it turns out that they really are absolutely top notch. The pastry can’t hold the weight of the filling, alas, but they’re otherwise perfect – a proper 9/10 job. Not quite as good as the offerings at Surrey Street, but what are?
I happened to mention this on the radio on Friday night (I’m the non-league guy at BBC Radio Manchester, y’see), when the gauntlet was laid down by Jim Rushe, chairman of Northwich Victoria, who was sat to my left.
“Our pies are better, no question.”
“Seriously?” I replied.
“Seriously. Do you fancy coming down to our game with FC United tomorrow to try them?”
I’d never really envisaged myself stepping into the late Egon Ronay’s shoes, nor going to Northwich at such short notice, but you don’t turn down these kinds of opportunities. Brace yourself, dear reader.
Once again roping Nicholls into action for the day, we take the Manchester-Chester train at Stockport, and are joined at Altrincham by a couple of outrageously good-looking ladies who sit in the chairs directly in front of us, and proceed to flick through the latest issue of cowards’ wank mag, Nuts. It turns out that they’re looking for pictures of themselves with their tits out, something they achieve by time they disembark at the plummy little village of Plumley.
Meanwhile, a small group of FC United fans have started chanting, or more precisely, have started to chant the same song over and over again, all one verse of it, to the tune of Anarchy In The UK. At least 100 times. And that’s honestly not an exaggeration. They’re being loud and a bit daft, but aren’t snarling at anyone, although it’s all too much for the middle classes, who whisk little Alfie, Tilly and Jack out of the carriage by the fiftieth repetition with consternation etched across their protective brows.
“I’ve got a fourteen year-old daughter” opines one not-at-all-reactionary Daily Mail adherent to our right (in every way), “and I’ll never let her on this service again. It’s (inevitably) a disgrace.”
We’re soon at Lostock Gralam, a village which could pass its name off as a Dickensian mill owner, and where Jim has very kindly offered to pick us up. He bigs the Victoria Stadium up, proclaiming it “the best ground in non-league”, and with a proud glint in his eyes, turns towards me and says “you’ll see…”
We park in a bay right by the entrance, and are whisked upstairs to a swish bar-cum-restaurant-cum-function-room which overlooks a pristine pitch. We’re soon right by it, saying hiya to FCUM manager, Karl Margison, before being taken on a grand tour of the stadium. Ooooh, I’m such a name-dropper!
We’re lead into the main bar, which is already liver-to-lung with fans of both sides watching the Villa v Big United game, and we’re introduced to a fella who has been to around 450 consecutive Vics games, home and away. A shake of the hand later, and we’re in the home changing rooms, the stench of deep heat warning us well in advance where we were heading.
The team are warming up outside, of course, but physio Dan is in the treatment room patching up young defender, John Disney, who is recovering from a broken leg. Next door, we pop our head ’round the manager’s door, where Andy Preece’s assistant, Andy Morrison is holding court. A tank of a centre-back in his days at Man City (our captain, no less), he has the firmest of grips to match his enveloping hands, and I’m suddenly the proud wearer of an absolutely massive chufty badge.
We’re then taken out through the tunnel to pitchside again, where Margy suggests we start a conga, and check out the very smart executive boxes and suites back inside, not to mention the gents (“check out the porcelain in here, lads”). Jim pours us a couple of pints and promises to bring our pies out in a few minutes. Needless to say, neither of us were expecting treatment like this, and in all honesty, it’s completely above and beyond the call of duty – the chairman was right, though, it’s by far and away the most impressive non-league ground I’ve ever seen facilities-wise…it obviously can’t match the ingrained character of some of the more ancient stadia, but you can’t have it all.
But we’re not here for that, we’re here for the pies, and after joking that we’ll probably get them served on a plate with a knife and fork and all the trimmings, we actually do. Strict Talking Turkey impartiality laws mean that all such ephemera have to be discounted, but even so, the pies are stonkers.
They’re enormous, deep-filled meat & potato missiles with belting pastry, and while it’s almost unfair to compare them with the chunky steak leviathans at Glossop, they’re comfortably the finest M&P examples of the season so far, and it’s gonna take some going to beat them. Three cheers to the bakers, Greenhalgh’s of Bolton for reaching the pinnacle of mass meat & potato baking. 9/10, although one point of that is for their sheer size.
We’re also here for the footy, of course, and Northwich are having a good season thus far. Fourth at the start of play, they’ve had to completely rebuild a squad decimated after the club was demoted from the Conference North last term because of, well, everybody seems a bit perplexed as to why. Something to do with administration, apparently, even though they’ve come out of it and appear to be in rude health.
FC United, of course, have suddenly found themselves thrust into the role of everyone’s favourite second team after their gung-ho performance and injury-time winner against Rochdale in the FA Cup last Friday. While they’re without Mike Norton today, whose cheeky 94th minute goal sent them into the 2nd Round, the tireless Ben Deegan is partnered up front by Glynn Hurst, last seen in this blog looking pensive in Hyde’s dugout in our 3-1 league defeat at Droylsden.
A perfectly observed Remembrance Day silence before kick-off is inadvertently punctured by the tannoy announcer at Witton Albion, who are taking on Salford City a mile down the canal and a division below from here. Once the ref peeps, a roar goes up on all sides, and the FCUM fans start singing, something which genuinely doesn’t stop once in the entire match.
They’re nearly cheering a goal after a couple of minutes, too, when Jerome Wright’s dangerous slider from the left skims the six-yard box, although an outstretched boot from Hurst can only find the side-netting. They lose captain, Kyle Jacobs shortly after with an injury, replaced by James Holden.
The Vics flash a couple of efforts out of the ground and into what looks like a grit factory behind the goal to our right – the salty air is possibly why there’s a flock of seagulls (not the 80’s band) circling the stadium – and although neither side grasp the initiative in the opening period, Wright, and former Northwich man, Carlos Roca cause utter havoc on either wing.
They’re both dwarfed by the full backs, Dominic Collins on the right and David Thompson on the left, who loom the best part of a foot over the wriggling, kinetic duo, but struggle to contend with their vicious pace and freeform trickery.
The home side are missing top scorer, Ollie Ryan, and while John McAlisker is already into double figures for the season, the gangly No.9 with the body of a snooker player looks lost at times, absent-minded even, as he neglects to close down the FCUM defence and somehow finds himself 30 yards away from one rebound. He can chest a ball like nobody’s business, mind you.
While there’s a good tempo to the game, there are barely any shots at either end, and we go into half-time goalless. Nicholls sneaks in a couple of cigs, and contemplates trying a cheese and onion pie, too, the fat git, before common sense prevails, and we’re back in our comfy seats.
Shortly after kick-off, Thompson cuts Roca in half without a magic box or a saw, and looks like a red card waiting to happen. This prompts the first sustained spell of pressure of the game for the visitors, most of the traffic coming down the flanks, and brings Andy Morrison to the touch line – all of the touch line, completely ignoring such trifling modernities as technical areas – to boom instructions.
Both managers look relatively calm, arms folded in their trackies and boots, while Danny Rowe, freshly signed for the Vics on Thursday on loan from Stockport County, bombs down the left, and dispenses a neat line in Stanley Matthews shoulder drops.
McAliskey somehow fluffs a cross from Andy Fowler directly in front of goal, but the home side take the lead on 62 minutes when the latter storms into the right-hand side of the box, and drills a great shot beyond Sweary Mary FCUM ‘keeper, Sam Ashton, for 1-0.
Far from being distracted by a potential FA Cup match with Brighton or Woking in a couple of weeks, FC United swarm forward, Wright smashing a pair of shots against the crossbar, while the elastic Roca (“Cor! He’s fantastic…Ooooh, he’s brilliant!….Wow, did you see that?” – Nicholls) is a constant menace, and has a couple of half-hearted penalty shouts turned down.
Thompson’s 2nd booking comes on 80 minutes for a seemingly ghost challenge on sub, Chris Ovington, and when the fourth official shows a measly two minutes of additional time for 5 subs, a sending off, some cramp and a ticking off for time-wasting, the home fans finally find their voice in a nervy finale.
The mop-haired James Spencer pulls off a brilliant save from Wright in the last knockings, and makes safe a slightly fortunate three points for Northwich who move up to 3rd place in the Evo-Stik Premier. FC United, on the other hand, hover one place above the relegation zone, although they have up to five game in hand, so it’s definitely not panic stations.
A brilliant day doesn’t end there, though. The train back from Lostock Gralam is rammed with FCUM fans and regular passengers, the former presumably haven’t stopped singing since 3 o’clock. They do my favourite football song of all time (the Cantona Xmas one), as well as “You Posh Bastards!” to everyone at Knutsford, before an impromtu chorus of “We Love You Foxes/Horses, We Do”, “If You Hate David Cameron Clap Your Hands”, and best of all, a jolly rendition of “Bring Back British Rail” to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown which gets the conductor dancing.
A great day all round, and without wanting to sound like a bum-licker, huge thanks to Jim for sorting us out.