Mad as the Hatters: A Non-League Experience

Pre-match warm up

For somebody who has had the good fortune to support a team that has become one of the wealthiest and most entertaining on earth, it is occasionally easy to forget the roots of one’s own football support. When I was first going to games aged six or seven, my team (Manchester City) were a team in England’s third tier. Going to games for months and years after my first trip  was to trudge to Maine Road via Claremont (still the best chips and gravy) and watch a performance full of guts, mud and chaos. At least, that is how my mind has reconstructed those past seasons. In the midst of the current joys of Aguero, Silva et al, my earliest footballing memories are increasingly reconstructed as a different game, a different life and a different world.

Match Programme

It was into this world that I once again ventured as I walked to Edgeley Park to watch my local team for the very first time: Stockport County versus FC United of Manchester. Wrapped in a thick coat and clutching my refreshingly cheap ticket, I ventured through the metallic, rusting turnstile and found myself just yards away from County’s pitch. From there, I walked up to my seat in the blustery, packed main stand and waited the short while before the teams came out. Quicker than I had imagined, my local non-league debut was underway.

County defend

The game quickly settles into a routine. County, who were just shy of the play-off positions but suffering from consistent scoring problems, played an old-fashioned 4-4-2 and looked to play the ball wide as quickly as possible. FC United meanwhile, a side hovering just over the relegation places, began with a midfield diamond and prioritised hitting long balls up to their powerful centre-forwards. As the wind on the day should have suggested, long balls proved an especially inaccurate form of attack, and the conditions coupled with the Hatters constant wide play meant United played most of the half on the back foot. Naturally however, it was them who took the lead: a last-minute cross deflected in off a defender to give the visitors a scantly-deserved lead.

The away end

After a half-time of programme-reading and a much-needed hot drink, the second half began very well for the hosts. A smart finish from the edge of the box woke up the four-thousand plus crowd and, for a brief moment, it seemed to the home crowd that the fightback was one. In reality, FC United began to take control. Realising their first-half luck and tactical shortfalls, a switch to a wider formation and a greater attention to ground-based possession saw them become increasingly comfortable. A last-ditch block from an overhead kick kept United at bay briefly, but another cross was County’s undoing. This time, it was an attacker’s head that turned the ball in and set the away fans into rapturous celebration. The remainder of the game saw County desperately and toothlessly try to get a result, without ever threatening to keep the points away from the visitors.

Despite a home defeat, I left the ground feeling strangely warm. Without question, it was a game of stereotypical ‘non-league’ quality. Besides the rustic skills on display, a horrendous foul receiving an uncontested yellow card was a strangely funny reminder of the divide between the physicality, qualities and expectations of the country’s higher and lower divisions. It was the game’s entire aesthetic: the style, the crowd, the stand, even the sound system; that gave me such unexpected pleasure. While always conscious of becoming a condescending ‘top division fan’ who marvels that which he perceives is beneath him, there was an undeniable nostalgic joy to the entire event. My mind’s eye saw this game through the constructed prism of memory: the years I spent as a child cheering and jeering my beloved team’s lower league adventures. These shadows of the past were what gave so much to this game. It turns out what I have made my footballing past to be is rather fun. Stockport Country may not have seen the last of an adult seeking a trip down nostalgic memory lane.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisDWorrall

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