Stalybridge is a town nestled in the foothills of the Pennines to the East of Greater Manchester, historically part of Cheshire. One of the first centres of textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution when a water-powered cotton mill was first built there in 1776, the town is home of former Football League club Stalybridge Celtic. Formed in 1909 the club were founder members of the Third Division North in 1921, only lasting two seasons before becoming the first team to leave the division. Celtic (one of only four Celtics recognised by Fifa) were preceded in the town by Stalybridge Rovers, a club that included such historical players as Arthur Wharton (widely considered to be the first professional black footballer) and Herbert Chapman (A four time League winning manager, twice with Huddersfield and twice with Arsenal). The club with it’s Celtic moniker is probably one of the more recognisable names in Non-League, despite this they’ve only reached the FA Cup First Round twice.
The decision to head up to Manchester was a last minute one, I booked the train on the Friday night with an early start at Bristol Parkway before the train up North and onto Stalybridge. I’d decided on the trip knowing that few friends met in various ways through the years (yes, mostly on the internet) had started following the visitors West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC as their local club. Over the previous couple of years attendances at Brookburn Road had climbed at a reasonable pace as West supporters tried their best to make the club an atmospheric and welcoming place for everyone. Knowing how away days worked I’d planned ahead and made sure I had train beers for the journey and met everyone at the Stalybridge Buffet Bar. I’ll be honest with you, this was a wonderful pub at the station selling a wide range of beers as well as what looked like cracking pies. After an hour or so milling around chatting, it was onto the ground through the town. As we made our way there in the ground their was another stop for cans and slush cider which only added to the frenzied lubrication of West’s already well watered away support.
Bower Fold is a delightful (on a sunny August day) 30 minute walk from Stalybridge Station. Surrounded by trees and a hill behind one of the main stands. the ground has recently been voted one of the 100 grounds in Mike Bayly’s British Football’s Greatest Grounds. While the stadium isn’t too exciting in itself, a functional 1990’s rebuild with a nice mix of terracing and seats, it’s setting makes it beautiful especially on such a wonderful day. This FA Preliminary Qualifying Round game had much on it, with the winner bagging just shy of £3,000. The hosts in the Northern Premier League were 3 tiers above their visitors and were clear favourites to progress into the next round. It was the West players and supporters job to stop that by any means necessary.
West in their away colours of Sky and Maroon battled well, but the game was far from a classic. In fact, if I didn’t have a dog in the fight it was pretty dire. Driven on by their vocal support though, West dug in limiting Bridge to minimal chances and even creating a couple of half chances themselves. Despite being the round before Qualifying there still was a real FA Cup atmosphere with West supporters non-stop in their support for their team, no player was left without a song. It really did have that under dog away from home feel about it. As half time came we took ourselves to the bar to refresh before another 45 minutes of noise and well natured stick aimed at Celtic’s forever grinning goalkeeper. The game petered out to a 0-0 draw, a 0-0 draw that was greeted by West’s support as if Gillingham had drawn away at Arsenal. In reality, comparatively, that is exactly what we had seen.
While the game wasn’t a classic, that’s not why we go is it? The game is almost always the bit that lets you down. The day is the reason, the pints, the pals and the place, to explore new towns and cities, to see what’s on the taps of new pubs and see the quirks of different grounds. The whole day was a cracker, from the train journey up, to the pints before, during and after and the humour filled songs and generosity of friends new and old. The true sporting brilliance of that weekend was left to Ben Stokes the next day, that almost adds to the fun of the trip to Bower Fold. We sunk the remaining pints at the ground, with more well natured banter between home and away fans and West’s players greeted as heroes. God knows what the reaction would have been like had they won. That would be decided in ten days time, for today though West had won the moral victory.