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Non League Day – Cheshire groundhop

Non League Day is an event held once a season during an international break, encouraging supporters from Premiership and Championship teams to go and watch their local non-league side during their break from club football. I had previously made a couple of trips to watch Midlands based Chasetown FC due to their FA Cup bond with Cardiff City, and had an excellent time when doing so. Examining the non-league fixtures in the Manchester area I discovered something called the Cheshire Groundhop. With a free coach between games and a little bit of tinkering with kick off times, it was possible to take in three football matches in one day. After consulting with my friend for all of two seconds, we decided to go for it. The first game of the day would be Macclesfield Town vs. Newport County, followed by Stockport County vs. Kidderminster Harriers and ending with Hyde FC vs. Tamworth United. Somewhat ironically with what transpired at Cardiff City over the summer, all three of these fixtures would feature a team in blue against a team in red.

First up was the Moss Rose ground of Macclesfield Town, built in 1891 and one of the oldest remaining in Britain. Indeed, before their relegation from League Two it was the second oldest in the Football League. Moss Rose is a classic football ground, with everything a nostalgic football fan could ask for. Three sides of the ground contain terracing, with one fully seated stand and a small smattering of seats across the others.

There was also a friendly man called ‘Roary’ in a Lion costume. I see what they did there.

The game itself was a good encounter, Newport flying high at the top of the league and Macclesfield looking to play the ball on the ground, a world away from the non league cliche of hoofing the ball 50 yards into the air. Ryan Jackson in particular was hugely impressive, a 22-year-old fullback who surely will not be playing in the lower divisions for long. He made a mockery of Newport at times, beating men at will and putting killer balls into the box. With better strikers to supply he could have had a hat-trick of assists in the first half. Matthew Barnes-Homer (who Wikipedia tells me used to play for the simply fantastically named Syracuse Salty Dogs) was the pick of the forwards for the home side, however this may be due to him having a haircut like the briefly famous rapper Sisqó.

Despite Macclesfield starting well thanks to the sublime work of Jackson, Newport are top of the league for a reason and they overcame the shaky start to get back in the game. A free kick just before half time in a dangerous position saw Macclesfield construct a defensive wall that would have struggled to stop a pensioner with one leg getting past them. “That wall is rubbish, they’re going to score here” I said to my friend. The ball came in and score they did, instantly elevating myself to being a better pundit than Alan Shearer. The difference in attitudes at non league level was reflected perfectly by this goal and the fans reaction. In the upper reaches of the leagues fans would have been screaming all sorts of obscenities at the goalkeeper and defender for daring to concede, whereas the Silkmen fans were fairly chilled about the whole situation, simply urging their side to get back in the game.

Two minutes later it should have been game over, as Newport conspired to miss the openest of open goals. Newport player Aaron O’Connor could have knelt down and headed the ball into the net playground style, but instead put it not only over the bar, but over the stadium and probably through the window of a house five streets away.

Half time – Macclesfield Town 0 – Newport County 1

The other highlight of the first half was a Newport player clearing the ball into the crowd, followed by a sensational diving header from an old man who had time to remove his cap before meeting the ball with a connection any professional would have been proud of. If it wasn’t for this sign, he could probably have done a job up front.

The second half was to be a very different story to the first, with Macclesfield bossing proceedings for almost the entire 45 minutes. One of the Newport coaching staff also revealed himself to be the angriest man in the world, on several occasions looking to be mere seconds away from kung fu kicking the referee.

Several times it looked as if Macclesfield must surely level the scores, only to be denied in increasingly unlikely ways. Barnes-Homer had a ball cleared off the line (presumably shouting DOH immediately afterwards) and the best player on the pitch Jackson continuing to impress. He was on such a different level to everyone else it was like watching somebody play FIFA on amateur. Newport showed why they are doing so well in the league by displaying the defiance of champions, but no team could survive such pressure for so long without conceding.

With less than ten minutes to go it was that man Barnes-Homer, who overcame his extremely silly hair to level the scores. Macclesfield had a flurry of corners to try to win the game and Newport’s coach got angrier and angrier, but there was to be no winner. The referee ended a highly enjoyable game with the scores level at 1 – 1, an excellent start to a day I had feared deep down could bring three goalless draws.

Full time – Macclesfield Town 1 – Newport County 1

Just enough time to clap the players off the pitch and tweet Real Madrid about the availability of Ryan Jackson, and it was on to the next game. Stockport County were a Football League side for 110 years and have produced eight players who currently play in the Premier League, including Welsh internationals Ashley Williams and Wayne Hennessey. As recently as 2002 they played in the equivalent of the Championship, but financial problems and the close proximity to Manchester City and Manchester United has seen them plummet through the leagues. Still, this recent Football League status makes Edgeley Park a welcoming ground that an outsider would not expect to be home to a side with non league status. An additional bonus are the floodlights, which look to have come straight out of Subutteo.

Despite this fall from grace, Stockport still attracted over 3,500 fans and created an excellent atmosphere. The highlight of their support being their anthem ‘the scarf my father wore’, complete with a giant scarf the length of the stand. I couldn’t get a good picture of this on my phone, so in true Piers Morgan style here’s one I found without knowing the source.

Stockport came into this game firmly in midtable, while Kidderminster are threatened with relegation. In the first game of the day Macclesfield had defied league position, but this was not to be the case here. Nathan Vaughan in goal for Kidderminster produced a performance similar to the one I witnessed from Joe Hart against Borussia Dortmund, pulling off a string of excellent saves.

Neither side could defend, making this a game full of chances. Kidderminster player Josh Gowling was the rare exception to the rule ‘if you have an afro you must be good’. He had an afro, he was just a bit rubbish.

Despite a string of chances at both ends, it took a penalty to break the deadlock. Afroman Gowling giving away a spot kick for a fairly blatant foul, and Sean Newton stepped up to score. Newton is best known for playing while ineligible due to suspension, causing Droylsden to be expelled from the FA Cup despite beating Chesterfield 2 – 1 with two goals from Newton.

A minute later Kidderminster should have had the chance to make it 1 – 1 with a penalty of their own, with the Stockport goalkeeper performing attempted murder on a Kidderminster player without punishment. It was noticeable throughout all three games that the referees were willing to allow play to go on far more so than their higher division colleagues. Tackles in which the player left the ground were greeted with applause rather than a three game suspension.

The second half was much the same as the first, plenty of chances for each side but the Kidderminster players not good enough to finish and the Stockport players frustrated by a series of incredible saves. The Stockport fans kept up the strong support of their side, with the giant scarf making a number of repeat appearances and a song which can be described as optimistic at best declaring County as better than both City and United.

The game finished with just the single goal, however only Vaughan in the Kidderminster goal knows how. Not the best game of football you’re ever likely to see, but made more than worthwhile by the excellent Stockport fans. Non league football, but top class support from those brave enough to favour their local team rather than the success a short train ride away.

The final leg of the non league treble was to take place at Hyde FC, the team bottom of the league taking on playoff contenders Tamworth.  Hyde are an example of the work Manchester City continue to do to help the local area, much of it going unnoticed with pundits quick to run down “greedy city”.

Manchester City have put in over £300,000 to Hyde, helping them to maintain the pitch and do up the ground. This came after the Blue Square North side went to both of their  Premier League neighbours asking for help. There was to be no response from United, while City began the redevelopment and began to play their reserve games at the stadium. It was not without controversy, Hyde undergoing a rebranding of their own which saw them become simply Hyde instead of Hyde United. It is perhaps unsurprising that MCFC did not want to be too closely linked to anything with United in the title.

The biggest surprise of the day was the Hyde supporters. I had expected a small crowd with the stereotypical man and his dog in attendance, however this was far from the case. The Shed End was well populated and they produced an atmosphere genuinely better than that at Old Trafford. The classic football fan humour was on full display, making for a highly enjoyable ending to a day of football. “One, two, three four, can you hear the tigers roar?” followed by deliberately camp roaring a particular highlight. Also on display was the most awkward moment of all three matches, as the Tamworth fullback was serenaded with the descriptive but not particularly imaginative “Number two, you’re a knob” before a woman stormed out of the stadium, stopping only to declare “he’s not a knob, he’s my BROTHER!!!”. As you can imagine, the Hyde supporters were extremely apologetic and not at all amused by this development. Ahem. Incidentally, his surname was pronounced in the same way as Alan Tate, with disliking fullbacks by that name apparently a universal thing.

On the field, Hyde were looking every bit the team bottom of the league. Tamworth had a fairly decent away support (although Stoke fans would probably have an issue with the giant ‘pride of Staffordshire’ flag on display) and they would have been enjoying what they saw. Passing the ball around nicely, the aforementioned number two was able to get his revenge by supplying Lee Hendire (yes, that Lee Hendrie) with the ball to set up Marcus Kelly to score with a well placed lofted finish nestling in the back of the net.

Tamworth looked as if they may kill the game off before half time, piling on the pressure and having a number of chances. The tigers were not completely toothless at the other end, veteran striker Phil Jevons looking the most likely to score for the home side. This was another frantic game, with a feature of non league being fast paced and frantic football. Despite chances at either end, the visitors maintained their 1 – 0 advantage at half time as darkness fell over Manchester.

Half time – Hyde FC 0 – Tamworth United 1

Another defeat on the cards for newly promoted Hyde, who looked like they would slip still further behind their fellow relegation battlers. If that was the script, nobody told Hyde who came out a completely different side in the second half. Less than ten minutes into the second period the scores were level, that man Phil Jevons producing a strike of genuine quality. The keeper was left rooted to the line as Jevons curled one from long-range into the corner of the net, the Hyde fans bouncing up and down like Tigger at a pogo stick competition.

Not that it was giving them false delusions of grandeur, however. The next chant after the goal was “We’re *expletive*, but we’re not losing!” While nobody in the crowd was getting carried away, the team were right back in the game and performing so differently from the first half it was as if City had lent them a couple of players as well as the cash.

The confidence had gone from Tamworth, living up to their nickname of the lambs. I can’t talk much as someone who puts so much pride in the bluebird, but it’s hardly a nickname to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. The pressure was near enough constant by this stage, the good work done by Tamworth in the first half undone by meekly submitting to the bottom club.

The only question was if Hyde could take sufficient advantage of their new-found superiority in the game to take all three points. The attempts on goal were raining in, but the clock was ticking down and the scores remained level. Cometh the hour, cometh the 33-year-old former Yeovil man. A foul in the box saw a penalty awarded, which Phil Jevons had to wait an age to take due to some rather unsubtle delaying tactics from the Tamworth players.

Jevons has far too much experience for this kind of thing to get to him, converting the penalty and putting Hyde into the lead. Once again the Hyde fans went berserk, leaping up and down with joy despite being bottom of the league and a million miles away from the Premier League we are told every fan dreams of.

There was still time for one more unique chant from the Hyde supporters, launching into a chant about what Louis Walsh does in his spare time when alone. This was aimed at a number of the Tamworth supporters, who had complained the change in kick off time would make them miss X Factor. At least, this is the story I was told and I like it too much for it not to be true.

Full time arrived and with it three much-needed points for Hyde, who remained bottom of the league despite this win. It was the end of a hugely enjoyable Non League Day but only the start of my non league adventures. There are many more little known sides in the Manchester area and beyond to discover, while I fully intend to go back to Macclesfield and to experience the Hyde vs. Stalybridge Celtic derby next time it comes around. The Non League Day website gives further details on their mission, and where to find your local side.

Thanks to all six teams and their supporters for a great experience (especially those at @hyde_chat on Twitter who were very welcoming)  and being such good ambassadors of non league football, and when Ryan Jackson is on the cover of FIFA 2017, remember where you heard it first…