Another ground ticked off, after all these years. A former Football League club as well – Stockport County, the closest to the River Mersey apparently.
Very nice too, flanked by period housing and on this occasion evidence of friendly locals, late summer sunshine and three points for Woking (my only Woking).
It seems quite rare these days to find such a traditional setting for a football club. So many grounds are now out of town on same faceless industrial estate, next door to the generic bolted-on facades of Argos, B&Q, Mothercare, Next et al. You’re more likely to find the Golden Arches across the road rather than a spit and sawdust pub.
Yet Edgeley Park has a bit of charm, a pleasant parkside location, a couple of welcoming hostelries and a few shops nearby. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, there was also something of a positive vibe about the place, a sense of economic survival amid the financial doom and gloom.
A lot of football fans wouldn’t see that. It’s often just a case of boarding a supporters’ coach at sparrow’s fart, driving around the motorway network for a few hours, jumping off by the ground, grabbing a pie and pint, watching a match then back off home, hopefully in time for a swift jar at the end of the day. But there are a few of us who at least like to pretend we’re getting a sense of the area we’re visiting. And you’re unlikely to get that if the ground’s out of town and time is at a premium.
The fact that Stockport County ground-shared with rugby union outfit Sale Sharks for a few years (until the latter’s move to Salford City Stadium this year) no doubt helped pay their bills for a while, and Edgeley Park was in pretty good nick. Footie fans around the country will visit a lot less salubrious venues this season.
From what I can suss from some old notes cobbled together a couple of years ago (here’s the bit where I try and dispel any notion of being a trainspotter … and fail) and have stutteringly kept up to date since, that makes at least 167 grounds I’ve visited now. Incidentally, very few have involved a Premier League fixture.
As previously mentioned in this blog, for reasons best known to myself I undergo a 450-mile round trip just to see my beloved Cardinals play at home. So I should really be excited at the thought of our return to the national scene after a three-season hiatus. Yet while our Blue Square Bet Football Conference return can only be good news for the club and a major geographical boost for me, I haven’t got quite as excited as I did last time we reached this level two decades ago.
That’s no reflection on our current standing or the club itself. It’s a great set-up, owned and run by good people who love the town, live locally and understand a fair bit about the best qualities of the game and what’s important to us fans. We’ve also got a fine squad of players and a great manager who knows his way around these reaches, just the sort who’ll take us on from here. What’s more, Garry Hill – a geezer of the highest order and thus forgiven by the locals for his Essex heritage – favours a heady mix of pleasing-on-the-eye football and the kind of professional belligerence needed to compete at such a level.
I guess it was that ethos of quality passing football and steel that attracted me to the team in the first place back in the mid-80s, when FA Cup and FA Trophy colossus Geoff Chapple was in charge. Happy days. And I’m pleased to say he’s still around today, a director these days. But it’s all changed a bit since the BFG took us into the Conference in 1992, when there was no guaranteed promotion or play-off back door into the League. We finished in the top 10 for the first seven seasons, including two runners-up spots and two third places. We were that close to the Football League, but it never quite happened.
What followed was a general dip, carrying on in the wrong half of the table for several terms before an almost inevitable relegation to the Conference South after 17 seasons. But while that drop involved a lot more grey-hair miles for a Cards fan based in Lancashire, it was just what was needed for the club to get back on track. I like to think we at least got a chance to re-evaluate what enticed us in the first place at supposedly-lesser locations like Eastleigh, Lewes and Maidenhead.
Now it’s all a bit more serious again, and while I can’t get too fired up about further trips to Kidderminster, Mansfield and Tamworth, the club will relish its pay-days from better supported teams like Luton and Wrexham. There seems to have been a big step-up in quality since 2009, let alone 1992, the Conference gravitating even closer to the parallel world of what those faceless re-branding football administrators now insist is League One and Two (but will always be Division Three and Four to this old timer).
Personally, the home games mean more to me these days, back among old friends and faces in the town where my Dad and grandparents grew up and has always been a part of me. Finances rule out too many trips to Woking this season, but there will at least be some away days to savour on my patch.
That started with our 2-1 win at Stockport (thanks to Gavin McCallum and super sub Loick Pires’ goals, for the record), and will also include trips to Southport (17 miles away), Hyde (38) and early high-fliers Macclesfield (49). And while it will take me more than a hour and a half to complete the 74-mile journey to Barrow, that’s better than most fans will have to endure getting to Holker Street this year.
What’s more, the next generation seem to have the bug now. Both of my girls always liked the idea of an afternoon eating burgers in strange locations, even if it did mean sharing that special moment with sweaty, farting blokes using coarse language. But there seems to be a bit more to it now. And not only because my eldest has got wise to what those lads are singing about during the game.
“I think I’ve got it now, Dad. Are they calling that man a wiper?”
Saturday’s win meant we’ve seen three games this season and enjoyed three wins, so it makes sense to at least pop a couple of season tickets in the post to us. And it should only take a few good wins on the bounce (and a good cup run or two) to see those crowds rise again. While it’s hardly Old Trafford proportions, we’re already boasting pretty healthy 1,600 home gates, bucking the economic trends. We also took more than 100 away for that trip to Stockport – for what for most Woking fans a 400-plus mile and eight hour round-trip to see what was effectively fifth-flight English footie. Not to be sneezed at.
Last time around, my nearest fixture was at St Albans City, close to 200 miles from my Lancashire base. As for Dover Athletic, I was talking a 592-mile epic return trip. It might have been quicker to fly to Borussia Dortmund. All a bit odd when you consider I live just a short trek from Premier League giants Manchester City, Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool – all involving a comparatively healthy 60-mile round trip from mine.
Wigan Athletic are even closer (13 miles away), then there’s strife-torn Championship pace-setters Blackburn Rovers (12) and Blackpool (25), Bolton Wanderers (12) and Burnley (24). There’s plenty more Football League fare on my doorstep too, the closest being League One’s Preston North End (9) down to Woking’s old adversaries Accrington Stanley (17), Fleetwood Town (30) and Morecambe (35).
There’s also plenty of entertaining Conference North and Evo-Stik League football in abundance on my patch, not least at Bamber Bridge (7) and Chorley (10), the sides I covered as a journalist. I’ve visited all these grounds and many more over the years and treated well at Brig, Chorley and almost every ground I visited as a reporter – from Gretna to Colwyn Bay and from Spalding to Workington.
Yet despite all that, Woking remains the only club for me, 18 years after leaving Surrey. Illogical as it may sound when you consider the rather unfortunate carbon footprint I create, I’ve only ever felt I truly belonged in a football sense at Kingfield, despite teenage kicks from my many visits to Aldershot in my formative years, and seeing international stars at various bigger grounds over the years – starting with a halcyon afternoon at White Hart Lane in 1978 as Spurs’ Ardiles, Villa, Hoddle and co. saw off Brian Clough’s fantastic Nottingham Forest.
But it was only when I was introduced to Kingfield that it felt like the real thing, and not just because of my genealogical link to the town. How I wish now I could speak to my Grandad about his visits to the Kingfield Sportsground. My dad was working on the steam locos when the 1958 FA Amateur Cup specials returned from Wembley, with Grandad among the countless merry men and women among a recorded 71,000 crowd returning from a glorious 3-0 victory over Ilford.
Despite that, it was more out of curiosity that I made my first appearance at Kingfield in 1986 for an FA Cup clash with Chelmsford City, but my chief memory was a running battle between two sets of supporters in those bad old days. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that I classed myself a regular, and it wasn’t until my 1991 return from my world travels that I started taking in more away-days – among the highlights a 7-1 win at Wivenhoe in which our keeper Laurence Batty scored with a huge punt upfield.
The rest is history, and while the memories were a little lacking for a while, I’ve seen enough these last few seasons to know we’re finally back on track. Stretched finances suggest there won’t be too many matches for me this season, but I’ve already pencilled in a few. And all the time internet-friendly Radio Surrey and my family’s texting service from the grounds remains in operation, I won’t miss out on too much.