20 minutes later we find ourselves in the area of Chorlton, which from the outside seems like a very leafy, suburb of Manchester, and far from all the naf old stereotypes associated with the city. We end up taking a very pleasant Saturday afternoon stroll, playing “I could live there” as we pass a succession of nice houses, spurring the the fiancee into showing me once again, how many rooms, bathrooms and square footage of garden, we would get, if we just packed up and moved up here, and if Chorlton were to be my new home, you would not catch me complaining.
Past a school, that we decided our fictional children would attend, once we settle down here, it feels like we are walking down a dead end, but Google maps says otherwise, so we continue onwards, still delighted at the surroundings. It’s only when we spot a small sign, obscured by some weeds, that we know we are in the right place.
Down a heavily tree lined lane, we pass a dog walker and then through a gap in the trees, a huge clearing comes into view, and two men standing next to a small shed, give me plenty of confidence we have arrived at Brookburn Road, home of West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC (AFC)
We are here today thanks to the recommendation of @TheNonLeagueMag, who answered my call on Twitter, and for which we are very grateful.
The man on the gate is also the Father of the Manager, he also scouted today’s opposition Dinnington Town FC (DT) at their previous game, and doesn't feel they are going to be much of an issue, from 2 steps below, with a goal difference of -30 and have not won a game all season. They are also not strangers to visitors from far flung climes here, he tells me about people from Germany and Norway coming to watch a match, making my journey from London look very insignificant.
As we make the short walk down the side of the pitch towards the clubhouse, we pass two people in long black club coats, who offer us a cheery “hello”.
“Welcome to West Didsbury & Chorlton AFC ” is above the door, and it's a sharp right into the bar, where a couple of people are watching the rugby on the TV, one of them the Dad of one of the away team and two equally jovial people are manning the sandwich laden bar, we are much in need of a cup of tea, half to combat the slight chill, and half to combat the hangover we have courtesy of the FC United of Manchester bar from the previous night. The room is fairly simple, one end is decorated with a timeline celebrating the club's centenary 1908 - 2008, and one table, clearly marked out for the top brass has a red and white table cloth, and food shielded from the likes of you and me, with tinfoil hats. As we take a seat, a man comes in, leans against the bar, and asks for a pie recommendation.
A conversation with the club secretary Rob is cut short as he needs to hand in the team sheet, and clarify with the Chairman if the club want a replay or penalties, a choice that can be made between both clubs in the FA Vase, although Rob does say the other team “don’t think it will come to that”.
News seems to travel fast around here and the boy selling us our golden goal tickets, which he just spent 5 minutes fastidiously folding up on the table next to us, also informs us that “Dinnington are useless”.
Outside both teams warm up on a field next to the pitch, amongst the Saturday afternoon dog walkers, and Rachel informs me it’s a conservation area. Sitting on the porch of the clubhouse, under the gabled roof, AFC shortly followed by DT come down onto the pitch for a last bit of shooting practice, and a chance to warm up the keepers. Although there is a large net to protect the windows and spectators from any stray football's, it’s hard not to flinch every time someone takes a shot.
DT go in long before AFC, as they continue to shoot from all angles, sending us both close to a nervous breakdown, anticipating a ball in face at any moment. With the two step difference, you would think DT have a lot more to talk about, and need every minute they can in the changing room. AFC on the other hand seem very relaxed, the scouting report must have filled them with confidence, and there is plenty of laughing and joking, the keeper nonchalantly leans against the railing around the pitch, and has started chatting to a man with a dog.
The away fans and staff have taken over the “The Rob Turley Stand” a small covered seating terrace next to the clubhouse, and we overhear them talking about how bad their pitch is compared to AFC’s and how much of a nuisance the birds are whenever they try and plant new grass seeds.
What looks like two large scaffolding poles are swung in to place, to create a rudimentary "tunnel" for the players to walk down. The ring of the bell in the changing rooms, results in very little movement from each team, only when the referee's assistants give each door a whack, does this stir the players on the other side.
AFC’s captain looks very focused, and a DT fan reminds the players lining up to come on that there is “no pressure”. One DT player is clearly feeling the sentiment, looks very chilled and comments on how nice he thinks the AFC purple kit is. Shouts of “Come on West” and “Daddy” from a girl on the sidelines, welcomes the teams as they make their way on the pitch.
Groups of fans gather around the pitch, or as Rachel puts out “there are lots of dogs and babies”. Opposite us next to the home dugout, is the largest and noisiest group of AFC fans. One is holding a homemade tin foil FA Vase, the first such wonderful creation I have ever seen in the flesh. I thought they were reserved for BBC montages.
The next 45 minutes are an onslaught, and at times it’s hard to watch, as every inch of the two step difference is made painfully apparent. Goal one for AFC comes after 7 minutes rendering our golden goal tickets redundant. When a DT player goes down in front of us, after a boot to the face, the AFC player remonstrates with the referee's assistant, arguing that he was the one that had been hard done by, “don’t feel sorry for him, that’s a foul!”
A man next to us has one eye on the match, and one eye on the baby in a pram he rocks with one hand, all while the home keeper does his best Manuel Nuer, sweeper keeper impression flying out of his goal to mop things up at every opportunity. This works on most occasions except with about 20 minutes of the game gone, he rushes out to meet the DT attacker, who clearly is singing from his own hymn sheet, rounds the German wannabe, and finishes really well. Considering the previous onslaught from AFC this is going a bit against form, and the scorer bolts towards the away bench, to be greeted by a massive hug, and the the adulation of his team mates.
“Serves you bloody right” says a home fan next to us, quite unimpressed at the keepers antics.
It’s getting colder, and the goal has composed DT and at least for now they seem a little less deer in the headlights. The bronzed referee is what you might call letting the game flow, and I wonder if he even has a whistle, as tackles are flying in, but he is happy for the game to carry on.
“Great tackle cookie” shouts a DT player to his teammate, whose excellent last ditch effort, stops a certain goal.
The few moments that DT looked like being in the game, are quickly forgotten, and will never be remembered again in this match, as AFC take a 2 - 1 lead, and there is no looking back. “don’t let heads drop” says the DT captain, but I fear he is going unheard.
3 - 1, DT are outnumbered at the back, and the AFC attacker is one on one and slots it in.
Once again the captain of DT pleads with his team “heads up” it’s commendable, but morale is only going one way.
“Raffle tickets, raffle tickets” announces the boy who sold us the ones for the golden goal, and like a moth to a flame I hand over a couple of quid and cross my fingers. At this time the man from the gate walks past us holding a baby, “on to my second job now, babysitting!”
Not that any conceded goal is a good thing, but some are perhaps better than others, AFC’s 4th will have to go in the “pretty awful” pile as the already dejected DT keeper drops a cross from a corner into his own net, and it becomes starkly apparent that you might need more than two hands to count the score of this match.
5 - 1, a lob from well outside the box over the stranded keeper.
“Everyone has got to work” shouts a DT player. The 5th goal brings a big cheer from the home fans and for the first time on the opposite side of the pitch I notice the homemade FA Vase being held aloft.
6 - 1, chipped in cross from the left, and a simple finish from the man on his own in the box.
Unfortunately for DT, things if it was even possible get worse, as what looks like a clear stamp on an AFC player get’s a straight red from the referee, as the the victim of the foul gets to his feet, clutching his neck he is expectedly unhappy, “he’s a scumbag”. It’s a long walk off, the game on hold as he makes his way, and he has to wait for someone to open the shutter, that is currently locked and covering the changing room doors.
7 - 1, far too easy, ball passed well, but the defence is motionless.
8 - 1, ball lofted over the defense, and a finish from a tight angle.
“Wembley, Wembley” is sung just after the final whistle, but it’s not so happy in the DT camp as the players argue amongst themselves as they are given 15 minutes of respite, after the previous 45 minute long nightmare.
Half time for us is a slow walk around the pitch to take up a new spot next to the dugouts, and by the time we get round, the home subs are handing out boot lace sweets amongst themselves. The sideline cup lifter, returns from the clubhouse victorious in the raffle clutching a bottle of Grant’s whisky “8 -1 up, I’m so happy”. A fellow fan comments on his winnings “Is that your bottle of Grant’s? Better than the bottle of rouge from last week”.
Just before kick-off the referee performs some stretches and comments to someone that he feels "like I’m still on the beach” which would explain his stunning tan.
With the second half underway an AFC player who has scored two goals goes off and the crowd are disappointed for him “oh no, no hattrick!” Rachel thinks AFC have toned it down a bit, which may be the case, only for DT to add to their own misery, when one player manages God only knows how, to lob his own keeper, not quite as well as Lee Dixon, but it’s pretty nuts, and one of the AFC fans puts it perfectly “that’s from a Danny Baker highlight video”.
“One more goal and we open the whisky”, and it’s only the DT keeper keeping it in single figures, and the booze flowing, with a fine one handed save from a header, which gets a round of applause from both sets of supporters and shouts of “good save keeper”.
10 - 1, a loose ball from a corner is finished from close range.
The look on the face of the raffle winner is similar to that of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider when he has a drink, after he takes a glug from the bottle, which distorts his face, causes him to dribble, and prompts a couple of questions from his friends “Is it bad?”, and one who is clearly a connoisseur “it’s a blend”.
11 - 1, tap in.
“Don’t drop your heads” is an attempt to motivate from the DT keeper.
12 - 1, player runs right along the by line CHECK unchallenged and pokes the ball in.
One of the old men from the balcony in the Muppets Statler & Waldorf is trapped in the 8-9 year old boy standing next to us, whose choice of colorful language and tackle by tackle commentary, means I am unable to keep up with the gold spilling from his young mouth, he does though perhaps sum up the DT keepers day perfectly “he is having a mare!”
13 - 1, shot from the edge of the box.
14 - 1, another shot from the edge of the box.
15 - 1, a close finish, after a short corner.
The referee shows mercy, and with clearly 5 minutes or so left on the watch, calls it quits.
DT’s small contingent clap off the team, who shuffle off the pitch like Walkers “well done lads”. The raffle seller asks me to “remind me what team I was watching?”, perhaps not used to such a goal fest, and the man from the gate hopes we had a good time but lets us know “it’s not always like that”.
We can hear the AFC players celebrating, as we take a seat on the porch again, and grab another cup of tea, the ticket seller/scout/babysitter is now groundsman, and multitasks wonderfully as he carries the child in one arm and the corner flags in the other.
Close to us outside the DT players have gathered, and the post match examination of the clearly painful last hour and half is underway, as one player with tears in his eyes claims “I have never been so embarrassed in my life” he is consoled by a woman in a club jacket. She lets all the players and staff around her know, “you turned up! Not like the others who have walked away from this club”, “we learn from it and move on”. We get chatting to her after her rousing heartfelt talk with the team, she is the Manager’s wife, and to say she is involved in the clubs running is an understatement, as she reels off her duties at the club, kits, food, club secretary, the list goes on. Four players had recently left the team, and so they had to promote 4 from the under 18 squad who played today.
I manage to have a longer chat with Rob the club secretary & press secretary standing in front of the clubhouse with a bottle of German beer in his hand, I comment what nice beer it is “best in the league” he says, “like to think our fans come for the beer and stay for the football”.
AFC have been in the FA Vase for the last 5 years, and he says unlike the FA Cup, “everyone is equal” being only from steps 5 and 6. The club will collect £800 winnings today, and £1,200-1,500 in the next round if they can venture past the 1st Round proper, which they have never done before, and the money, he says “keeps them going”, “we are not a bank rolled club”. It’s back to the league in a couple of days and Rob says with a grin he “fears they might not score” and they “shouldn’t have used all our goals up” today.
The dissection is in full swing as we get ready to leave, the DT keeper is consoled in a slightly backwards way “that Arsenal keeper gets £200,000 to drop the the ball in the net”. Rob’s words are a little more conventional “keep your head up, you made some good saves that 2nd half”.
We receive just as nice a goodbye as we did hello, as we make our way home “you can come again, if we play like that!”