There’s something special about an old-school ground on a winter’s afternoon. As the sky darkens and the lights shine brighter, the view of the town beyond the away end fades into shadow. Spread before you, the pitch shines brilliant green as the players return for the second half. For 45 minutes, the outside world is gone, pushed into suspended animation as that radiant field consumes all attention.
Increasingly, it’s an experience that’s hard to find, except perhaps in the jerky newsreels of old or the Lowry paintings of northern towns when industry still held sway. At the lower levels of non-league, where modern redevelopments are rarer, low-rise stands rarely afford the kind of cross-town views that offer a real sense of place. In the upper echelons, meanwhile, modernisation and march of the enclosed bowl (soulless or otherwise), separates stadium from surroundings regardless of whether it’s out-of-town or close to the centre.
Thus, Stockport’s Edgeley Park is a welcome throwback. Indeed, arguably, it’s improved. Redevelopment work beyond the old terrace has opened up a new vista back towards the town, while the commanding Cheadle End rises high above its surroundings. A personal touch; beyond the corner flag there’s a glimpse of the church where my uncle and aunt got married, an event chiefly memorable to when four-year-old self encountered a buffet for the first time and spent a happy evening loading up plates with food.
The ground has changed since then as well. Apart from that Cheadle End, built as County climbed to the second tier, the old floodlight pylons have been replaced with sleek modern poles. The uncovered terrace has received two new layers. First, seating, next, advertising banners. Sadly, spectators no longer. Away fans – and there aren’t many for the visit of Boreham Wood – get a block in the old Pop Side, perched above a small reservoir next to the river Mersey (pub quiz lovers will remain that old trivia point about the team closest to the Mersey).
That shuttered stand is partly a reflection of reduced status. After climbing to the second tier, and memorably beating Manchester City along the way on a day of divided loyalties for the Stockport-based Sky Blue side of the family, it all went wrong. Boardroom mismanagement, ill-judged deals with Sale Sharks rugby and a slump down the leagues sent the Hatters all the way to National League North, level six of the pyramid. In the 1990s, I saw Stockport at York City in what is now League One; more recently a trip to Bootham Crescent saw the two meet in much-reduced circumstances.
Since that day, County have been on the up. Promoted back to the National League last season they began 2020 in a play-off place with hopes of returning to the Football League. Not inflated hopes; it’s a tight league and the fans behind are talking of consolidation and hopefully a good run in the FA Trophy.
There’s a pleasing sense of history around the club as well. The main stand bears the name of Danny Bergara, the Uruguayan manager who became an unlikely folk hero in these parts. Often described as the first foreign manager in English football (not quite true – South Africa’s Peter Hauser beat him to that distinction at Chester City in the 1960s), he took charge of a Stockport team forever in the shadows of the North West’s big clubs and led the team to an unprecedented clutch of Wembley appearances. Goalscoring midfielder Jim Gannon was a lynchpin of that team and today he’s taken over Bergara’s role not just as manager but also as crowd favourite and club legend.
The first home game of 2020, meanwhile, throws up one of those encounters that makes the National League so compelling. County, a venerable name of the lower divisions, face a Boreham Wood team enjoying the highest point of their 70-year history. Hailing from the northern fringes of London, an area more renowned for the old Elstree film studios than any sporting prowess, the Wood are an example of team that has taken advantage of the pyramid to elevate its status. Unfashionable yet well-drilled, they caught County cold with their first meaningful attack and doubled the lead with another long-range effort that the home goalie might have done better with. Hopes of a Stockport fightback late in the first period were hampered by the best goal of the game, the effect only slightly spoiled when scorer Kabongo Tsimanga chose to greet the home fans with a ‘loser’ symbol.
County improved in the second half, substitute Devante Rodney pulling a goal back an energizing the attack with a ‘shoot-on-sight’ policy. For many in the 4,000-strong crowd, though, authentic old-school abuse of the opposition – a goalie sporting a ridiculous man-bun in the latest style was still greeted with the retro, time honoured ‘fat bastard’ – passed the time until the final whistle.
Somehow, it all feels natural. No ultras here, no vocal statements about modern football to blur the lines between affection for tradition and fear of change. It’s a contrast with other lower league experience. In Babelsberg, for example, disaffected German fans cling to the idea of ‘Fussball unplugged’, contrasting with the glitz and glamour of the Bundesliga. Stockport lacks that kind of self-conscious self-promotion – and is all the better for it.
On FA Cup third round day, a date on which lamenting the lost traditions of ‘proper football’ has become a modern-day tradition of its own, Stockport offers a very different experience from the ones beamed into the nation’s living rooms from the nearby Etihad, or even Rochdale. But anyone wondering if modern football still has a place for its past could do worse than head to Edgeley Park.
Edgeley Park, Stockport, England
Jan. 4, 2020. National League.
Stockport County 1 (Rodney) Boreham Wood 3 (Marsh 2, Tsimanga)