A NIGHT AT THE MATCH
(An outsider's view)
Curzon Ashton FC v Westfields FC
F.A. Cup 2016. First round replay Mon 14.11.16
By Brian Gorman
I moved to the small suburb of Audenshaw 18 months ago, after living in Manchester city centre for a good few years. Things are much different out here. My usual pint costs me over £4 in the city. Here, it’s around £2.70. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s also quieter, less people rushing about, less hipsters, and fashion victims. It feels real, around these parts. There are people who have lived in the same small area all their lives; families in the same house for generations. I like it here. Around once a week, I walk into Ashton town centre for an evening drinking session. It takes me approximately 30 minutes, which is ok.
Just over a week ago, I was channel hopping, when I caught the second half of an F.A. Cup first round match between Westfields FC and Curzon Ashton FC. I’d never heard of either team, and had no idea where in the UK they were actually located. It was a good match. Curzon were on top most of the half, and played surprisingly well for a non-league team (they are currently struggling in the lower regions of the Vanarama National League North; just 3 points behind FC United Of Manchester). I’m more used to watching Premier League games (on tv), and the odd international. The match ended in a draw. I then realised that the game had been played somewhere down South (actually, in Hereford), and the away team, Curzon, were based just a couple of miles from me. Interesting. I thought no more about it until this Monday 14th November. I was flicking through The Guardian Online, and noticed the replay was scheduled that evening. Now, you may think that I’m a dreamer, but I’m a great believer in synchronicity/coincidence. It was mid-afternoon, I was still struggling with a cough and cold I’d had for the past week, and the weather wasn’t promising, but I had an idea. An F.A. Cup tie is a mighty big deal for a small club, and the occasion would certainly be an emotional one for the fans, and a tantalising possibility of a financial windfall for the club. I made a decision; I wanted to write a report on the occasion. Not a match report, but a memoir of an evening. The whole evening. I checked out the Curzon Ashton website, and emailed the chief executive. I offered to do a write-up, and I got an almost immediate response from Natalie Atkinson. I was invited along, and told my name would be on the door.
I did a little more research, discovered the ground (The Tameside Stadium) wasn’t far from Ashton rail station, and checked out the nearest pub (The Wood Man). I wrapped up warm, stuck a rainproof hat in the pocket of my rainproof (except it really isn’t) coat, on top of a suit jacket (I like to be smart), and set off. I prefer to walk most places, but as I was passing the bus stop near Guide Bridge Rail Station, a 347 appeared, so I jumped on. Alighting at the bus station, I consulted my hand-drawn map (call me old-fashioned), and headed towards the ground. I found The Wood Man, and popped in for a pre-match pint. What a great little boozer! Strange décor, but a bunch of friendly locals (one or two were quite well -inebriated for 7.15pm on a November Monday), and attentive bar staff. I was told I should get a taxi to the ground, as it was a bit far to walk from there. But, I’d done my homework, and I had my map! It took me just ten minutes (lightweights!). I wandered through a quiet housing estate (the mist dampening any noise from nearby traffic), and headed towards the glow from the floodlights.
Approaching The Tameside Stadium
I made for the main reception area, as Natalie had instructed me to, and felt quite the VIP heading past the queue at the turnstiles (at least I THINK there were turnstiles. Maybe things had changed since I last attended a game over ten years ago). The young man on the door was a little flustered as he couldn’t find the names of several people also attempting to gain entry ahead of me. Luckily, my name was there, and I was ushered in. He seemed to be gesturing down a corridor, so I headed that way. I was soon lost. After wandering outside, and seeing no obvious Press area, I headed back in and improvised. I found the main bar, and there was Natalie, clearing empty pint glasses up. The Chief Executive was helping the bar staff (I bet you don’t get this at Old Trafford!). I recognised her, as I’d just had time to see an item on Granada Reports just before I’d left home earlier, and Natalie had been interviewed. I introduced myself, and she showed me out into the main stand, and to my seat. She was very welcoming, down-to-earth, and busy, busy, busy (whilst looking impossibly glamorous)!
As I walked through the bar door, and out into the stand, I was suddenly hit by the atmosphere. The pitch looked gorgeous under the floodlights, and the place seemed to be full. There was a real family atmosphere, but (curiously) hardly any chanting or aggressive behaviour (which I had, perhaps naively, expected). I also noticed a good few rival supporters sitting with the home fans. As I spend most of my time sitting down anyway (I’m a writer/artist), I decided to stand near the cameramen and local radio broadcasters, rather than take my seat. Across the far side of the pitch was, I assumed, the away fans’ stand. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as the home stand, and didn’t appear to have a bar attached to it. The Westfields supporters looked like one big dark, almost static mass, and as they had little to cheer about over the next couple of hours, there was, therefore, little scarf-waving or leaping up and down out of seats. I did feel quite sorry for them, as I imagined their view across to my side was quite a contrast – happy looking locals, a brightly-lit bar, and a nearby café. I wondered if all grounds were designed like this (to give the home team, and fans, as much of a psychological and physical advantage as possible). I didn’t have a programme or team sheet, so I had no idea which team was which. For some reason I assumed Curzon Ashton were in white, as it was the white-shirted players that seemed to be on top from the start. This soon changed, and the blue-shirted team hit back quickly; dominating the entire first half. It was only when the first goal went in (a low drive from No.10 Adam Morgan), and the home fans cheered, that I realised I’d guessed wrongly. For mid-November, it was a fairly warm evening, and I was completely comfortable standing behind the back row of the main stand.
Just after the first goal went in, I got chatting to a smartly-dressed, alert-looking young man who introduced himself as the club’s press officer, Aaron Flanagan. Whilst keeping a close eye on the game, Aaron indulged this fish-out-of-water, and filled me in on a few details. The cup run was a Godsend for clubs like Curzon Ashton, as it brings in much-needed revenue. Getting to a first round replay, and (hopefully) winning it, would mean around £100,000 income, and would secure the club’s future for a good few years. Tonight there was approximately 1100 people in the ground, whereas a regular attendance would number in the low hundreds. I asked about the players, and was told they were only on a match fee of around £50, and many of them had to make a lot of sacrifices to compete for a place in the squad. I noticed the Westfield’s assistant manager jumping up and down, and screaming to his players throughout the game, and was informed that he’d been up at 3am that morning, milking cows down in Hereford. He would be getting home around 1am, and would probably be up working again at dawn (such are the downsides of non-league football!). This energetic behaviour was in complete contrast to Curzon’s manager, John Flanagan, who was much more composed in a Sven Goran-Eriksson kind of way. Most of the staff at the club were volunteers (including Aaron, who is also a sports reporter for The Mirror), and this was only the second time in the club’s history that they’d reached this round of the cup. If Curzon won, they would be playing either Wimbledon or Bury in the next round. Aaron said they’d prefer Bury, as a local derby would be an exciting prospect (however, it was Wimbledon who won the tie 5-0). Being past winners of the cup (beating Liverpool in a famous 1988 final), Wimbledon will be equally as exciting, and add a little glamour to the game. On 34 minutes, the impressive Adam Morgan scored again, with a superb curler in to the top left-hand corner of the net, to make it 2-0, and the home fans were in cup heaven.
I got myself a pint at half-time, in the impressive Leisure Suite, and had a nice chat with the lovely and efficient Abbie and Lianne. I missed the start of the second half, as I was expecting an announcement (I’m too used to the theatre!), but guzzled my Stella Artois down (reassuringly less expensive than city centre pubs) and headed back outside (no booze beyond the door!). Curzon dominated again, and it was noticeable how there was much more urgency from both sides as the match went on. There was a hell of a lot at stake for both clubs, and with Westfields being a couple of divisions lower, the pressure was on for the home side to wrap things up. It really was end-to-end stuff, and a far more exciting game than I’d expected. The players cannot compete, obviously, with the insane physical levels of Premier League teams, but there was a lot of skill out there. Both keepers made several outstanding saves, and both sides hit the post a couple of times. It was all over when local teacher Niall Cummins netted the third in the 70th minute, and the relief was palpable. I had a lot of sympathy for Westfields, as they never gave up, and worked hard, right up to the final whistle. They had their consolation with a 92nd minute goal from Nick Harrhy, and the whole crowd applauded. It was an incredibly good-natured atmosphere, and a wonderful contrast to the often psychotic behaviour of some fans at Premier league games. The home supporters applauded and cheered every substitution (for both teams), and rival fans mixed happily in the bar afterwards. It was quite illuminating to see the home team players arrive in the bar, and help themselves to a small bowl of pasta, and a glass of champagne. They’d worked hard to earn their club a fantastic prize – a second round home game against ex F.A. Cup winners Wimbledon, and a cash bonanza to secure Curzon Ashton’s future. I was glad I came out.
Winning manager John Flanagan speaks to the press.
Walking home through the Autumnal mist, I ruminated on the evening. The atmosphere had been fantastic, and the generosity of the club in welcoming a complete stranger along to a historic cup tie gave me a warm glow inside. I took a few mobile phone shots as I left the ground; the place had a romantic shimmer about it, in the late evening.
An atmospheric end.
I now needed an after match pint, and headed back towards The Wood Man. It was a perfect end to an unexpectedly exciting evening, as I downed a few pints of Guinness with Nyree the bar lady, and was shown the Turin Shroud-like image of Jesus she’d recently discovered on the back of a cubicle door in The Ladies. I kid you not.
Thanks to Natalie, Aaron, everybody at Curzon Ashton FC, and Nyree and her staff & customers at The Wood Man.
Jesus in The Ladies.
Brian Gorman 17.11.16