Saturday 23 November 2019

Stalybridge Celtic vs. Buxton

Aside from having a football team, most towns in the country will have something notable about it that provides some riveting conversation between you and someone from there (whilst you’re on holiday in Benidorm or wherever). It could be a trade they’re famous for, a gruesome moment in history, a celebrity who’s from there – perhaps their football club reflects the town’s notability in some way. 

For us groundhoppers, the opportunity to visit new grounds in unfamiliar towns allows us to immerse ourselves in these facts, to learn more about them and even join in with whatever it is. This is why I’m in Stalybridge this afternoon – and it was an absolute pleasure to arrange. I’m off to see Stalybridge Celtic in Northern Premier League action against Buxton – and to visit the pub with the longest name in the UK for a pint or six on a bitter Saturday in late-November. 

Yes, The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn being the longest pub name in the UK is the notable fact that Stalybridge should be famous for! Located close to the railway station (turn right, walk under the bridge, you can see the massive sign right away), the pub isn’t actually the first version of The Rifleman. The original, which held the Guinness World Record, closed in late-2015.

The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn, Stalybridge

Originally named ‘The New Inn’, it first changed to ‘The Thirteenth Cheshire Rifleman Inn’  – this earned it a place in the first edition of The Guinness Book of Records in 1951 as ‘the pub with the longest name’. It seems that they were involved in a tit-for-tat war with other lengthy-named pubs (such as The London, Chatham and Dover Railway Tavern, and the Ferret and Firkin in the Balloon Up The Creek, both in London) – the extra words added to the Rifleman name over the years saw the Cheshire pub grab the title back.

After securing a premises to open a new pub earlier this year, landlady, Sarah Farrer-Baxter, thought long-and-hard about a name. By chance, she was well acquainted with The Rifleman’s former owners who on hearing the news, offered her the use of the name in order to keep it (and Stalybridge) on the map. Whilst delighted with the offer, Sarah indicated that reality hurt a little bit when it came to paying for the lettering!

It’s a fantastic story, something that is so quintessentially British; a pub in a provincial town having to battle the big city for the honour of having the longest name, just to create some notability for their community. Thinking about it, there could be a good TV drama made from two pubs trying to outdo each other over seemingly trifling issues as ‘having the longest name’. As long as there’s a decent script, mind (call me, producers).

Brilliantly, as I walk into the pub at around 1.30 pm, there’s only one other customer in! Although they have a decent range of premium lagers on, there’s nothing in the way of real or craft ales (that I can see – apologies if there were) for us beer ponces to get excited about, so I plump for a pint of Amstel. It’s a smart, well-lit place but it doesn’t feel like a traditional pub – more of a modern ‘bar’ with its bright walls, lighting and second floor with a swirly staircase.

The lad who’s serving is very friendly though, pub name emblazoned on his back, as he’s clearing some glasses away, he apologises for getting in the way of viewing of the pub telly – which he didn’t. As I’m watching the end of the West Ham-Tottenham game (Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of Spurs – which they win 3-2), the place fills up nicely; there are about 10 people in as I leave just after 2 pm. To sum up; nice place, decent beers, friendly staff, good-sized tellies to watch sport, just don’t expect a traditional pub experience.

Bower Fold, Stalybridge Celtic F.C

Aside from pubs, the other notable thing about Stalybridge is the football club. Formed in 1909 (although there’s some circumstantial evidence that it may have been formed in 1906), the club’s heyday was in the 1920s when for two seasons, they were members of The Football League having formed the Third Division North with 19 other sides.

They had a great first season – finishing 7th in a league won by near neighbours, Stockport County. Despite finishing 11th the season after, the club resigned citing that they ‘couldn’t get sufficient support to justify a Football League side’ – which sounds odd, considering their average attendance of 5,400 was some 2,000 more than Rochdale, who finished a place below them. Was this a ‘sliding doors’ moment? Rochdale have stayed in The Football League ever since and currently ply their trade in League One.

After spending the majority of their existence knocking about the non-league pyramid, Stalybridge are currently battling at the top end of the Northern Premier League (Premier Division) table; holding onto the final play-off place. Coached by former Coventry, Wigan and Tranmere striker, Simon Haworth (scorer of many a great goal, including a particular favourite of mine at the old Wembley – see below), the Welsh international is carving out a decent non-league managerial career after spells at Eagley and Clitheroe a level or two below – so I’m interested in seeing how he’s getting on.

The club’s ground, Bower Fold, is located just over a mile from the town centre and has a capacity for around 6,000 spectators. The record attendance for a match involving Stalybridge was when 9.753 rocked up to see them in FA Cup first round replay action in January 1923, as they lost 2-0 against West Bromwich Albion. In more recent times, a crowd of 3,312 attended a second round FA Cup tie against Football League Third Division Chester City in 1999. Despite Andy Scott’s extraordinary goal (see the highlights below, it’s well worth it), Chester grew into the game and scored twice without reply to send them into the third round – where they faced Manchester City (then playing in the First Division).

The record attendance at Bower Fold, however, is believed to be as many as 10,300 when the famous women’s side, Dick, Kerr Ladies beat a ‘Rest of Lancashire XI’ 10-0 in 1921, raising around £600 (£29.000 in 2018, when adjusted for inflation) in aid of the local hospital. I say the crowd was ‘believed’ to be that many, as in those days, they could never be sure – some say the attendance could have been anywhere between 12-14,000). What we do know for a fact, is that Bower Fold is the only football ground in the country where the pitch apparently faces a perfect north.

Whilst researching the club (seeing if the game was going ahead, in truth) I see that they put out a plea for supporters to attend the game in big numbers, as they’re struggling for money – although I’d imagine most clubs at these levels are struggling, Stalybridge not having a home game in the league since the 12th October hasn’t helped matters. The press release, urging people to attend, encouraged attendees to also indulge in a pint. So naturally, I did.

Passing through the turnstile (£10 entry), I immediately catch sight of the supporters club straight ahead. Inside, it looks a bit swanky; it looks and feels more like a wedding reception venue with its wide-open spaces, smart seating, vast white walls and one-or-two ornate decorations. I indulge in a pint of Kronenberg, poured into a doubled-up plastic container and sashayed outside with it, giggling to myself that I’m allowed to drink this pint of lager by the side of the pitch – the novelty still hasn’t worn off. The weather outside even cools my pint for me as I stand behind the goal, waiting for the game to start.

The mascot badger's shed at Bower Fold, Stalybridge

As I’m stood there, a bipedal badger walks past, handing out sweets to several kids who have been running around the terrace (as if they need more sugar!). What happened next took me by surprise – the badger walked to a shed, opened the door, ducked in and locked it. What’s going on here? It’s then I see that the shed is positioned in front of what (I assume) is the club’s old supporters club – the prefab building is locked, looking a little shabby and (the big giveaway) it has ‘Social Club Bar’ written on it. There’ve certainly upgraded with the wedding venue they’ve got now, anyway. A few minutes after the badger locked the door of the shed, it swings open to reveal a woman, a human woman – what’s she done with the badger?

Instead of reporting a possible badger murder to the police, I settle down to watch the match – supping my pint in the roofed terrace behind the goal. The home side make a decent start; passing the ball about nicely, looking for space in the Buxton defence – their first opportunity arriving courtesy of a shot-on-the turn that just cleared the crossbar. 10 minutes in, Ross Dent is the recipient of some more tidy play; he sneaks into the penalty area before opening out his body (not literally – it means 'turning your body into a comfortable position’) and guiding a centred-ball into the top corner of the net. Brilliant finish – one that certainly warms up the crowd around me, as the temperature continues to drop.

Buxton immediately try to put some pressure on their hosts and without a couple of timely interceptions at the back, they could have grabbed an equaliser. Stalybridge (or ‘Bridge’ as people around me are shouting) ride it out and could have even been two-ahead just before half-time as a volley-whilst-falling-on-your-arse (okay, an ‘acrobatic’ volley) smashed the crossbar and bounced away.

Half-time is spent in the wedding venue, as I sup on another cold pint to warm myself up (!) Early in the second half, Bridge do get their deserved second goal as Darius Osei seizes upon a loose ball in the area, turns and fires it into the back of the net. It’s a good job they have online match reports and videos – when it went in, I was finishing off my Kronie in the bar. Whoops!

I transfer myself to The Lord Tom Pendry Stand for the second half – named after the town’s former long-serving MP, this is the newest stand at the ground (built in 2004) and has over 650 seats. The main stand opposite has room for just over 700 people and was completed in 1996. Part of the reason why I chose to sit down for the second half was to get a different perspective of the match, the other because the regular supporters had moved down to the end where I was to watch their side attack the goal (so I lost my spot, due to babysitting a Kronie) and the final reason, was because it was colder than a White Walker’s heart now!

The -23 temperature (at least) didn’t bother the players much, as Bridge continued to control the game and eke out opportunities; a goal was ruled out for offside and Dent nearly bagged a second as his header was bound for the goal if not for the intervention of the visiting goalkeeper. A late chance sees a Bridge player go clear of the defence, but his chip over the keeper was just-about cleared off the line.

Stalybridge Celtic vs. Buxton

It finishes as a fully-deserved 2-0 win for the home side – Buxton unable to lay a glove on their opponents for the vast majority of the match. This win keeps Stalybridge in 5th, 7 points from top and automatic promotion. The crowd was announced as being 423 – which is up by 131 from their last home match in the league. Good news all round for the club, then!

I’m off back down to the town centre for a few more scoops – first stop is the Wetherspoons for some generic fish and chips. I then make a point of visiting ‘Bridge Beers’, which is a bottle shop and craft ale bar. The owner is friendly enough, guides me through the beers that were on tap – I have a pint of the pale ale Odin by Brightside brewery. I must say that I love a nice pale, hoppy blonde...ale. There’s a great array of bottles on sale behind me, but I decide to move on – 10 yards down the street to another real ale bar, The Craft Pint. This place is a bit more 'happening', as I walk in, I nearly bump into two greyhounds who are supping out of a bowl (water, before you worry – unless it was vodka?). My pint of choice here is ‘Deception’ by Abbeydale – sounds more like perfume than a 4.1% pale ale, but it’s something that I wouldn't mind wearing again.

Now there’s one fact about Stalybridge that I’ve left out until now (two actually, we’ll get to the next one in a minute) – not only does the town boast the pub with the longest name, It has the pub with the SHORTEST name too, located next-door-but one to the Rifleman! The pub is called ‘Q’ (technically it’s called ‘The Q Inn’, so it leaves it open for usurpers to steal the crown), and it’s fantastic. As soon as I walk in, the ‘traditional’ pub fixtures and fittings soak into your eyes, it’s tightly built, there’s a fire roaring and they have real ales on tap – the only thing that’s missing is a dog scampering around! I get a pint of their house beer ('Q Ale' - a 3.8% golden ale), which goes down rather nicely.

I round the day off with a visit to the Buffet Bar – the other attraction to Stalybridge that I haven’t mentioned. Apparently, this is one of very few remaining 'refreshment rooms' in the country and now mostly houses a real ale emporium in its narrow but long structure. With 20 minutes until I need to catch the train, I decide to grab a swift cider – but I didn’t account for the rowdiness of the lads, lads, lads that frequent train stations at 8 pm on a Saturday evening.

Buffet Bar at Stalybridge Station
Now, think about the penultimate scene in Brief Encounter. Imagine if Dolly Messiter was pissed on craft cider, unknowingly costing the two philanderers (which is ultimately what they were – Fred was a lovely husband, an absolute innocent who deserved better), their final moment of love. Well, that’s exactly what it was like, as the lads were ‘having the banter’ right in front of the bar, slowing down the queuing, preventing me from a treasured juicy delight.

However, unlike the doomed ‘couple’ in the film, I managed to shake off these Dollies, squeeze myself near the bar, get my pint and have it supped in time for the train. In other words, the refreshment room at Stalybridge is best visited on a weekday.

I’m definitely coming back to visit though. Cheers! 

Stalybridge Celtic 2

Buxton 0

Attendance: 423


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