FC United 1-0 Stourbridge [NPL Premier division, Tameside Stadium]

The title beckoned, and FC United’s ten year nomadic infancy was nearing its end. Things seemed to be coming together for the renegade Rebels. It had been hoped that Broadhurst Park would be ready in time to stage a match before the season’s close – a chance to lift the prize amidst the new hearth and home, fluttered the daydream – but the work dragged on and the contractor demurred and the plan proved unrealisable. We knew now that the first game at the new ground would instead be a prestigious friendly against esteemed continental opposition, five weeks after the completion of the league calendar: Portuguese giants Benfica, no less, would be sending their ‘B’ team to play Manchester’s third club on the evening of May 29; a fan-owned behemoth of resonant historic import to be on hand to help FC baptise the new era – and on the anniversary of their European Cup final clash with Big United, back in 1968, too.

So no more, then, those treks and traipses to diverse corners of the Greater Manchester map to watch the Reds ply their punk football in ad hoc domiciles. The Gigg Lane era had ended the previous summer, of course, and at the start of the present campaign the Rebels had moved on to Bower Fold to fulfil their home fixtures, eight miles to the east of the city: the home of Stalybridge Celtic, currently of the Conference North. Nestling in the foothills of the effortful climb up from Stalybridge town centre towards Lowry’s adopted village of Mottram (where the artist could be found in bronze, seated at a bench with his sketch-pad at the main crossroads) the ground was well known to club and fans, having been used for several years, now, on occasions when Gigg Lane wasn’t available. The Dinky old 219 bus took you to Staly, via Ashton Old Road; or you took the Trans-Pennine train from Piccadilly to Stalybridge Station, where a pint of real ale at the historic Station Buffet Bar set the day off, before you tackled the hill. Bower Fold’s end-to-end slope, lending it the semblance of a banjaxed billiard table, was something of a legend in non-league football, and reportedly not to Karl Marginson’s liking; the enduring ritual (now was it a mark of devotion, or a sign of naffness?) whereby the fans changed ends at half time, en masse, so as to cheer on the goal being attacked…well, that was something of a tradition in the non-league game that Stalyvegas happened to afford. The pies could be a bit basic, just as the football could be unmilled; but if the Luddism below got too much on a perishing pre-Christmas afternoon, you could always lift your gaze to the heavens to watch the jet liners stitching a seam across a fustian sky. Didn’t matter when you looked up; always, there’d be one along in a second…another servant to the flight line, another pale drone in insectoid single file, cruciform and pious…yep, there was another one…emerging over the Main Stand like a slow blown dart to rumble solemnly towards the corner flag between the Tom Pendry Stand and the Mottram End, in preparation for the descent into Manchester Airport, thirteen miles to the south west.

In January, ‘home’ had switched again. Once winter had hit, bringing with it the inevitable fixture postponements, the ensuing backlog had become harder and harder to square with Celtic’s own diary. A solution was found three miles to the west, at the home of promotion rivals Curzon Ashton, the younger of the two Ashton clubs, whose arrangements were discovered to be much more compatible. As the season came slowly to the boil, then, it was to the tinplate Tameside Stadium that Rebels’ fans now dutifully trekked. 

Tucked inside the ring road, to the west of Ashton centre, between the retail village and the Daisy Nook country park, the stadium was an optimistic new development, built in 2005. Amidst a scattered township of community sporting facilities – a lonely running track, a congested cycle ring, a damp-looking all-weather practice pitch – the stadium boasted a large, flat, well-tended playing surface, credited as one of the best -likely the best – in the division. This was much more to Marginson’s liking, for the purposes of the ball-on-the-floor football he wanted his team to play, and it had been cited as a contributory factor to the side’s upturn in form in the months since the move had been made. To get to the Tameside Stadium you took the new East Manchester Line on the Metrolink to Ashton West, then walked down Richmond Street to meet the manorial stadium approach. This brought you to a statue outside the ground commemorating three World Cup winners born in the locale – Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Armfield and the Italian midfielder Simone Perrotta (Armfield played no part in England’s victorious 1966 campaign, due to injury, but non-playing members of the triumphant squad were retrospectively awarded medals in 2009). Jutting forwards, as it did, at a quite bizarre protruding angle, it led you to worry that one of those three weighty casts might one day topple over onto some unsuspecting five-year-old and cause serious harm. Armfield in particular, the gentleman right-back now on the cusp of his ninth decade, would be in danger of besmirching a proud disciplinary record if such an incident were ever to take place. Past the statuary, once inside, you took your pick between the two giant stands which faced-off against each other across the pitch: great high-roofed hangars of corrugated steel bounded by the comparative nothingness of shallow uncovered terraces around the remainder of the playing area. Seating in the Main Stand; standing opposite. Results had been good, so the place was generally buzzing, and the sightlines were all advantageous; it was a cheerful, charmless, resolutely pragmatic place.

There had been other temporary home grounds, along the course of the past decade, articulating the spectrum of the non-league experience: a half dozen fixtures played at Radcliffe Borough’s Stainton Park (a Premier League social club with a Sunday League pitch next to it, as seemed to befit a club run by Bernard Manning Jr); one at Hyde’s Ewen Fields in 2009 (in the days before that club, who had played in red since the aftermath of the first world war, signed a sponsorship deal with Manchester City obliging them to paint every last inch of their all-red stadium blue); one at Altrincham’s Moss Lane, back in the first season (a pristine pagoda of red brick and steel in a town hooked on freebasing hummus); and one at Flixton’s Valley Road ground in 2008 (a cowering campus of low huts and outhouses caught up in a rearing stand-off between Godzilla-like electricity pylons). A bonus Red Point in any FC United quiz would doubtless be awarded to you for knowing that the Rebels’ FA Trophy clash with Witton Albion at the Cheshire club’s Wincham Park stadium in November 2013 (a ground almost literally put in the shade when local rivals Northwich Victoria built a bigger, swankier stadium two hundred yards away in 2005, only to have to vacate it again when they went bust seven years later) was officially classed as a home game for United after the original match at Stainton Park was abandoned in a thunderstorm and there was nowhere else for the rearranged fixture to be staged at short notice.

A total of eight homes, then, over the course of the decade, since that carnivalesque curtain-raiser at Leigh RMI back in July 2005. The keys to a permanent crib would soon to be collected; first, though, there was an item of business to take care of – the small matter of winning the league. Tonight, those two great hangars were abuzz with expectation, of course, as the Rebels sought to close out the title. It had been a high-wire home straight run in high winds, of recent weeks, as the club edged closer and closer, and performances began to tense with the ratcheting strain.

It had seemed to go in stages. As the purple patch following the cup run abated there were games in which United seemed to pitilessly tan their opponents for half an hour or so, before letting them back into the contest. The match with Ilkeston on March 10 was one such, as was the home encounter with fourth-placed Workington seven days later, when Lacy found the target on 15 minutes but United endured a gruelling second half as the powerful Cumbrians moved the ball about freely without quite managing to generate an equaliser. Away from home, though, even that early doors arrogance seemed now to desert them: a hard-earned 1-0 victory at Halesowen Town on March 14 owed as much to the heroics of Carnell and the last ditch tackling of Chris Lynch as it did to a late headed goal from Lindfield; at Stamford on March 21 the Rebels were less fortunate, coming away with a 1-1 draw as Manc-mouthed Yosemite Sams screamed furiously from the sidelines about a goal disallowed and a penalty not given, in a game in which the opposing team once again finished in the ascendancy. The unbeaten run remained, however – seventeen games over four months, the sequence now extended to – and was bolstered by a comfortable 4-0 morguing of Whitby Town on April 1: salt, vinegar, sea air and unseasonable, cadaverous cold, but a pep to the club’s aspirations as Easter approached.     

The daytrip to Ramsbottom United on April 4 had long been pencilled in to the diaries of the United faithful – but when in the week of the game the Rossendale club announced they were putting up the admission price (by a pound, from nine pounds to ten) there was the kind of uproar that can set fire to the internet. This kind of attempt to cash in on the Rebels’ multitudinous fanbase was nothing new to the United supporters (if it wasn’t the admission charge it tended to be beer prices inside the ground) and the threat of a retaliatory boycott was swiftly leveraged. Even when the Rams backed down, which they did within twenty four hours, there were one or two keyboard warriors still vowing to venture no further than the car park on the day itself, doubtless to teach those arrogant shysters a lesson they’d never forget. Whether anyone made good on that particular promise when the afternoon came went sadly unverified.

A spruce market town some twelve miles to the north-northwest of the city, Ramsbottom had in recent years become a stopping point on the local heritage trail. Where once there had been mills, foundries and printworks (factory owners the Grant brothers became the basis for Dickens’s jovial philanthropists the Cheerybles, in Nicholas Nickleby) now there were boutiques, microbreweries, a local steam train service, plus smatterings of out-of-towners drawn in by the charm. The area had benefited also from the regeneration of the Irwell: famously faint-damned in parliament at the height of its burping putrescence as “that melancholy stream” the river had in recent years been cleaned up and accessorised with a sculpture trail along its reluctant thirty nine mile course (springing from the moors above Bacup and emptying into ship canal at Salford). Optimists with fishing rods had been spied on its banks. Ramblers stalked the pathways and scratched their heads at the public art exhibits. Trainspotters nerded-up the platform at the nearby Irwell Vale beauty spot. To get to Ramsbottom from Manchester you more or less followed the route of the river in reverse through the Irwell Valley: on the Metrolink to Bury, and then (in the case of the four hundred fans who booked a seat on the ‘Rammy Ratler’, chartered specially for United supporters on the day) on the steam train which stopped directly behind the Railway End of Ramsbottom’s Harry Williams Riverside Stadium. Williams, a local sewing machine mechanic, had established the club in 1966, and served still as its chairman.

The match which took place that day – a giddy Easter Saturday blessed by a smiling sun and a local record 2079 crowd – could hardly have occurred in more picturesque surroundings: the river on one side, the cricket club on another, and the trains pulling in behind the goal, every so often, wreathed in bushels of billowing slow steam. Distantly on Holcombe Hill could be seen the looming tower erected by the Grants in 1852 to memorialise their compadre, the locally-born Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel – the son of a cotton magnate, who as a liberal Tory founded the modern Conservative Party, repealed the Corn Laws and created the modern police force: the so-called ‘bobbies’. His monument stood primed like a night-stick on the moor, while on the valley floor before us working men played the old Victorian game. FC won an unremarkable encounter with their fifteenth placed opponents, 2-1, thanks to a penalty from Stott, and a header by Fallon from Payne’s corner. And so the march to the title continued – though the hosts were left less than glad-hearted, there being complaints in the aftermath that some tulips had been dug up and deposited in a portaloo (allegedly by some six-year-olds in replica Ramsbottom kits, or so the United contingent countered). What with some mild banter directed at the home team from the away stand, the local Rossendale Free Press was scandalized to outrage and did not hold back in its response, declaring in its pages that the afternoon had been “a throwback to the dark ages of professional football”.

Still, it was three more points. Six games to go and ten more needed. Ilkeston second; Workington third; Ashton United fourth. Curzon, back in fifth, were a few points adrift of the pack.

It was then that the wheels seemed to lock. First Curzon fought back for a 1-1 draw on April 6 thanks to a spirited display of passing which saw them unlucky not to take all three points: three gallant saves from Carnell and a spooned point-blank sitter from the Nash’s Ashley Stott – the sort of howler that can shrivel a man, just at the memory – were all that stood between the Rebels and the end of that unbeaten run. The performance at Witton Albion on April 11 was even worse. An interminable encounter saw the Reds set about their game-plan like smoked bees, on a pitch from which the groundsman had yet to harvest the turnips: woozy sideways passes were intercut with wishful punts up-field in the more lucid moments, to no effect, with the result that the aspiring champions came away with a desultory 0-0 draw. This was more worrying. The team looked tuckered. Indeed Callum Byrne’s half-time withdrawal at Ramsbottom was now disclosed to have been for the reason of simple exhaustion. Likewise here: Lindfield looked like his legs had gone. Greaves – was his groin problem playing up? – had netted just once in seven games, now. Lacy, a rock since Christmas, seemed afraid of his own shadow: jittery challenges, wayward distribution. Tiredness. Nerves. Still, both second placed Ilkeston and third placed Ashton United had lost, so FC’s position had actually improved. The main challengers, now, were Workington: five points adrift, having played a game more.

The Rebels had four to play.

Five points were needed to be certain.

Surely they couldn’t mess it up from here?

The trip to Skelmersdale United on April 14 offered the chance to seal the deal, if they won and other results went their way. But despite dominating throughout the Reds couldn’t buy a goal, and wound up the surprised recipients of a 1-0 bubble-popping, as Skem striker Danny Mitchley turned in a free kick at the far post, twenty minutes from time, when the cross was allowed to bounce freely in the box. After five months and twenty two games, the unbeaten run was over. “The bottom line is that the league is still in our hands,” Marginson insisted. It was getting tighter, though. Two points gained from the last three games…was there going to be a Devon Loch? A Stevie G stumble? A catch-throated Keegan-esque meltdown? The Cumbrians were poised. Things didn’t look any brighter when, back at Bower Fold to face Stamford on April 18, the Reds allowed their visitors to take the lead after barely six minutes: striker Ryan Robbins clumping home from close range as United again failed to defend the back stick. Goals from Greaves (powering home Daniels’s prod-through), Lindfield (a pearler curled in to the top corner from wide on the left) and Payne (pouncing on a loose back-header to convert with the zen poise of an aced birdie-putt) settled the nerves. If Lindfield’s outrageous volley from out on the touchline hadn’t been tipped over the bar, then the horseshoe would surely have flashed and the machine would have paid out in fivers. This was much more like it. In fact, the Rebels’ commanding 3-1 victory had brought the whole matter to a head, now. Win at home to Stourbridge – tonight, on April 21 – and the title would be theirs, irrespective of how Workington fared.

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So here we were…back on the upswing, coiled with hope and alive with the expectation of magic to be made real before our cynical, world-weary eyes. A pale sun in a clear blue sky casting a light as sharp and cold as iced water; a crowd of three and a half thousand squeezed into the Tameside Stadium on a two-dog Tuesday evening, in the hope of seeing the Rebels at last claim their destiny. In the back streets around the complex endless chains of lifeless vehicles: Peugeots and Metros and small family hatchbacks, nose-to-tail; car stickers proclaiming the club crest decaled chippily across the rear glazing. And tramping down the incline from the Metro at the top of the lane, a thickening stream of pilgrims bearing yet more badges: the stoical ship in yellow weave; the three stripes, the three sails…on knitted hats and quilted jackets and woollen bar scarves. Past the statue, through the turnstiles and into the teeming stands, there to wait like restive calves at an auction…to flick through hot-off-the-press, silken-touch match programmes and exchange skittish quips and consume chips like baked woodpulp and grey, unyielding pies and deciduous green peas gulped down into fitful, churning stomachs neither hungry nor sated. The smell of the broilers working up from beneath the stand; the drone of The Stooges played politely over the sound system; the sense of time stretching languorously like gum. It was like waiting for a birth, or an exam result or the outcome of an operation, trying to decide whether to heed the mood music that the outlook was positive. Memories of last ditch disappointments in the four preceding seasons were raw, of course, but confidence was generally high. Things seemed different, this time around: top of the league, for so long unbeaten, and not clawing for the escape hatch afforded by the play-offs…there was a widespread belief, now, that this season the prize had been earned.

But after the tunnel walk and the crowd roar and the handshake parade and the coin toss – the Rebels in their logo-less red and white; Stourbridge in canary yellow and green – the game which ensued offered no easy succour. Abundant possession and penalty box pressure did not beget an early goal; there was no quick strike to settle the acids as United sought sedulously to turn the screws. On it went; on we waited. Nada. When, shortly after the teams had re-emerged for the second half, Liam Brownhill launched a long ball up from the right back position – followed moments later by a boomer from the foot of Luke Ashworth – there was frustration in the crowd. “Come on, you’re better than that!” someone barked. Tonight, though, the long ball was to become part of the mix.

The thing was this: there were two games remaining, and the Rebels were two points clear with a game in hand over Workington, who had just the single fixture to fulfil. A point would do it. Such was United’s goal difference advantage that even a draw tonight would deliver the title, so long as they didn’t lose the last game by ten goals to nil. That, we could be confident, wasn’t going to happen…but the kicker was this: that final game, in four days time, was up in Cumbria against Workington themselves. If FC lost tonight then they would have to go there, nervous and stalling, on a string of poor results, needing a point against a side hell-bent on gazumping them at the last: a nightmare scenario. Workington…the former Football League outfit whom Bill Shankly had briefly managed in the ‘50s; whom the Babes had faced in the cup in the month before Munich. That was the history. Rather more fresh in the mind was the tasty encounter just five weeks previously: the crisp passing and tigerish energy with which the Cumbrians had chased a game they were unlucky to forfeit; the shameless two arm shoulder throw their player-manager, Gavin Skelton, had performed on Greaves as the visitors flexed their muscles and got stuck in to the task; the run of victories they had stacked up since to finish the season on a charge, rising to second just as Ilkeston and Ashton United fell away; not to mention the small-town reception from some of their fuzzy-lipped younger fans, giving it large with the anti-Man U songs, the airplane gestures and the Munich taunts.

No, there may on paper have been two bites at the cherry, but everybody knew – and none more so than Karl Marginson – it had to be done tonight…and boy did it show. If there was a directness to United’s play, then, as the ball was worked up swiftly into the areas where the forwards could do some damage – crosses raining in from the wing, for the most part; and when options were more limited, long up the middle – you wondered at first if this was down to anxiety or was in fact a concerted game plan. Whichever, what became crystal clear as the game wore on, was that after recent fumbles – the late fade against Curzon, the listless passing at Witton, the chances that went begging over at Skem – tonight, FC United weren’t messing about. If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

So there it was. An early ball up the channels we were used to; the long ball down the middle we saw less frequently. It was noticeable, however, in the thick of this mode of warfare, what it brought out in the Rebels’ youthful forward, Greg Daniels, who tonight rose to newfound prominence on the left of the attack.

It was easy to forget that after three years at the club, and more than a hundred first team appearances, Daniels was still only twenty-two years of age. For sure, he certainly looked half-fledged: with that fine skin and round, open face, the ample shoulders and the crew-cut hair buzzed fuzzily close to the scalp, to reveal a wide widows peak that crept shyly forth from his crown…he had something of the look of a naval cadet just arrived for his first day at Dartmouth, having just kissed goodbye to his mum. He was a tough cookie, though – strong. Handing off an opponent came very naturally to him, and he had shown very quickly after breaking into the first team that he had very good feet. In deeper positions, he thrived on receiving possession in tight corners, shaping equally to left or right to find a pass under pressure where others might buckle or concede. If he kept his head down a little in such circumstances, to play the shorter, simpler ball where a Callum Byrne or a Rory Fallon might show the vision for something more expansive, well, that was a matter of taste. In any case he was beginning to mint his act as a back-to-goal link man, the position he favoured.

Whatever you thought about the ball up the middle- and it was by no means Marginson’s M.O. – you couldn’t help but notice the way Daniels grew into the role of receiving it. The more direct the play, the better he looked. As a target for passes up-field from Brownhill, Lacy or Ashworth – collecting with chest, thigh or in-step, shielding possession from the attending centre-back, looking for the turn or the lay-off or the little punt through for a midfield runner – he was in his element. Arguably, the side didn’t possess a velcro giant dominant enough to serve on his own as the lynchpin of a 4-5-1: Norton was dogged, though sometimes the ball didn’t stick; Greaves, if the pass came on to him the way he wanted it, could roll around the shoulder of his marker, sly as a tango dancer. In Daniels’s case, though, his greater strength as part of a more collective 4-3-3/ 4-2-1-3 shape was augmented by the other attributes he displayed once he’d turned to face goal: linking with his fellow forwards; taking a man on, and getting to the by-line to cut back into the danger area; breaking into the box to test the ‘keeper with an opportunistic strike or a late-arriving header; bothering defenders with his strength, movement and runs. If his goal return had been better, you couldn’t help but reflect, he might be plying his stuff at a higher level. As it was, he tonight enjoyed one of his greatest performances in an FC United shirt.

Yes, tonight the young seaman could have been a spurs-winning Nelson in the thick of the Blockade of Cadiz: clambering into a barge to mix it personally with the Spaniards, hand to hand, as the gunships laid siege to the port. The pressure was urgent and much of it came from the right, as Lindfield whipped in crosses with that familiar Beckham-esque flight (albeit without the distinctive backspin with which the Manchester United captain used to so memorably lace his long kicks, digging his bootstraps beneath the ball so it would climb freely on its vortices before dying with that elegant signature fade). Having endured a wretched game at Witton, the Merseysider seemed restored, now: outstanding against Stamford; here, after an early brush with glory, he assumed greater and greater importance as the game went on. Behind him, Brownhill – FC’s other cultured kicker of the longer pass – had even more noticeably upped his supply rate of the long diagonal ball into the box: exploiting every opportunity to access the forward line, if not from deep then from the overlap down the line. On the other flank, meanwhile, Wright surged forward to exchange passes with Daniels, cut inside, and feed from the left. It was altogether an attack-minded side that Marginson had selected for the purpose: opting for Wolfenden’s creativity behind Lindfield, Greaves and Daniels in the forward trident (at the expense of Byrne’s adroitness, Brown’s industry, and Payne’s unpredictable pace) gave the side a notably enterprising stamp. Behind these, Stott and Fallon sat in front of the defence; Brownhill, Ashworth, Lynch and Wright comprised the back four, with Carnell in goal.

The sea rolled, the cannons blazed, the lights of the harbour glimmered in the distance, and when the silences fell the mind flickered between revenant scapes: warships massed in the bay; a minor football match in the north of England; or was it a Test match under innocent post-war skies? On every side, the little stadium packed densely around the playing area, spectators decanted into every corner usually barren. Keen hopes, rapt faces, undespoiled by the corporate weal; bright banners hanging liberally around. This Thing Of Ours. Its A Love Thing. Republica FCUM. A rousing flag code strung defiantly between the masts. Pressure mounting on the Aussies as Washbrook took a single to leg.

Stourbridge, though, the yellow-shirts…did they have any mettle, were they made of strong stuff? Would they withstand the blockade to break out and scuttle the fleet?

The West Midlands town was known historically as a centre of the glass-making trade, and its football team (est. 1876) was consequently dubbed the Glassboys. Managed by former Stoke City winger Gary Hackett (a long-serving local boy, now in his twelfth season at the club) they languished a lowly sixteenth in the table, and by any accounting were on a wrist-slashing run of form. One win from their previous seventeen fixtures had seen their campaign grind to a standstill, though they actually held the sign over United this term: prior to the Rebels’ defeat at Skelmersdale, seven days previously, Stourbridge had been the last team to beat the Mancunians before that long unbeaten run was embarked upon. On that occasion, way back on November 22, the Midlanders had ear-boxed their opponents, 2-1, courtesy of two thumping first half finishes from strikers Kayleden Brown and Kristian Ramsey-Dickson, after which they had managed to muzzle the visitors into uncharacteristic quietude (Greaves pulled back a late goal for the Reds after turning in a Van Gils cross, but United never looked like capitalising). Of the Stourbridge side that had won that earlier match, though, only two starters remained for tonight’s encounter – the midfielder and dead ball ace Drew Canavan; and the nut-haired, Swedishly-cool centre-back Chris Knight – as in the intervening months Hackett had relentlessly shuffled his pack, like a card sharp trying to remember his trick, in the bid to find some creditable form. No less than fifty players had been registered to play for the club, this season, as though the dressing room was a labour exchange smelling of heat rub, and the back line in particular had been repeatedly overhauled. With some strong attacking players to select from – aside from the Mack Truck charm of Brown there was last season’s top scorer Luke Benbow (a speedy opportunist more liable to skip-dive a goal than manaufacture one) and the versatile, ever-smiling Brian Smikle (a big-hearted grafter with an eye for the main chance picked up from Altrincham in March 2014) – Hackett had at the outset of the season expressed optimism for a high-scoring assault on the play-off places. But if the supply lines had been lacking, the forwards themselves had been equally lacklustre all year long: Brown was still labouring to step out from the shadow of the knee problem which had wrecked a promising career at West Bromwich Albion; Smikle’s performances had been sufficient only to merit zero hours cameos in a variety of different hats; while for Benbow the goals had dried up completely since return from injury in December, and now the fans were on his back for continuing to play Sunday League, in spite of his wretched form and his dodgy, twanging quads. In a bid to inject some penetration into the mix, blonde winger Chris Lait had been recruited, mid-term, but it had been a late and inevitably Canute-like gesture: the hoped-for goal-rush had never materialised; confidence had drained quickly from the squad; the campaign for a play-off place never really got off the ground.

Tonight, it was the highly-regarded Knight who caught the eye for the visitors, once more ensuring a dogged fettering of Greaves in the United attack, just as his defensive partner Will Richards (whose fateful eyes, smackhead cheekbones and restyled pudding bowl haircut gave him the look of a sacked bass player from a Scouse guitar band) laboured valiantly to contain Daniels. The Rebels proved much more difficult to subdue on this occasion, however; ‘keeper Lewis Solly (a fans’ favourite from yesteryear recently brought back to the partial puzzlement of the fans) had much to be vigilant about. Along with fellow veterans Canavan (at the club since 2008) and captain Leon Broadhurst (a wise owl holding midfielder with almost six hundred appearances for the Glassboys, and by common consent the beating heart of the side) Solly’s return recalled the consistent base around which Hackett had sought to build his team, before the injuries and the departures and the poor form and the temptation to tinker had intervened. The side we saw tonight – so much changed from the one five months ago – defended tenaciously but seemed a little toothless compared to the outfit we’d seen in November.

First contact had been fierce, and the early skirmishes flared like squibs. When Fallon and Richards suffered a clangorous clanking of skulls there were gasps around the stands, accidental as it was, but after lengthy ministrations each staggered blearily to his feet and ventured to continue. Then Wright hook-slid Benbow unmercifully, moments later, as if the head-smash hadn’t happened, and we could see the occasion angering up the blood.

With the contest yet to settle, there was almost an early breach, as Lindfield pranged the bar from Brownhill’s cross. The header seemed to galvanise the aspirant champions into greater purpose: Wright pitched in from the left, after Daniels came short to exchange, the cross eluding first Wolfenden and then Greaves’ far post lunge, close enough to give the Yorkshireman a wet shave as it whistled past. Then the same again…Wright and Daniels combining…the ball swung in on a shallow arc…two men sliding in in close formation…backs arched, legs high, outstretched, desperately reaching, screaming in like air show jets in tandem at the second stick.

A rare attack from Stourbridge saw a tidy string of passes around the box: Smikle forward to Lait…shielding…then cut back cutely to his supplier; to the right-back, Luke Connolly, whose run was sweetly timed, and into the area to the feet of the waiting Benbow. A touch to the right, back to goal, the striker’s turn was as neat as a cam, but the shot was weak and easily gathered by Carnell. When they could get the ball, the visitors demonstrated a desire to work it artfully through the thirds…the problem was they were being manfully outfought, and so the momentum was fleeting. In short order, we were back up the other end, with those lofted balls from Brownhill into the box: Solly picked one from the air, as though pruning it from a bush with a secateurs; Wolfenden got underneath another, but crowned it, the effort steepling harmlessly over the bar. As the closing seconds of the half ticked down, Connolly’s cross evaded Smikle to give the Rebels a dose of the horrors in advance of the whistle.

At half time then…all square, though United had had much the better of it. Whether they could get the ball in the net…well, that was the all-important question. We stretched our legs and uncapped our flasks and supped the scalding tannin of over-mashed teas, while the Tannoy rocked an indie label lullaby. Courteeners? Roses? Or the anthemic uplift of Elbow? Perhaps the occasion merited the mournful optimism of a Guy Garvey, a man with a great golden cobblestone for a heart.

The teams returned, kicked their feet, blew out their cheeks, and warmed their sinews in the unmixed cocktail of champagne floodlight and settling sediment of dusk. Forty five short minutes to win the league. A draw would do, but it would be madness to try to hold out. And so play resumed, and then the ball was launched forward, and the notion was suddenly seeded that United were doubling down on their game-plan. Were they? As a manager who liked his teams to play a passing game, Marginson was not given to undercutting his principles and forcing the issue: he tended to hold his course. But as Ashworth kicked out from the back, and the ball went cometing up the middle, the moans and groans could be heard issuing tetchily from the stands.  

Workington, Workington, Workington…if Stourbridge scored now…worse, if they held on and nicked one near the end…if FC had to go up to Cumbria needing something…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. They’d be thrown to the lions. Then it would be the play-offs, on the downslide of a slippery slope, and the smarting comedown of all those opportunities squandered; condemned to a sudden death face-off…two sudden death face-offs, should they be lucky enough to get through the first one, which could hardly be counted on…the hard-won dividend of being top of the league totally wasted. The play-offs…again. Heartbreak…again. Would this Sisyphean nightmare ever end? So…forty five minutes to win the league. One more heave-ho. One last push. Daniels collected, held off Richards, took a glance and laid the ball off, as the home side tried to copper something up.

Stourbridge had begun the half with a sortie down the right, Carnell charging off his line to ward off the danger, but it was to be the visitors’ last incursion for some time. The bombardment began in earnest, now. Daniels skimmed the bar from a Lindfield corner, a side-foot volley wrangled up from just beside the penalty spot. As the frog began to simmer in the pan, Marginson switched Wolfenden for Payne – pace and trickery for stealth and guile – and the home side trained their guns on the opposing penalty area. Greaves gave Knight the slip – at last – on the edge of the box; as he set himself to shoot, left-back Tyrone Williams shuttled across to intercede but his attempted clearance merely ricocheted back off the striker and scudded agonisingly wide of the post.

It was breakneck now. Lindfield’s header was hauled off the line as yet another searching cross sailed in, deep as a snowdrift, from the wide on the left. He and Payne had swapped wings, now – Payne to test Williams down the right, Lindfield to lock horns with Connolly in the bid to supply from the left. Within moments, the Merseysider had broken clear, but his cut across was angled inches beyond the reach of Daniels, as the youngster steamed in through the middle like a red-eyed sprinter. Then Payne drilled goal-wards from ten yards as the visitors repelled a free kick, only to see the violence of the strike met with a shank flung desperately outward – an intervention which saw the defender concerned almost collapse into the splits.

God, it was exciting. Craft on the flanks, crosses coming in, bodies on the line, a long-sought prize at stake. Okay, so it was a title decider; you might have felt differently on a wet Wednesday night at Frickley in the middle of December, but here…it was easy to be seduced. Here was the spirit of English football laid bare: the desire for artistry at odds with the instinct to overwhelm. If United had fielded two strapping forwards at 6’2’’ tall, then we would have had the archetype; as it was, with the marksmanship of Greaves and the movement of Daniels, and the service of Lindfield, Brownhill and Payne, there was much to gild the lily. After a long season in which the merits of direct football had been kicked around in the media, largely in response to the tactics adopted at ‘Big United’, here was a thrilling reminder of the merits of traditional play. What nonsense people talked about direct football, you thought! When the Hungarians did it, it was ‘variation’. When the Dutch did it, it was ‘rapid transitions’. When Paddy Crerand played long up to Law it was excused in deference to the wiles of Best or the intrepid dynamism of Charlton. Graham Taylor was right! Only in this country did we despise ourselves for such tactics: at worst a symptom (direct football) but certainly not the cause (our lack of ability in retaining possession) of our national footballing malaise.

Hearts pounded, palms perspired. Lindfield took a corner from the left, in-swinging. So punch-drunk was the Stourbridge defence, now, that three players went up for the same ball, unopposed, like soused shipmates, before Broadhurst belted hastily up-field. Benbow tried to collect but lost his footing, allowing Brownhill to steal in and take possession mid way inside the Stourbridge half. As midfielder Sam Tye closed him down, Brownhill shaped to his left; and then, as arguably the most two-footed player in the United team, picked a cherry of a pass with his weaker foot which seemed to clear the pate of Connolly by the thickness of a rice pudding skin, to land sweetly in the path of Lindfield, racing into the box. Lindfield met it first time at the by-line, and – again with the weaker left – who ever said non-league football was uncultured? – floated in a soap sud of a ball into the six yard box. Knight, Richards and Williams had all checked back in the effort to defend the goal from the incoming cross…but the delivery caught them all on the wrong foot. This time the set-up was perfect. Arriving at the centre of the goal, his run timed to perfection, his leap as righteous a hoisted flag, was the man to deliver the pay-off: Daniels. As three and a half thousand jaws hung wide the ball could be seen to cannon from the striker’s brow…down…straight down…and straight between Knight’s legs before he could close them…and then behind the defender into the back of the empty net. Finally, the Tameside Stadium erupted. Daniels tore over to the touchline to celebrate, arms outstretched, to be deluged by jubilant team-mates. In the technical area, Marginson jumped into the arms of his head of player development, Daz Lyons, who, as a slender man, did well to hold him. The noise was thunderous, the joy unconfined, like liberation from war. Twirling scarves, pounding fists, straining throats, unbottled dreams…there were twenty one infernal minutes remaining.  

Now, unless Stourbridge scored twice, we knew that FC would be the champions – one way or another. As the game restarted the exhortation to not let up was bullhorning from all angles. With the cacophony of a bear-baiting crowd ringing in the ears, Lait picked up the ball and ran across the United defence, holding off Lynch to weave a course across the ‘D’, prompting Fallon to hack him down. Lait took the free kick himself, in preference to Canavan, and put some English on it…low…arcing….corner-bound….but Carnell got down well to keep it out. You looked at your watch: 19 minutes to go. It was going to be interminable.

Stott was withdrawn for Birch…what a fine season he had had, following that grey afternoon, six months ago, now, when he had chased Che Adams half the length of the pitch, and almost into the ground. Now he played in Fallon on the right…there was another find…the young blade with the hint of the Perry-boy look, like the Everton defender, Leighton Baines, or the cyclist Bradley Wiggins…his composure on the ball, the way he played with his head up, his lightning speed over five yards…the new man had unquestionably lifted the team as the title charge got serious. Cutting into the area, he crossed from the right, and when the blocked ball came back out towards him he was the first to spring from his toes, pulling back for Daniels to tuck home neatly in denial of the linesman’s flag. Time was draining away, though, and the visitors were failing to land a glove on the champions-elect. United were keeping the Midlanders squarely at arm’s length.

The final moments were excruciating. Byrne came on for Daniels to shore up the midfield…the young striker looked like he didn’t want to go off, though he left to the kind of ovation reserved for an astronaut. Then there were nerves: Brownhill tried to usher a ball out of play using the power of optimism alone, only to pay the price when it was pinched from under him, though the visitors were unable to capitalise. There was more wishful thinking as Stourbridge streamed out of their area on the counter, while several United players stood around appealing for a hand-ball that never was, like incredulous motorists protesting a parking ticket to a stone-hearted traffic warden. Meanwhile the ball was being worked up towards their penalty area, where luckily the defence stepped in and bailed them out.

Hard tackles, hasty passes, and the strange grimacing humourlessness of superhuman concentration. It was just after Payne had lashed into the side-netting that the board went up to announce the four minutes added time that were to be played. The visitors kicked out but the game was formless now as the play ebbed back and forth like a storm-whipped sea…crescendo, diminuendo, forte, piano. Up to the area, back to the centre, out to the flank. It was just seconds now. They were going to do it. It was going to happen. In the dugout, the United squad were on their feet and stood in line, shoulders linked, braced for the victory in fraternal tableau. The crowd sang ‘Sloop John B’ and chanted ‘Margentina!’ and Marginson, as ever, took a moment to acknowledge the tribute from the stand.

The Tannoy sparked to life. “Would spectators please stay off the pitch at the final whistle?” Jesus wept, would somebody shut that man up! It isn’t over yet! If Stourbridge score now we move on to Saturday! “Can we remind spectators not to run on the pitch at the end of the game?” Everyone was out of the dugout now, converging by the touchline. There was Helen Walker, the nutritionist; and Nick Culkin, the goalkeeping coach; and assistant manager Dave Brown, and physio Sam Rhodes, and Rhodri Giggs looking as proud as a new Dad. An impassioned aria swelled over from the terrace across the way. Something had happened, now. We were all of us in the grip of a spell. We had been transformed. That sense of wonder, that is stripped away by the cares of the adult world, had been momentarily restored to us. We were now children, once more, every single one of us, as though of four or five years of age, experiencing delight as children do, and that infantile impatience that children do, and perhaps that unfathomable spiritual need to use the bathroom. The heart-pounding, can’t-breathe excitement of a Christmas morning. The swell of passion that makes the chest heave as the hero wins the day at the final reel. The throb of the eyeballs at the sluicing of imminent tears. On the pitch, United had the ball by the corner flag as Stourbridge tried frantically to dig it out. “Fucking hell, we’ve had four minutes!” yelled a Manc-mouthed Yosemite Sam, with just the hint of a note in the voice. The ball came out, and the defender punted forward, and the midfield gave chase. And then the referee, Martin Woods, raised that little tin thing to his lips, and then summoning his breath he finally blew it.

.

Seven years is a long time in the life of anyone; a long time to be chasing such an irrational dream as promotion from a minor league in the game of football…chasing it down, week in, week out, as many here had: bored up to Blyth, car sick to Kings Lynn, loaded in Liverpool, hungry in Hull. Seven seasons. One hundred and twenty eight players. Three hundred and two games. Two thousand four hundred and forty days. Four years of heartbreak as play-off dreams were dashed against the rocks, time and again, as the club beat its head against the wall like a spurned suitor. Of course, FC United might have been seen to have had it good. Football teams can become becalmed in their divisions for much longer than seven seasons; years can become decades, and dreams turn to discouragement and drudgery; indeed the arc can bend severely the other way, as a beloved side goes crashing through the trapdoors like a Nickelodeon clown. You only had to look at Stockport County, and how far south they had travelled over the preceding seven years, to imagine that experience.

But for the Rebels, the NPL Premier division had originally been reached amid a perfume of optimism. When, back in 2008, they had won admission to the seventh tier it had been on the back of three straight promotions in their first three years of existence; they had had every reason to believe that that momentum would be sustained in short order. Instead, the bid to climb higher had been bedevilled by thin air in the approach to the summit, and the club had been forced to look on sorely as other sides – some with considerably greater resources at their disposal – elbowed past. Now, at long last, after a torturous journey, beset with dispiriting doldrums, Herculean labours, crashing set-backs and hardy returns, they had finally done it; and the pride which flowed from the stands among those who had followed them on this journey was like the waters breaching the masonry of a broken dam.

Onto the pitch they poured, from every corner, and within seconds there was a roiling mass of celebrants on the common, engulfing the players, seething with rapture, bulging and swelling like a microbe, livid with energy, an unstable isotope burning and reconfiguring in perpetual motion; a small new nation declaring independence, claiming the land. Smoke. Flares. Flags. Banners. Flashbulbs. TV cameras prodded impertinently into faces. The lemony tang of hi-vis jackets as stewards tried vainly to sheepdog the unloosed electorate. Dancing. Singing. Chanting. Beaming. Weeping. Laughing. Hugging. High-fiving. Back-slapping. Nuggie-giving. It was a family affair: players embracing players embracing fans embracing fans. Callum Byrne was shoulder-borne, arms cycling, as though he was saving though whole of Africa from his perch among the audience at Live Aid. Daniels was in there somewhere, ingested by the mob to receive the slow death of a thousand doggie-pats. Lindfield, jersey swimming on him, was piggybacking Dave Carnell, fists upraised like a Broadway star in the midst of a show-stopping ballad. Dave Brown and board member Alan Hargrave were holding each other like old flames. Hargrave’s colleague Kate Ramsay gave a wistful smile from the touchline as in front of her the women’s team edged into the commotion. There was the very streetwise-looking figure of Kirsty Chambers: young, tall, bandanna-ed, thin as a leafless tree, raven hair up in a pinned quiff and ponytail, like a walking photocopy of a rockabilly debutante. Nine days previously the team had claimed its own league title, its second since foundation three years ago: Chambers the goal-maven on left wing; Shelby Wolstencroft the rainbow-flicking ball artist surging from deep; Chelsea Patient the star centre-back taking care of business and bringing the ball out from the back. As the party kindled the family gathered up its most cherished flesh and blood and the celebration reeled like a drunken wedding.

Fans. Ball crew. Administrators. Volunteers. Co-owners. Andy Walsh, ready for his close-up, was giving TV interviews, declaiming keenly into a camera lens, looking like the acceptable face of a riot in his matching black Harrington and slacks. A huge banner had been unfurled, thirty feet across, which read simply: CHAMPIONS. Others declared ITS NOT JUST FOOTBALL ITS A WAY OF LIFE and FCUM DIFFERENT CLASS. They sang ‘Championes’ and ‘When We Build Our Own Ground’ and then the dousings began: champagne spuming every which way as laughing sprites recoiled giddily from the foam. Marginson was doing a piece for ITV when the contents of a cool box were irrigated over him: Daz Lyons was the fun-maker, and the feud was continued after the wrap, as though the two men were seven-year-olds running wild in the park.

As the pitch was cleared and the formalities began, and Dean Stott finally lifted the trophy, it was difficult not to reflect, not for the first time…what did this all mean? Why were we here? What were we celebrating? What was the core of this ecstatic experience being shared among this disparate community? Doubtless, an FC United fan would say that the question partly answered itself…and moreover that in this case the peoples’ ecstatic experience had been liberated from being commodified and sold back to them, by businessmen high on the hog, at an insultingly exorbitant premium. They’d reclaimed it. Their team had competed for it with no sponsor on its shirt. No one had profited from it at the expense of the rest. They owned it themselves, completely, and tonight had paid no more than eight pounds for the privilege of being a part of it: the price of a cinema ticket, as opposed to the forty pounds plus it would cost to watch Manchester City or Manchester United from a far more diminished vantage point. The players who had represented them were plasterers, tilers, hod-carriers, classroom assistants and warehousemen. Yet the pleasure they had given, it could be argued, was greater than that which could be experienced at Old Trafford or the Etihad Stadium.

There remained counter-arguments to that view, of course, but tonight it was an intoxicating thesis.

So for FC United it was upwards and onwards. What a vindication for the club! And as regards the playing side, what a vindication for Marginson! After the creeping start to the season, the drawn games, the humbling at Frickley, the reality checks against Skem and at Ilkeston, the manager had turned his side’s season around completely. You could take your pick among the turning points and golden moments: the two goal trouser-downing sprung on Barwell in the dying seconds, back in November, to spark a thrilling cup run in which serial higher-league scalps were dauntlessly claimed; Greaves’s turret gun turn to sink Chorley in the second round replay after the Reds had clawed back from nowhere in the original fixture; the Nantwich game at Bower Fold in January, when fans had cleared the pitch of snow on the morning of the match, and Payne had power-skated the Rebels to an undeserved late victory in the sleet; the wins racked up in stirring style after the cup run crashed in Torquay, as the unbeaten spell stretched on like an endless summer; the return of Ilkeston for a second helping, to lock horns like lusting stags until the two teams had banged their skulls into mutually assured delirium; Chris Lynch’s reaping tackle to deny Halesowen at the death; Carnell’s Captain America saves against Curzon as it went to the wire; all of it brought to a cinematic denouement with Daniels’s vertiginous header to clinch the prize.

Promotion had been so long coming that when at last it all fell into place for United they weren’t just too good for the division, they were much too good for it: good enough to rise from twelfth place in mid December to take the tape with something to spare when it came to the last; and too good to self-sabotage when the pressure came down in the heat of the finishing straight. They’d outgrown their neighbourhood, now, and played some bold, compelling football in their bid to escape. On a given day it might have been tempting to covet the speed and impudence of young Ilkeston or the energy and enterprise of Curzon (in their finer moments) but over the course of a season those teams hadn’t performed as well as United (whose unbeaten run far outstretched the campaigns of any of their rivals); their challengers had lost a lot more games than United (second-placed Workington had lost twice as many – ten – as the Rebels; the two Ashton clubs and Ilkeston had each lost nine); their players generally weren’t as good as United’s (would Marginson have traded Carnell, Ashworth or Wright for any other player in the division?) and by and large they didn’t play as attractive football as United (as anyone lucky enough to have witnessed the exuberant molestation of Marine, back in February, would attest). In addition to all that, the Rebels had conceded the fewest goals (36, with their 46th fixture still to play) to boast the most formidable defence in the league. Getting balls into the box as part of the push towards the line at the end of an arduous, Trojan campaign…that wasn’t something to get snotty about. For sure, you only had to watch non-league football for a short time to understand that to try to play like Wenger’s Invincibles at this level would be stupid. It wasn’t an issue and nobody tried. As it was, Rebels fans had had a feast of riches to take to their hearts: the solid calculus of Carnell; the honest soldiering of Lacy and Ashworth; the bolshy janitoring of Birch and Stott; the silk scarfed artistry of Fallon and Byrne; the street-smart feet of Payne and Wright; the artisanal crossing of Brownhill and Lindfield; the nocturnal stealth of Wolfenden; the winking piracy of Greaves up at the top. And Daniels? Well, tonight he’d led the advance party, carried the fight and won the day, and earned the scrambled eggs to lace his cap.

The sky was like an oil rag, now, and the crowds had long since thinned to a devoted residue: just a few stragglers by the tunnel, along with players signing autographs, stooping for snapshots with young fans up way past their bedtimes, pattering with friends, families, well-wishers and fellow-travellers. What lay in store for the club…well, who knew? But if it continued to grow, then you hoped that its community spirit would continue to guide it.

Liam Brownhill was clutching his winners’ statue, leaning in for a hundredth patient selfie: rubied eyes, and the soot and fluorine of a stubbled smile. Greaves, with a scarf around his shoulders, unleashed a hearty thumbs-up to somebody up in the stand. Wright rocked up with beaming grin and the trophy in his paw. He paused, and waved at someone, and the look on his face was not that of a champion but of a dog carrying off a string of sausages, unable to quite believe his unchecked progress. He took one final glance around him; and with that, he stepped into the tunnel, and then both he and the long-sought pot were finally gone. What a season! What a run-in! What a tortured last few weeks! Butterflies at Bower Fold. Tremors at the Tameside Stadium. Halesowen. Stamford. Whitby. Ramsbottom. Witton. Skem. And now this.

Gathered in the crossbeams, beneath that great empty tank of a stand, the floodlit pitch was like a palimpsestic canvas. An empty stage. A still sea. A lonely port. An abandoned wicket. A spectral football field shimmering in the night. It was the shimmer of a pale, closing time whiskey as bar staff stack chairs and hover with brooms…down the hatch, time to leave, now, to get back to real life, and the cares of the adult world. Work, home, family, affairs of the heart, a general election, the close of the Premiership season, then of course the long-awaited grand opening at Broadhurst Park.

Passing the statue outside the ground, Jimmy Armfield was still on his plinth; upright as ever, no young match-goers having been assaulted. All seemed well with the world, hopeful even, if just for one enchanted evening. The title beckoned, and was claimed, and the Workington game was now meaningless; home fixtures complete, tenancy expired, rootless groundsharing all done with. Ten years on from Leigh, these days were over, now, and would never be re-lived…back down the approach, past the cycle ring, and unclaimed cars so seemingly dead it was as though their souls had already left them…up the incline, towards the merry lights and the Scalextric, milkfloating tram. Leaving Ashton for the last time, for a home game at the least…well, that was that. At long last, the nomadic infancy was at an end.