Result: Stalybridge Celtic 1-2 Curzon Ashton (National League North)
Venue: Bower Fold (Monday 26th December 2016, 3pm)
It’s the morning of the 26th December. Christmas is done, the year is, thankfully, coming to its end, yet the football season is still in fine fettle and still going strong. This is somewhat surprising, considering how the recent winters have decimated the fixture lists of many a league around the country each year. But with this Boxing Day’s weather playing ball, thus it meant that others could too on many respective pitches and for me, there was none more important than my festive destination: Bower Fold, home of Stalybridge Celtic.
Having had my attendance confirmed at the unleashing of a pair of Daniel Bryan ‘YES!’ gifs (one per club) the previous evening, I soon realised that the journey wasn’t all that simple. By no means was it terrible, but the restricted public transport meant that there was, obviously, no trains. Having already planned for that, my intention was to jump a bus through Manchester and onwards to Stalybridge. Alas, the Stagecoach route planners decided that Stalybridge didn’t need any contacts with anywhere else on Boxing Day and so all buses terminated at Ashton. Thus leaving me with a 50 minute walk between the two Tameside towns. Lovely.
Not one to be put off too easily, I decided this was well within the boundaries of acceptable and thus, come the morning, I was on my first bus of the day and heading to Ashton via the medium of Stockport. Upon arrival, I quickly got my bearings via the, for once, useful bus station map and thus headed off towards Stalybridge, buffeted by the bracing winds.
Having gone slightly off track and almost arrived at Hurst Cross, I eventually arrived into Stalybridge two-and-a-half hours after beginning my journey. Take into account I can usually get there within 45 minutes, you see why it was a bit more of a ball ache than usual! Anyway, having passed by the deserted station I was soon arriving into the bustling centre of Stalybridge. Okay, when I say bustling I may be…slightly overstating.
Shutters down everywhere and only an occasional soul in sight gave me the thoughts that, perhaps, Staly Vegas wasn’t the place to be on a Boxing Day afternoon. On the plus side, I did see a whole square and street named after the town’s French twin, Armentièrers so there was small graces. I guess. There was also the dependable Wetherspoons to provide a bit of hope, including the sight of a couple of Celtic shirts but The Society Rooms didn’t provide me with much interest, bar the knowledge that the wartime song “It’s a long way to Tipperary” was penned in the town. Anyway, the Blue Moon beer was quickly downed. However, the ‘Spoons had given me the sight of Harmer’s bar opening up just down the pedestrianised street, so it was to there I headed next.
Except for the large group of lads who entered seconds before me, there was, again, little to excite in here. It was comfortable enough and fine for a quick one before I decided that, with the time headed towards 2pm, I might as well head towards the foot of the road leading to Bower Fold. There also happened to be a pub there, you know, by pure coincidence.
After making a conscientious effort to head through Armenitères Square alongside the canal, I headed through the equally cultural Tesco car-park and up the steps onto the road once more. From here I spotted The Organ (no snickering please, children), which was the place I was alerted to via Maps. But, what the app hadn’t informed me of was the existence of the Old Hunters’ Tavern, which sits next door. I headed towards there under the instruction I’d have a half in both and a quick check in the window confirmed to me that here was where half the Stalybridge population were hiding. Once I’d begun on the pint of Veltins, I could understand why! Yes, the instructions didn’t get followed too well…
The Hunters’ was a nice, friendly place and probably one of the better places I’ve been to this year overall, but with time against me I was soon next door and into the Organ (come on now). The Organ was bustling, with the lone barmaid going at full pelt to serve all around, so props for that. A was soon in possession of a pint of Coors with this being the easiest pint to drink quickly I find. There seemed to be a few more Celtic fans in here too and the scarf above the bar gave off the impression that this may be one of the strongholds(!).
After traipsing uphill along Mottram Road, I arrived at the gates of Bower Fold for the second time, but for my first Celtic game. My first trip had been to an FC United FA Cup tie a few years back so, in my mind, I hadn’t truly done Bower Fold and a revisit was a necessity. After skipping past some information collecting people outside, I handed over my £12 before entering the ground just minutes before the teams entered the field. A programme was swiftly purchased from the rear of the stand at the Town End for a further £2.
Dating from 1909, Bower Fold has a mix of traditional-style and modernisation within it. It is also, apparently, the only active ground in the country with a perfect North alignment, which is an interesting little side note. The stands are all fairly recent structures, with the raised seating Main Stand dating from 1996 and the terraced Joe Jackson Stand from ’94. The Lord Pendry all-seater stand is the most recent, dating from 2004, with the Mottram End terrace being the oldest stand being in situ from the mid-1980’s in its current guise. There is further uncovered terracing located around the rest of the pitch. As for Stalybridge Celtic themselves….
Officially formed in 1909, there is a case for saying that Stalybridge Celtic FC can trace its roots back to 1906 and the formation of an amateur club carrying the same name in the town. They first played in the Lancashire & Cheshire League for two seasons before joining the Lancashire Combination. Here, Celtic became Second Division champions at the first attempt in 1912 and followed this up with a short spell in the Central League. They then, somehow, found themselves joining the Southern League in an attempt to progress quicker.
This didn’t go so well, though and the club were soon back in the Central League for 1919-’20. However, following another two season spell here, Stalybridge became founder members of the Football League’s Third Division North, but resigned after another two seasons with support issues cited, despite crowds numbering 2,000 more than near-neighbours, Rochdale. They did, however, lift the 1923 Manchester Senior Cup to improve matters somewhat.
From here, the club went on to join the Cheshire County League whereupon they found a steady base and remained for the next 60 years. Despite this long foray, they managed to win the title only once, this success coming in 1980. They did, however, also lift two Challenge Shields (1955 & 1978), a Cheshire Senior Cup (1953), two Intermediate Cups (’58, ’69) & the 1978 Edward Case Cup during their time here.
Upon the league’s merger with the Lancashire Combination, Celtic became founder members of the North West Counties League in 1982, winning the title in 1984 (along with the NWCFL Super Cup) and again in 1987, with the latter meaning promotion to the Northern Premier League was achieved. Stalybridge ended the decade by lifting the 1989 Lancashire Floodlit Cup.
1992 saw Stalybridge lift the NPL title (along with the NPL’s Peter Swailes Shield) and thus took a place in the Conference, where they were to remain for the next six seasons before suffering the drop after finishing up bottom of the table. 1999 saw silverware return in the form of the NPL Challenge Cup and 2001 saw a big upturn in fortunes as the club won a treble of Cheshire Senior Cup, NPL President’s Cup and NPL Premier Division. This, in turn, meant Celtic were given another shot at the Conference, but this time their stay lasted a solitary year.
Following their final lifting of silverware to date in the form of the 2003 NPL President’s Cup, 2005 saw Celtic become founder members of the Conference North and they have remained at that level to this day. 2008 saw the club reach the play-offs after a 3rd place finish, but ‘Bridge lost out to Barrow in the final. After a yo-yo few years which saw a few good and a few bad years mixed in together, the most recent few seasons have been ones of struggle for the most part, though last season they achieved a solid 12th place.
With the game underway, I said a quick hello to Curzon fan (and many other things too) Aaron, before watching the early stages of the Tameside Derby clash along with the travelling support, which now includes a bugle as well as a drum. Orchestral. Anyhow, the first chance of the game saw a fine save, despite me claiming it wasn’t, by Curzon’s Cameron Mason, who tipped a rasping drive from Celtic’s debutant striker, Lee Gaskell onto the post.
With the light fading and Celtic becoming the more dominant side in the game, I decided that I’d head around the ground and get a few pics in while I could. Now, I’m not claiming that my placings in a ground influence the game, but from then on Curzon went on to grab a pair of quick goals. Come to think of it, maybe me moving did change everything…?
First, Curzon won a free-kick out on their right flank and the resultant ball in was met by the Nash’s talismanic striker, Niall Cummins, who thumped his header past Grant Shenton in the home net. 0-1 and the visiting support were sent into raptures, which soon became something just short of delirium when a corner from the same side wasn’t cleared from the box and Jamie Stott forced the ball beyond Shenton to double Curzon’s lead.
From then on, the sting seemed to go out of the game for the remainder of the first period (too Bob Bradley-esque?), with little happening on the pitch and thus I headed back around the ground for the food hut. After a lengthy wait in the queue, I eventually got to the front before coming away with a decent chips, peas & gravy for, I think, another £2. This despite the warnings on posters around the hut stating those dreaded words “NO chips today”.
By the time I’d retaken my place pitchside, it was time for the action to restart and, once again, it was Stalybridge who came out the stronger and they grabbed a goal back when Aiden Chippendale knocked home at the back post. From now on it was all to play for and Celtic would go on to dominate the final 20 minutes or so, but this could have been all different had either of Cummins or James Baillie managed to force home from close range during a goalmouth scramble, which included a goal-line clearance.
After seeing a few strikes clear the target with some ease, Celtic forced a corner down their left wing. From the set-piece, Alex Honeyball rushed onto the floating delivery but crashed his header against the crossbar from 12 yards. There was still time for Mason to pull off another fine stop with pretty much the final action of the game and this secured his side the points as they took the spoils in the first of the clubs’ double clash over the festive period.
After bidding goodbye to Joe and a couple more of the Curzon contingent I’ve met along the way this year at York and Westfields, I headed out into the dark Tameside night, faced with the traipse back to Ashton in ever colder conditions. But by some sort of miracle, a Christmas miracle maybe(?), I managed to arrive back within 45 minutes, thus saving me an hour’s wait and meaning I could jump straight on a bus back to Manchester. Lovely.
All in all, I had a decent day in and around Stalybridge, even if it didn’t start off too hopefully! The town seems like it offers a little more on a normal weekend (a small taphouse bar was shut, much to my chagrin), but it still was decent enough. It was good to “properly” do Bower Fold as well and to actually see Staly play at their ground. As for the last day of the year? Well, it’s to the third Manchester club and a rekindled name from the past…