Result: Lancaster City 1-3 Stockport County (FA Trophy First Round)
Venue: Giant Axe (Saturday 16th December 2017, 3pm)
As the Christmas season gets ever closer, so the football season begins to turn up a notch. Fixture lists get ever more congested at this time of year, as the traditional festive dates are added to the regular weekend games and these, combined with cup competitions, mean a less than quiet yuletide beckons for players, officials and supporters alike. Nonetheless, the attractiveness of the FA Trophy – and a prospective Wembley appearance – is little to be sniffed at and so it was that those affiliated with both Lancaster City and Stockport County (along with other interested neutrals such as yours truly) headed to the Giant Axe in not so balmy conditions, the lure of the Trophy proving to overcome the icy conditions on the terracing.
Now when I say icy terraces, I say so without any sort of dramatic effect. For indeed the areas around the Giant Axe pitch were, we were warned by the PA system pre-match, still under the effects of frozen water and this would only prove to worsen as temperatures fell towards the close of the tie. But before any of that, I had a tour of a number of Lancaster’s fine hostelries to enjoy and having arrived in Lancashire’s county town (city?) at just before midday, I headed slightly out of the centre and to the canal side, where I’d visit my first scouted pub of the day, the Water Witch.
The Water Witch was still fairly empty at this early part of the afternoon, but most of those who were in were enjoying some of the food on offer which, I must admit, was giving off a more than attractive aroma. But I was more distracted by the offerings at the bar and plumped for a pint of Rosie’s Pig cider. A cloudy, still offering, it went down well at £4 a pint. However I soon had other places to see and so continued onwards down the canal towpath towards the towering spire of Lancaster Cathedral. Just before getting there though, I came across the White Cross, located within a large ex-warehouse, again by the side of the frozen waters. In here I plumped for a pint of the Blood Orange IPA. A nice pint.
Following a quick diversion to the Cathedral, which appeared to be devoid of people, ’twas to the city centre I set course. Upon arriving at a statue of Queen Victoria outside the town hall, I next visited the neighbouring Borough Hotel. The Borough has a lovely bar area that was well populated today, again with families enjoying a hot meal and those partaking in both coffee or something a little stronger. As for myself, I decided on playing safe and so a Kingstone Press was had here, whilst sitting under the watchful eye of a shape-shifting picture. On one side a man, the other a demonic-like entity. I’d seen the picture somewhere before, though, so wasn’t as perturbed as I might have been otherwise!
Anyway, I soon finished up in here and began on a more linear route to the ground, though this did include a final stop-off in the Tap House, a place I’d been roped into visiting by the offering of Punk IPA on draught. Of course, the pint wasn’t cheap, coming in at £4.80, though some people not as used to this may share the expression of one of the trio of women’s pictures in the gentlemen’s….
Soon enough, it was time to head to the Giant Axe itself. Heading back over the railway bridge, I made use of the cut-through across the adjoining field and arrived at the turnstile, which I would soon discover read “Away fans only”. I was surprised by this apparent segregation, as I’d not seen anything suggesting this was going to be in place. Having handed over my £8 fee (decent for the level, fair play Dollies) and a further £2 for the quality programme, whose front cover design hasn’t changed since my first visit almost nine years ago, I soon discovered that there indeed was no separating of fans in place and all were left to mingle freely. This also meant a circuit round to Dolly’s Diner was made all the easier, and chips and gravy (~£2.50) were soon being demolished, in the way that the much-missed (to me anyway) Dolly Blue was. Good times.
The Giant Axe is one of my favourite grounds around. Though my expectations are now somewhat skewed compared to what they were, the Axe is still a great ground to watch a game at. Alongside the turnstile stands a large open terrace that affords raised views of the action behind the car-park end goal. To the left stands the Main Stand, a fairly sizable covered and all-seated affair, which is flanked at its far end by the aforementioned Dolly’s Diner. The far end plays host to a covered terrace area, though of a smaller size to that opposite in terms of height (possibly due to housing behind), still runs the length of the pitch too. This terrace is named after City’s former skipper, the late Neil Marshall, who sadly passed away just over a year ago aged just 31. The ‘Neil Marshall Legend’ End is a fitting tribute. The castle side is all open, hard standing, though plays host to a bar/hospitality area or whatever it is these days, along with a manually adjusted scoreboard which, at one point pre-match read City 0-5 Visitors. They were feeling optimistic then!
Before long, both sides were in the tunnel down by the Main Stand and we were all set to go soon after. But before we get onto the tie at hand, let’s delve into the annuls of Lancaster City F.C….
Lancaster City Football Club was founded in 1911 as Lancaster Town F.C, following the previous losses of Lancaster-based outfits Skerton (resigned during 1899-1900) & Lancaster Athletic (resigned during 1910-1911). The latter played in the West Lancashire League, but the new Town club would instead join the Lancashire Combination, of which Skerton where a prior competitor in.
With no connection to either team, Lancaster Town were therefore allowed admittance to the Combination, and began plying their trade initially in Division 2 until the Combination became a one division league following WWI. The club finished as 1919-20 runners-up and went on to apply for the new Third Division North of the Football League after the following season, but were unsuccessful in their application. Instead, Town would go on to win the Combination (and Combination Cup) in 1922 and following a pair of successes in the Lancashire FA Trophy (1928 & ’29) rounded off the decade with a 1929 FA Cup First Round appearance, where they lost out at home to Lincoln City .
The following season saw the Combination won for a second time (and a third Lancs Trophy success), along with a second Cup First Round appearance, but this again ended in defeat, this time to New Brighton F.C. However, the league continued to be successful for the club, with back-to-back titles arriving in 1935 & ’36, (the first seeing yet another Lancs Trophy adorn the trophy cabinet) prior to Town becoming City in 1937, after Lancaster was awarded City status as part of King George VI’s coronation celebrations.
Continuing in the Combination following WWII, the club finally progressed to the FA Cup’s Second Round in 1948, with victory over Spennymoor United. They would also gain some further cup silverware in the familiar form of the Lancashire FA Trophy in 1952, but 1970 saw City depart the Combination for the Northern Premier League. Here, the club would again reach the FA Cup’s Second Round in 1973 (bowing out to Notts County) prior to again lifting the Lancashire FA Trophy in 1975. However, following a 17th placed finish in 1982, City resigned from the NPL and dropped into the North West Counties League but financial issues gripped the club and forced City to fold prior to an immediate reformation. Things didn’t improve much and, three seasons later, City were relegated to the NWCFL Division 2. However, they were to get something of a break in 1987 when, despite only finishing up 13th, the club were accepted into the newly formed NPL Division One.
1995 saw NPL success finally arrive in the form of the President’s Cup, City’s first trophy in two decades, before the club would go on to win the Division One title the following year and, as a result, were promoted to the Premier Division. Remaining here through to 2004 and lifting two NPL League Cups along the way in 2000 & ’01, an eight placed finish enabled Lancaster to take up a spot in the newly created Conference North, the new Step 2 of the non-league system. This proved a successful time initially for the club, with good league performances and four further FA Cup First Round appearances being enjoyed but financial issues soon returned to haunt the club and 2007 saw the club fold for a second time after entering administration earlier in the season. Another summer reformation saw the club return to the Northern Premier League for 2007-’08 and took a spot in Division One North.
2010 saw Lancaster reach the Division One North play-offs, where they were defeated by Colwyn Bay. However, regular managerial changes saw the club never quite make the play-offs again, with ex-Newcastle United & Blackburn Rovers defender Darren Peacock being the biggest name to take the reins during this period. After Peacock left the club in 2015, Phil Brown (no, not that one) took the reigns and led the Dolly Blues (the nickname apparently derived from the clubs kit being identical in colour to the dolly blue washing tablets manufactured in the town/city in the early 20th century) to the Lancashire Trophy final, where they would lose out to higher-ranked opposition in Chorley. But, Brown’s first full season in charge saw him lead the club to promotion, with City taking the 2017 NPL Division One North title and taking a spot in the Premier Division for this season.
The first competitive game between the sides at Giant Axe for over 80 years got underway with County quickly gaining most of the play during the early stages. Despite this, the contest was a bit of a slow burner, with little of note occurring within the first twenty minutes. However, it would take just a further seven minutes for the deadlock to be broken and it was County, pretty unsurprisingly, who got the opener. A fine ball in from the right flank saw Jason Oswell arrive to tower above the City defenders and head across City ‘keeper Josh Powell, the ball nestling in the top corner.
By this point I’d got talking to Colin & Ash whilst standing on the open terrace at the City end of the ground. Colin is a Scouse fella who watches Lancaster on a fairly regular basis, whilst Ash, it turned out, is the brother of County stopper Ian Ormson. As such, it was good to be getting a view from both camps whilst the game was going on and getting something of an inside track on how both had been performing, and playing, so far this season.
The game continued on at a fairly serene pace, with County still maintaining their hold on the vast majority of possession, with City somewhat struggling to get much joy out of their sole striker, through no real fault of his own, whilst the supporting midfielders never really got the chance to get into any position to manufacture an attack on the County goal during the first half. This became more of an issue when, around five minutes before the break, Stockport doubled their lead. I somewhat missed the goal as I’d looked away in the opinion there was little to no chance of anything going on. But a roar soon alerted me to look up and see the ball settling in the bottom corner courtesy of Gary Stopforth. Apparently, a ‘keeping error had allowed Stopforth in and County now had an advantage that you couldn’t see them spurning. Half-Time, 0-2.
Following a spell of attempting to get Ash to visit one of the numerous portaloos in the most efficient time possible, the sides reappeared for the second half. What had also reappeared was the white settling upon the pitch. The temperature had begun to drop markedly and the pitch and the surrounding area had begun to be affected once more. Indeed, as I’d later find out, the paving area around the turnstile had begun to get rather lethal, so much so that I felt I best alert the steward to the fact before the final whistle.
Anyway, the second half began with Lancaster coming out of the blocks the quicker and taking the game to their higher-ranked visitors. This did, however, leave them susceptible to the County attackers and Powell had to pull off a good stop to deny Darren Stephenson. On 53 minutes, Lancaster introduced Ryan Winder into the fray and 60 seconds later he was placing the ball on the spot. Penalty! Winder’s first meaningful (if not actual first) touch was to send the spot-kick into the corner of Ben Hinchliffe’s net and spark the home side’s chances of at least grabbing a replay into life.
Indeed, Winder was soon denied a second by Hinchliffe, before County began to wake themselves back up somewhat and begin to snuff out the remaining attacks that the hosts could muster. With a few minutes left on the clock, I said my goodbyes to Colin and Ash (I may have disrupted their viewing more than they may have wanted!) and headed for a quick word with County’s skipper Harry Winter, who’d been subbed off a little earlier in proceedings. Whilst having said chat with the ex-Trafford midfield dynamo (and occasional reader of these pages, apparently!), Bohan Dixon forced his way into the area before firing through the hands of Powell to secure the Hatters their place in the Second Round. City, meanwhile, felt the Axe fall upon them. Sorry.
Post-match saw me head back into the City centre and to Merchants bar, a cavernous-like place just by the castle. I indulged in some festive drinks, plumping for a Mulled Cider on account that it was bloody cold at this point. After finishing up in here, a further, final stop was undertaken in the form of the Robert Gillow (not a Wetherspoon’s surprisingly), where I decided on a bottle of Birra Morena. Now, if this was indeed over £3.50 as I remember…well, that’s certainly a fair bit more than we sell it for…
Alas, it was only the final act that was a dampener and I was soon back at Lancaster station for the train back to Manchester. I’d contrived to grab the express on the way back, which got me back into Manchester in good time for my connection back. All had gone well so far. However, after a fifteen minute wait at Oxford Road, those dreaded words flashed up on the timetable…CANCELLED. Shite. There was only one thing for it. Yes, I had to get a bus home. The things you have to endure for this “hobby”…..
Value For Money: 7