The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Eight – Chorley vs Skelmersdale United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I found myself in somewhat of a quandary this weekend, with the desire to watch a game to write about going up against the need for me to watch the top of the Premier League clash between my own Leicester City and Manchester United at 5.30pm.

I sense if you’re reading this a long way into the future that you’ll go back and re-read that last sentence a few times. Believe me, I’m still pinching myself.

On Saturday morning, I awoke in a world where colours were a little brighter, music sounded a little bit better and everything tasted sweeter because my little team were top of the league. And not in a “small club wins first two games so are top in August” kind of way. No. Top of the league at the end of November. With the top goal scorer in the league in our side and playing the sort of football that fans of other clubs are massively envious of.

I’ll let you into a secret of how Claudio Ranieri manages City. It’s very similar to playing Ultimate Team on FIFA. Select an eleven where all the attacking players have a pace rating of over 90, then at the beginning of a match push right on the D-Pad five times to set the tactics to “ultra attacking”. Who cares if we’ve let in the seventh most goals in the league? Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Albrighton and Drinkwater are all playing phenomenally well. I’d go as far as saying that since April, this is the best Leciester City side that I have ever seen.

I promise I’ll get to Chorley in a second, but do indulge me my best ever City eleven from players I’ve actually watched playing:

GK: Kasper Schmeichel. Yes, we had a run of good keepers in the late 1990s, and the idiot hipster in me wants to select perma-track suited Pegguy Arphexad for this slot, but everyone knows Kasper is the real deal. Always winning us points on his own and probably has a ton of assists in his Leicester career thanks to his accurate throwing and ability to kick the ball from Leicester to Munich.

RB: Pontus Kaamark. Injury kept him out of our team a lot of the time during his stay, but he famously won us the 1997 League Cup by marking Juninho out of the game. Bryan Robson complained about this being unfair, which seems a bit daft. Obviously we should have given him the ball and let him terrorise us.

CB: Matt Elliott. Scored at least 300 goals from corners. I once bumped into him in the Hinckley branch of Morrissons where I couldn’t think of anything to say to him so just screamed “fuck me, it’s Matt Elliott!” And he ran and hid in the freezer aisle by the Yorkshire puddings.

CB: Wes Morgan. Primarily because we signed him just to annoy Forest, but he’s been a great captain. Wanted to choose Marcin Wasilewski here because he’s just the most terrifying man on the planet, but went with Wes as he’s a great captain and owns a tattoo studio in Leicester. Lad.

LB: Jeff Schlupp. I was desperate to pick Schlupp because he’s one of the quickest players that I’ve ever seen. Sure, he can’t defend that well but when you see him running towards you it’s time to panic. Scores goals for us when picked at left back, when picked further forward he never does. THE BEST FORM OF DEFENCE IS ATTACK.

CM: Muzzy Izzett. One of the most elegant midfielders to ever play in England, but always overlooked because he played for City. Scored a ton of goals for us, including the header at Watford in 1996 that took us into the playoffs at the very last chance. Played in a World Cup semi final for Turkey. Was about to become a roofer when we signed him from Chelsea reserves.

CM: Neil Lennon. One of the hardest midfielders that I’ve ever seen, if I was that lad playing for him at Bolton that called him a prick at the weekend then I’d be bracing myself for a receipt during training. Got an assist on his debut for us and immediately kissed his badge, thus making us all love him. That was when you could trust players who did that.

CM: N’Golo Kante. Not played many games for us yet but mark my words, will one day leave us for Real Madrid. Tiny and terrifying, he is one of the fastest players in the league despite only being five foot four inches tall, he has thighs as wise as a regular person and wins more tackles in a game than most teams do in a season. Not Makelele-like, Makelele travelled forward in time in a DeLorean and based himself on Kante.

LW: Emile Heskey. I get tired of people giving him grief because not only was he always stellar in a City shirt, but when we went bust he gave us some of his own money to keep us afloat. When he broke into our side as a teenager he was played out wide and nobody had ever seen anything like him. I played against him as a kid and he would score 15 goals per game from centre back. Also, his middle name is Ivanhoe.

RW:  Riyad Mahrez. When we first signed the little Algerian, we all thought he was backup to Anthony Knockaert. He quickly proved to be the best £400k we have ever spent, full of wizardry and great passes. If Anthony Martial is worth £58 million, Mahrez is worth £2 billion.

ST: Jamie Vardy. If you’d have told me two years ago that he would become our best ever striker, I’d have disagreed. He took a while to get going after we signed him from Fleetwood, but now he’s not just beloved by us, he’s lauded by the entire world. Equalling Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals in consecutive games record was amazing, but was instantly a better achievement. Why? Vardy did it in one season and scored less penalties. And crucially, he did it whilst playing for little old Leicester.

Subs: Tim Flowers, Gerry Taggert, Robbie Savage, Steve Guppy, Marc Albrighton, Steve Claridge, Esteban Cambiasso

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a City game that I couldn’t attend. I was even offered tickets for it by more than one person, but with a weekend of Christmas gigs up in Liverpool it would have been impossible to watch the game and work in the evening. And Smallman has to pay the bills, you know what I’m saying.

So I went online and asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to suggest a game for me where I could also try and watch our game afterwards AND get over to Albert Dock in Liverpool for showtime. Smashing bearded comic and chum Freddy Quinne suggested Chorley vs Skelmersdale in the FA Trophy third qualifying round, and I was sold.

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I much prefer watching games with other people. I have a lot of my adventures on my own and that’s fine, but when I know of friends in the comedy world who love football as much as me then I always get a bit giddy about attending a game with them. And at this time of year we need all the company we can get to cheer ourselves up. Why?

Because it’s ruddy Christmas.

Regular readers of my words will be aware that at the end of every November it all goes tits up for comedy work. Not due to a lack of gigs, far from it. It’s due to having to entertain many tedious idiots out on their work parties, with maybe ten per cent of audiences wanting to have a laugh and the other ninety per cent there to try and have sex with a colleague and enjoy free drinks courtesy of their boss.  It’s often utterly horrid. Up until this point I was actually having a good weekend of shows in Liverpool, but you’re always on your guard. All comedians will take the chance to escape the circuit and have a laugh at this point, trust me.

I’ve never been to Chorley. I reckon I’ve been to most places in the UK thanks to comedy and football, but never Chorley. My only real reference for the place are the Peter Kay / Phoenix Nights spin-off “Chorley FM: Coming In Your Ears” car stickers that were en vogue a few years back. I also imagine that Chorley FM would play the music of En Vogue.

This would mark my second ever FA Trophy game, following on from a visit to Hastings in season one that remains one of my favourite experiences. That had a speedway track, a sending off, a gaggle of pensioners watching for free through some bushes and a Brazilian playing for Hastings after arriving from Malta (and falling on his arse with his first touch). Chorley had a lot to live up to, but I had high hopes.

First off, how can you not like a football club that started as a rugby club and then realised that sport was bobbins and that they should just change? That’s the opposite of how rugby was invented, of the legends are to be believed. Chorley have been at the wonderfully named Victory Park since 1920 and you know me, I’m a sucker for some history.

Then there’s the fact that this game was, ostensibly, a local derby. Skelmersdale is Just sixteen miles away, and although they’re a tier below Chorley (Northern Premier to Conference North) you would imagine that they’ve met a few times in the past and there must be a rivalry.

Both teams have attracted stars at the beginning and end of their careers. Chorley are currently managed by Matt Jansen, a player who was touted as being the future of English football until injuries curtailed his career. They were formerly managed by Garry Flitcroft, who my father genuinely thought was called “Barry Flipflop” for many years until he had his ears syringed.

Skelmersdale was the first club of Liverpool legend Steve Heighway, notorious for being a bit of a “super sub” (according to my first ever sticker album that had him down as a club legend, rightfully so) and playing 444 times in the greatest Liverpool side of all time. Imagine that, a young lad taken in his early twenties from Skelmersdale to Liverpool and becoming a club legend. Echoes the story of Jamie Vardy a little bit there, I reckon.

On my drive to Chorley I half expected it to be called off, as I drove through rivers of water on the M6 and the country roads outside the town were waterlogged. I also drove past an antiques place that I remember going to with my dad when he owned a pub and it was the done thing to fill the walls full of memorabilia. I remember spending a day thee choosing many different types of earthenware jugs and glass cases containing football cards.

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Victory Park is nestled away in the middle of a housing estate in Chorley. From the outside, there is nothing to give away the existence of a football ground, it’s small capacity not giving rise to massive floodlights that you can see from miles away. The only giveaway from the road is a small car park and a steady trickle of fans in black and white scarves making their way to see the Magpies.

On the whole “Magpie” nickname, surely that’s most apt for a team that has unjustly stolen a lot of silverware?

Freddy was caught up in traffic, so I waited in my car until he arrived. He’s a smashing lad that I’ve got to know better over the past year or so. He’s also, ironically. A Manchester United fan. When he suggested the Chorley game to me and insisted on joining me, I knew it was the right choice. He’s not a fan of football for the sake of it, he’s as nerdy and daft as I am.

When he arrived, I met him as he was queuing for tickets in the office / club shop, only to be told that we could pay on the gate. Freddy has a beard and I’m always impressed at how much it suits him. If he wasn’t a comedian, he would be a fine sea captain or circus strongman.

What happens when most comedians get together is that we quickly gossip about our industry, and then we fix it with some simple solutions, forgetting that it’s a bit out of our hands and actually controlled by a cabal of non-comedians making deals in the offices of showbiz agents in that London. But we can dream, dammit. Both me and Freddy work as MCs a lot, meaning that we don’t get to work together all that often. We do both take that role very seriously though, and spent a good twenty minutes discussing the art of being a good MC. Here are the results of the chat:

1: Don’t be selfish. You’re there to make the whole night work, not get all the attention for yourself.

2: Don’t do 25 minutes before the headliner just because the gig is nice.

That’s basically it. Freddy is one of those acts that everyone should feel safe in the hands of, MC or set. He’s got the intelligence to read an audience and furthermore, he genuinely cares about being good. He’s got an album of his standup out at the moment, I heartily endorse checking it out.

It was still hammering down as I got some food from the little hut known as the Magpies Nest. As we walked in, one lad serving behind the counter tried to remove his jumper as he was warm. Working with two girls of the same age as himself, he removed his jumper but his t-shirt went with it, then he panicked and tried to hide as he struggled to undress himself in a civilised manner. The girls giggled. Everyone definitely noticed that he had made a bit of an arse of himself.

Before I went to Chorley, I would have expected to be able to buy chips and gravy in the stadium. I was not disappointed. I also grabbed a cheeseburger and the whole lot only came to £4.80 (and it was pretty bloody decent). The rain intensified as we sat down on the bench seating in the large main stand that may be one of the oldest that I have sat in on my travels. The teams tried to carry on warming up without being too thrown by the conditions, but it was the sort of rain that hits you so hard that you have to crouch down a bit to take the impact.

We did the classic thing of presuming one of the Skelmersdale subs was brilliant based on the tricks he was doing in his warmup, without considering if he was particularly special that he wouldn’t be at Skelmersdale in the first place (no offence intended). We’ve all done that, it’s even worse than watching a YouTube video and presuming a player is godlike (Leicester fans will remember Hossein Kaebi for that). I’ve always judged keepers based on their warm ups until I realised that by that token I’ve always thought every sub keeper was a world beater as they take more shots before a match.

I made my point to Freddy about pitches being pretty decent these days – even at non league level – and then realised that the weather may change that later on. But at the time it was holding up well as the teams retreated from their warm up. I also discussed the game at Solihull last week, which was an enjoyable experience on the terrace but easily the worst game of football that I had ever seen.  I was really hoping for better things in Chorley.

The teams came out for the first half and fans were still coming in. There are two “proper” stands at Victory Park: the main stand that we sat in, and a small covered end that looks equally as old. Then the other side and end are uncovered, and a few hardy fans stood in those areas in the rain. It certainly seemed to be a decent attendance though, and where we sat we had a lot of fans around us helping everyone to collectively keep warm.

Chorley’s kit is fetchingly set off by having gold numbers on the back, giving them a regal air compared to the simple blue of Skelmersdale. The away side managed to have a sponsor that looks like the football manager logo from a distance though, so that’s something. As we kicked off, both sides really went for it, the nature of it being a cup game and the weather adding to the frenetic nature.

It was already a better game than last week, and Chorley had a couple of lads who looked to be real quality. Up front was James Dean, a big number nine who looks nothing like his screen idol counterpart. Deceptively skilful for a big old beast of a chap, he was at the forefront of every good sequence in the first half. Freddy told me he’s their leading scorer, and he looked dangerous every time he had the ball. It seemed a bit strange that they didn’t repeatedly pump balls into the box for him to get on the end of, because he looked like he could easily overpower both of the Skem centre backs.

Darren Stephenson also looked useful, running at defenders as often as he could. It was proper end to end stuff, we were just lacking in decent chances for either side as the first half came to a close. The weather certainly made it interesting though, and Freddy pointed out how utterly ruined the pitch was after the first half. It was fun to see a goalkeeper actually covered in mud like the old days, as Skelmersdale’s Fearon trudged off the pitch like a man desperately in need of a hot bath.

The PA played “Right Here, Right Now” by Fatboy Slim as we went into the 15 minute break, causing me and Freddy to discuss the most played songs at football grounds.  I reckon that’s well up there alongside “Ready To Go” by Republica and “Let Me Entertain You” by Robbie Williams.

We decided to have a bit of a wander ahead of the second half, the joy of non-league games meaning no segregation. A lot of Chorley fans made their way to the covered end as their side would be attacking that goal in the second half, whilst the Skelmersdale fans had the luck of the rain stopping so they could happily stand at the uncovered opposite end.

One Skem fan had brought an air horn with him.  Every time the Chorley keeper would attempt a clearance, he would let out a short blast on it in order to try and distract him.  This is a tactic that I have not seen employed for many, many years (although wrestling fans will want to look up the guy in the USA who goes to CZW shows and employs the same tactic when wrestlers try to talk on the microphone).

I always feel bad saying anything rude about any players at non-league level, as during my time at Hastings I am certain that I was stood next to one of the player’s parents.  You run that risk in a small crowd, that’s for certain.  I’d hate to be haranguing a winger and get clipped round the ear by his mum.

Chorley started the second half with on-loan Wigan striker Sam Cosgrove coming on for Lewis Guy in the 53rd minute.  He’s another big lad, even taller than James Dean, and he was also a handful for the Skelmersdale defence but couldn’t find a breakthrough.  He went really close before Dean clipped the post after Cosgrove had set him up.  Skem would sit back, absorb the pressure and then occasionally break forwards at pace  There may not have been goals, but their was effort from both sides and a good atmosphere as the massed Chorley fans standing behind the one goal really tried to make as much noise as they could.

It was painfully obvious that Chorley needed to pump some crosses into the box as the pitch got cut up, but they kept trying to play football.  We should probably applaud this, but with massive lads like Dean and Cosgrove in the box it would have made a lot of sense.  Every cross that did come in was low or mis-hit, much to the frustration of the crowd.

Skelmersdale brought on a substitute, and both me and Freddy noticed just how big a backside he had.  He wasn’t fat, he was just pear shaped.  My wife has a weird thing where chaps with disproportionately fat arses make her unreasonably angry.  It’s the main reason that I maintain a gym membership.

With the final whistle approaching, we wondered out loud if we were to get extra time and maybe the prospect of penalties.  Nobody around us seemed to know the definitive answer… until the referee called for full time and everyone trudged away as the rain began again.  That certainly answered that question.

There’s clearly a reason why Chorley have decent attendances for a small club (over 1,000 per game last season).  It’s a club with a great vibe to it, and the old stand just feels like a great place to watch football (even if we both wished that we’d brought our own cushions like some fans had).  You can’t argue with £8 for a game either.

Of course, my footballing day wasn’t over.  I tried to find somewhere to watch the Leicester game to no avail.  So I drove to Warrington services and hoped to get fast enough wifi in there to watch the game on my iPad, again no luck.  In the end I sat in my car eating KFC and drinking hot chocolate as Jamie Vardy broke the Premier League record for consecutive games scored in and my beloved club remained joint top.

Look, we all know it won’t last, but let me dare to dream.  The league table currently looks like I’ve been cheating on Football Manager.

Summary:

Chorley 0 vs Skelmersdale United 0

Attendance: 559

Cost: Ticket £8, Parking Free (street), Burger Chips and Gravy £4.80

Fun Factor: 8/10

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