Clive Hayward- @Byehorse
Clive blogs about Wrexham (a)
I suppose I should get the nasty parts out of the way first.
When I did my prediction for this game, I went with 4-0. Uncharacteristically I appear to have erred on the side of optimism. Wrexham have, of course, won the lottery and are hammering teams on a regular basis. Torquay, on the other hand, appear not to have the proverbial pot to piddle in and by golly it does show! As Matty and I trudged towards the railway station I couldn’t help but wonder out loud: “Is this the last time we’ll ever come here?”. By this time next year there may be two divisions between the two clubs and by dropping four places in 90 minutes we are now officially the worst team in the league. It doesn’t feel like a false position, and frankly I’m not sure where Gary Johnson and Aaron Downes go from here.
But you don’t want to hear any of this, I’m sure. The fact is that the best football trips are about enjoying a couple of days off, seeing new parts of the country and sucking in whatever fun might be available. So the rest of this article will be, I hope, remarkably upbeat. Perhaps even to the extent that you feel I may be exaggerating a bit. Me? Perish the thought!
My base for the weekend was Stockport, a town famous for hat making, pinching Torquay United’s best players and being home to the largest brick-built structure in Western Europe. I speak, of course, of the massive railway viaduct which dominates the town centre. It now spans the M60 and is said to contain 11 million bricks. To put that into context, it is one brick for every six people in the UK and if Joe Lewis tried heading them all it would take him several hours and many paracetamol.
I warned you I was going to be upbeat, didn’t I? Well: even the M6 on a Friday afternoon was enjoyable. I drove up and by the time I got to Walsall I was flagging a little. One thing I have learned over the years though: never underestimate the restorative powers of a long wee and a short coffee. After that pit stop the rest of the journey was a breeze. Several years of roadworks have transformed the motorway up to Manchester. It’s four lanes most of the way now, and traffic was remarkably light. I was able to arrive in good shape, tail up and with a spring in my step.
In the pub by 6pm is a rare treat nowadays, and we made the most of it. Stockport is home to the Robinsons brewery. The company appears to have a tight grip on the local licensed trade: virtually every pub you see in & around the town seems to be one of theirs. Some decent food was washed down by what I would describe as a steady 8 pints. I was advised to drink their Unicorn bitter (named after the brewery), and it’s a workmanlike, session beer.
The Gardeners Arms is an unusual sort of pub. It looks lovely from outside. Clean, neatly decorated and nice hanging baskets. Inside, it turned out to be as rough as a badger’s arse! The clientele was lively. Not actively violent, but it felt as though one word out of place by any of them might have had Wild West Saloon type consequences. They were bouncing around like an ADHD trampolining club. If I didn’t know better, I would say some of the young gentlemen may have started their evening with a toot or two of Michael Gove’s talcum powder. Certainly, the young lad sitting in the corner quietly counting what must have been a grand in twenty pound notes did little to dispel that impression. Although of course he might have just been given his annual bonus off the building site.
To be fair, Italy v England in the Nations League wasn’t exactly a classic, so the general shenanigans around the multiple tellies gave us something else to watch at times.
I think the best feature of the Gardeners is that it is directly across the road from Matty’s new abode, so it was a short walk home and a very decent night’s sleep.
Saturday dawned misty and quite cold. As is often the way, this was a prelude to a lovely, sunny Autumn day and it was perfect walking weather. I managed to sweat out some of the alcohol on a very enjoyable jaunt around three local parks. My goodness- the parks! They are lovely, and plentiful. Birmingham often boasts of having more canals than Venice. Well, I reckon Stockport has more Parks than a Korean telephone directory. Vernon Park is probably the jewel in the crown. It was laid out in the 1850s and paid for largely by subscriptions from local mill workers. I’m sure that after umpteen hours in cramped, dangerous conditions that park must have seemed like Nirvana to them. Huge green spaces, ornamental fountains, a band stand: it’s got the lot. Fair play to the Council nowadays too: it’s all well maintained and is still a hugely important green lung for the community.
After a shower, a sarnie and a sit down we toddled the mile or so into the town centre to catch a train. The station was busy and, being athletes, Matty and I had left ourselves a good half an hour. I like trains. I love finding out where they’ve come from, where they’re going and was as happy as a pig in manure watching the comings and goings. The first train was going to London, the second to Banbury (of all places) and both were due to stop both at Macclesfield and Stoke. Matty was particularly impressed when I correctly predicted that the second would be calling at Leamington Spa. I can always tell when he’s impressed, because his head lulls backwards and he stars to snore. Rightly so.
Not even I will be able to make an 80-minute stopping train from Stockport to Chester sound exciting. Not even the ability to tick “Navigation Road” off my “list of stations I will never get off at” will do that. Similarly, I’m sure my discovery that Knutsford has a railway station as well as an M6 service station will not set your pulse racing.
Having said that, there was much to observe and- I have to say- admire in many of our fellow passengers. We soon began to be joined by lads with smart shirts and jackets that in many cases “fit where they touched”. The ladies were, by and large, much better turned out, to use a horse racing phrase. We had stumbled across an incoming train to Chester Races, which appears to be a great excuse for the lads & lasses of the county to get dressed up (and often tanked up). Clearly the economy is going down the plughole, but the good times were still rolling on Saturday. I’m sure the bookies got the better of most of them, but you just knew it was going to be a brilliant afternoon at the famous old racecourse.
As opposed to the famous old Racecourse Ground.
Is there anything worse than being on a train with hundreds of jubilant Wrexham fans when you’ve just surrendered to an abject defeat? Of course there is. But raising a smile at their highly derivative songbook was a challenge. They absolutely loved the fact that their Scouse striker hero Paul Mullin was sitting at the end of the carriage. I’m not sure what he would have made of their frequent chant of “Koppites are Gobshites” though!
With a dead phone battery and no beer, the return journey from Chester found me on less than sparkling form, but at least there was something to look forward to.
Shortly after moving to the North West last year, Matty started to regale me with tales of great nights at the Grey Horse Inn. It’s an old-fashioned Manchester boozer in the heart of the city. He had promised to induct me, and I was desperate to see what all the fuss is about. Oh my Lord: what a pub. How can I best describe it? It is (pardon the pun) an Oasis in a city that for all its recent renewal and magnificent night life sometimes makes my head hurt. If Carlsberg did pubs they would probably be slightly soulless, pine-interiored lager dispensaries.
If middle aged, pissed off Torquay fans did pubs they would look, sound and FEEL a lot like the Grey Horse. It’s the Three Pigeons in Halifax with better music and much worse toilets! Matty appears to have made it a home away from home and his friend now works there, so as soon as the three of us walked in it felt very welcoming and everyone in there was having a brilliant night. There was singing, there was dancing, there was mansplaining to Matty’s friend (mainly by me, although my son also shows promise in that regard) and helpfully there was phone charging too!
The playlist was “curated” (my goodness, she would hate that word) by the redoubtable Christine. Christine was described to me as the most Mancunian barmaid you could ever imagine. More than a touch of Bet Lynch there: she had just the right balance of a welcoming smile, a fine ability to pull pints and just the right amount of steely authority that makes sure nobody takes liberties. A sideways look from her would stop a dozen Leeds Rhinos in their tracks 20 yards away! Back to the playlist. I had been secretly hoping for a spot of Stone Roses. Maybe some Happy Mondays or Inspiral Carpets. We got nowt of the sort. Tammy Wynette was prominent. There was some Jim Reeves and dollops of Neil Diamond. Thing is, everyone knew all the words and we sang our hearts out. As you do on nights like these, you meet people with whom you have great conversations despite almost certainly never seeing them again.
Mine was with a Scottish guy and his wife, who had flown down from Aberdeen for a Counting Crows concert. They were from Buckie. He looked at me as if I was some sort of weirdo when I started asking him about Buckie Thistle. Obviously, I am some sort of weirdo, but football is a great conversation starter and in no time at all he was telling me how much money Brora Rangers have been spending in the transfer market. We compared notes on covid, kids and travel and it was all lovely stuff.
After taking some hammer from Rugby League fans earlier in the day and latterly from Matty and I, the barrel of Lowry bitter gave up the ghost, and we resorted to a few pints of Mild. I loved it, and it took me back many years to student days when my northern mates would wax lyrical about the stuff. To be honest, it doesn’t taste of much, but it slipped down a treat- and being fairly low octane, we managed to avoid serious hangovers. Our plan to get the last train back to Stockport proved as effective as Boris Johnson’s contraception but the outcome was far more enjoyable. Who needs fine dining at Downing Street when you can have 2am kebab meat & chips in the taxi?
Sunday morning found me remarkably perky, and I got a few more miles of walking in: cross country across farmland and past a brand-new cricket ground to Marple and back. Highlights were a field of donkeys (no doubt preparing for Plainmoor loan spells) and a small community Hydro Electric facility (honestly- it uses a wear on the River Goyt).
Conclusion? I really enjoy going to Wrexham and hope it will happen again- but there’s plenty more fish in the sea!