the real fa cup

No Selwyn Froggitt

Glossop North End 1-1 Skelmersdale
FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, 12th September 2015

One of non-league football’s biggest appeals is the unrestrained licence to explore Britain. Few other pastimes take you to such a broad range of villages and towns, from the forgotten mining communities of Yorkshire to the derelict, industrial bowels of the Black Country. Some people might recoil in horror at the idea of spending a windswept afternoon in a former pit village, or taking a damp trawl along an overgrown canal. But our nation’s history owes much to the heritage of its provinces, as illustrated in Stuart Maconie’s Hope and Glory: The Days That Made Britain.

By adopting this mind-set, an outing to a non-league ground can throw up all sorts of unexpected tourism opportunities. The maligned town of Redditch, for example, voted ‘the worst night out in England’ by a national paper (though on what criteria is unclear), once produced 90% of the world’s needles. The story comes to life at the exquisite Forge Hill Needle Museum, which can be visited before watching Redditch United, or any of the myriad clubs peppered around Birmingham’s southern periphery.

This may seem like an unusual modus operandi, but as the spectre of middle age approaches I’ve discovered a nascent passion for Britain’s history. My football journeys have evolved to include sight-seeing, even in areas where there are limited sights to see. As the F.A. Cup’s first Qualifying Round approached, the impetus of a national knockout competition added verve to my plans. Having moved back to Sheffield in the summer, there were bountiful options in the bucolic shires around me. The standout fixture could be found thirty miles away, across the Peak District, where Glossop North End were hosting Skelmersdale United in one of the country’s most historic mill towns.

I arrived at Glossop railway station to perpetual drizzle. It always rains in this part of the world. Growing up, I was convinced Michael Fish had superglued a thundercloud to the North West of England. Fortunately, the weather never usurped the surroundings.

During the Industrial Revolution, Glossop was an important cotton spinning centre. The material arrived at Liverpool docks and made its way to Derbyshire, to be spun by the local labour force. The number of cotton mills in the area grew rapidly, from a handful in the late 1700s to around thirty just a few decades later. Many of these buildings have today been demolished, or lie in unrecognisable ruin, but the Victorian sandstone town centre is wonderfully preserved. I’d hoped the ghosts of industry might evoke L. S. Lowry’s Coming From The Mill, but Glossop is too polished for the smog of his semi-imagined landscape. Even the nearby Howard Town Mill – a stirring piece of manufacturing architecture – has been reimagined as a Wetherspoon’s. My deference faded on peering through its windows; I felt like a man who’d journeyed to Abu Simbel and found Ramesses II holding a selfie stick.

For such an English place, Glossop is cosmopolitan. Traditional outlets, such as Sandra’s Flower Shop and Roy Green’s Family Butcher, coexist with restaurants and retailers from across the globe. It might cause umbrage to far-right political groups, but racial homogeny is a chimera even in England’s flag-waving heartlands. Cultural homogeny, however, is a work in progress. And if there’s one thing capable of strengthening a common identifier amongst diverse people, it’s football. Would these multi-cultural residents stand together on the terraces today to cheer their local club? Well, possibly – assuming they knew the match was on. Aside from a couple of posters in shop windows, there was little evidence a fixture in the world’s most prestigious club competition was taking place. However, unlike some non-league towns, where mentioning local football presupposes a Macbethian curse, Glossop North End has a very high profile.

Last season, a league and cup double, promotion to the Northern Premier League, and a trip to Wembley in the FA Vase – their second visit in seven years – afforded the club significant media attention. Reference to The Hillmen outside of Derbyshire is usually framed by their unlikely spell in the Football League from 1898 to 1915, including a solitary season in Division One. This halcyon period owed everything to the money and influence of Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, the grandson of mill owner John Wood, who arrived in Glossop around 1815 and made his fortune from the local cotton trade. Hill-Wood financed a series of high profile purchases during his tenure, but the club were perennial strugglers. It became obvious that a small town with small support could never sustain a successful team, and by 1914 he had gone. Glossop finished bottom of Division Two in 1915 and failed in its attempt to be re-elected. After World War One ended, North End reformed in the Lancashire Combination, and have played at a similar level ever since. Ironically, the Hill-Wood family proceeded to have illustrious careers on the board of current FA Cup holders Arsenal, with Peter Hill-Wood only standing down as Chairman in 2013.

Glossop’s recent upturn in fortunes has seen a marked improvement in crowd size, from around 200 during the 2013-14 season to nearly 400 this campaign. There are a healthy cross-section of people in the ground today, dispelling the myth that most non-league crowds resemble the cast of ‘Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!’ Those in the busy supporter-built clubhouse are happy to speculate on the impressive increase in attendances. “It’s a friendly club and a good way to meet people socially,” says Lisa Fletcher, who’s followed the club since 2009. “Women can visit on their own without feeling uncomfortable. I grew up in a non-football household and never used to like the game. But after my first visit here I fell in love.” Warm welcomes aren’t exclusive to the non-league game but a sense of community representation increasingly is. Many of Glossop’s players are from the local area and live normal, grounded lives that resonate with the fans. “You can go into Aldi and bump into players doing their weekly shop,” she continues. “I really like that.”

Today’s opposition are no strangers to cup success. In 1971, Skelmersdale United made their second trip to Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup, beating Dagenham 4-1. The victory allowed the Lancashire side to take part in the Coppa Ottorino Barassi, a long defunct non-league European Cup Winners’ Cup, where they beat north-Italian side Monte Belluna 2-1 over two legs. The first leg at Skelmersdale was memorable for reasons other than the football. Chairman Bill Gregson requested the Italian national anthem be played before the match, as a mark of respect. Owing to an administrative error, the PA system unwittingly blasted out ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ while a confused Italian team stood awaiting II Canto degli Italiani.

With Glossop in the NPL Division One North, and Skelmersdale playing a league higher in the Premier Division, the visitors kicked off as slight favourites. Despite starting with a sixteen year-old up front and a seventeen year-old in midfield, the youthful-looking away side dominated the early stages of play. Their tenacity and incisive passing threatened enough for Glossop keeper Greg Hall to shout “we need new dimensions” in the manner of someone who had recently purchased a thesaurus and was keen to try out new synonyms. Skelmersdale was also winning the physical battle in midfield, much to the disgust of an elderly gentlemen to my left, repeatedly yelling “work harder” throughout the entire half, like a tyrannical mill owner addressing his subordinates.

After an initial flurry of chances, the game descended into a tactical stalemate. The atmosphere was reduced to muttered frustrations, occasionally broken by a drummer with all the percussional flair of a chimpanzee trying to crack a nut. The last notable moment of the half was Skelmersdale’s Louis Corrigan attempting a spectacular scissor-kick that was blocked by a defender’s backside. In reality, goals are rarely scored in this manner, except in the world of advertising companies, where every match is won by a stubbly catwalk model handsomely dribbling through the opposition defence before volleying the ball into the net from an improbable angle. The half-time whistle prompted semi-enthusiastic applause. “That was shit,” remarked a Skelmersdale player empathetically. “Aye, and I’ve paid to watch the bugger,” came an aggrieved voice from the terrace.

The game needed a goal that duly arrived at 53 minutes. Astley Mulholland put a fine cross in from the left and Tom Bailey headed in from six yards out. The crowd of 339, most of whom were Glossop fans, went into rapture. The drummer found his Latin rhythm, the crowd found their voice, and from a tepid standoff, a cup tie emerged.

The final half hour provided everything the FA Cup is fabled for: end to end play, ferocious penalty appeals and challenges more reckless than a family of wildebeest driving through Knowsley’s lion enclosure with the sun roof down. After two minutes of added time had been played, and with Glossop still leading 1-0, half the crowd heard the referee’s whistle and started celebrating a notable win. Instead, it signalled a free kick to Skelmersdale, deep in their half. Phil Mooney played a long ball forward, and from a resulting breakaway, Glossop defender Martin Parker’s interception forced the ball into his own net. It was effectively the last kick of the game. Although Skelmersdale’s performance over ninety minutes deserved a replay, I shared the crushing sense of disappointment as fans trudged out of the ground. As a neutral, it’s hard not to back the underdog, especially one so hospitable.

Before leaving, I took a lingering look at the imposing 250ft Ferro Alloys & Metals’ chimney that has stood next to Glossop’s ground for the last thirty years. In a place of outstanding natural beauty it’s considered by many to be a blight on the landscape. As someone who gets emotional over Stanlow Oil Refinery, I am inclined to disagree. Britain is so much more than a collection of tourist brochures. Somewhere out there is a country waiting to be discovered. The early rounds of the FA Cup bring you one step closer to finding it.

Words & Pictures: Mike Bayly
Mike is campaign manager for Non League Day, coming up on 10th October, and you can follow him on Twitter @Mike_Bayly

  1. Very well written and a very enjoyable read
    Thank you
    An appreciative GNE supporter

  2. This is quality stuff, a wonderful read. Fully agree that every inch of this land holds its history. Top picture of my next door neighbour’s dig too! Cheers.

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