Winless: My Year With Football’s Ultimate Underdogs
5. Opening Day
You spend months dreaming about it. Formations. Selections. Strength in depth or a splurge on a super striker? An annual dilemma that you’ll never truly solve. Opening day decisions that will shape the rest of your season. I plumped for Zlatan up front and Negredo as the bargain buy. Premier League Fantasy squad sorted, team name nailed. By the time you’re reading this, Xhaka Khan FC will probably be national fantasy champions.
This year, though, it wasn’t actually the opening day for many. Despite all the marketing, including a superimposed Thierry Henry ‘jogging’ down a street filmed near to New Mills’ Church Lane to promote Sky Sports’ ever-lucrative offering, a busy opening Football League weekend had been followed by the First Round of the rebranded EFL Cup.
Further down the ladder in the ninth tier, sides that hadn’t fallen victim to FA Cup Extra Preliminary replays had begun their league campaigns in earnest during midweek. For New Mills, though, having seen their scheduled game against Maine Road postponed, today would be their debut back in the artist formerly known as the North West Counties Premier League. Welcome back to the Hallmark Security League.
Bouncing back from the Congleton defeat would be tough. In just 90 minutes, I’d witnessed so much of the early optimism drain away from a side that looked low on confidence, short of ideas and scared of making mistakes. A postponement of what would’ve been their second away game in three days at Maine Road looked like it might be a blessing in disguise and now, on a warm August weekend, they’d be back in competitive action at Church Lane for the first time since April’s 2-0 defeat to Kendal Town.
Another side keen to confound the critics and get off to a good start were also struggling on their own much-publicised opening day. Leicester City’s 2-1 defeat against what appeared to be an imploding Hull City seemed an ominous start to the defence of their title. Maybe 16/17 would be ‘the year of things returning to just about normal again’. It could use some work as a tagline, admittedly.
There was a slightly downbeat atmosphere around a blustery Church Lane on arrival. While understandably quieter in numbers than the Stockport friendly, with Cammell Laird 1907 bringing fewer supporters across from Birkenhead, the home fans, too, seemed sparse. With half an hour to kick-off, the season was already feeling somewhat drained of optimism.
As I watch the players warm up, observe Garry pacing across the field and spot James readying his camera for the afternoon’s action, it becomes clear Church Lane is missing another vital ingredient today. There’s no sign of Sue.
‘She’s gone home ill,’ Committee member Roy tells me, donning a fluorescent yellow jacket. ‘We’ve been let down again for volunteers. She’s been here since half past eight getting everything sorted. It’s a wonder she managed to stay as long as she did.’
There’s a frustration in his voice. This is the first of at least 21 home games this season. If you’re short of volunteers in mid-summer, what happens in January?
‘There are ten of us on the Committee but who is here? The same old faces,’ he continues. ‘You wouldn’t believe what needs doing behind the scenes. We’ve printed the programmes off this morning because the copy was late. It all needs doing on a Friday.’
Sue’s absence is more than noticeable. Her laugh and constant buzz is missing. It only adds to the downbeat feeling around the place. One constant source of enthusiasm, though, is Garry.
‘More of a help as it allows players to come in and injuries to recover,’ is his assessment on the midweek postponement. ‘It’s like a full-time job at the minute on top of a full-time job. We’ve brought a couple of new players in as well including one lad from the Development Squad,’ he says, gesturing towards eighteen on the field. I’d already noticed David Lewis, the diminutive winger-cum-striker, who’d looked impressive during my first visit to meet Ray and Sue.
‘We’ll bring ‘em through and see how they do because that’s all we can do,’ says Garry pragmatically. ‘We can’t afford to bring them in. We’ve forged good links with FC United of Manchester though now so I’m gonna bring a right back in as well. Until the season is in motion though, you can’t get going, because they need to understand who they want. I’ve got a few players who are at work today and can’t make it which is why I’ve said to the lads not to be disheartened if they get left out because we need a big squad. It’s gonna turn again and your chance will come. That’s the nature of it though. We’ve just got to let the ball do the work because we’ve got the pace and the skill.’
As we stand behind the goal, a ball whistles by our heads as the players warm up.
‘HEY! Enough!’ shouts Garry. ‘I thought we’d be safe stood near the top corner,’ jokes one fan beside me.
Ryan Hopper leads the side out again and barks orders at his side to be vocal. It’s clearly been recognised as one of the weaknesses against Congleton from a young side still looking to gel and is perhaps still a little short on experience and leaders.
‘I wanna hear you out there! Nice and fuckin’ loud. It starts here, eh? Come on! I want it all over the pitch. Don’t let up!’ he shouts, clapping his hands with each instruction. They looked focussed and ready for battle as they march onto the pitch.
‘Don’t be getting any shit ones of me!’ instructs Hopper to James who’s already started taking photos.
‘For once, mate,’ adds goalkeeper Ollie Martin, wearing a fluorescent pink top that’s visible from space, ‘I don’t want one!’ It’s not his usual attire and Fixture Secretary Derek lays the blame of the late kit change at the feet of the visitors.
‘We’re required to notify the opposition of shirt colours before the game,’ he says, somewhat annoyed. I’m beginning to pick up it’s something of a default characteristic. ‘So we sent them our colours earlier this week. What do they do? Turn up with the same colour goalkeeper jersey!’
The atmosphere behind the goal is positive at kick-off. Warm and encouraging advice such as ‘start well, lads’ and ‘get on top of ‘em early boys’ is the general chorus. It seems to have the desired effect.
The Millers are unrecognisable from the side that started against Congleton. They control the ball, keep it on the floor, pass and hold possession and look threatening going forward. Whatever happened between them reaching the dressing room last Saturday and kick-off this afternoon has worked.
Until the 9th minute, that is.
Cammell Laird’s first attack of the game results in the opening goal. To compound matters, it was an own goal.
‘Ever get a feeling of deja-vu?’ asks one fan of his mate beside me.
‘We’ve been the best bleedin’ side!’ is his exasperated response.
Undeterred, the team go again. It’s still positive and they still look the better side but the goal has deflated some of the goodwill in the stands already. Every little mistake draws the ire of the fans beside me. 15 minutes into the new season and the fans are already on their backs as each missed pass is bemoaned. It’s not just the very top of the football pyramid where the pressure is unrelenting.
‘Look at that!’ screams one as a rare attempt at a long ball over the top is cut out with ease. ‘There’s no building from the back! Just kick the fucker and hope for the best!’
I stand silent, wanting to chip in but knowing it’s not my place. The performance is better than last week. There are a few positives. But then I didn’t watch my side fail to win a game last season. After three months off from defeat after unrelenting defeat, it’s hard to argue with the muscle memory of having a good moan if it doesn’t feel like things have improved.
On 19 minutes, things get worse. Alex Martin fires the visitors into a two-goal lead with a superb solo run before opening his body and curling the ball into the far corner from the edge of the box. It’s a touch of class that again comes against the run of play. A dumbfounded silence falls over Church Lane. What I’d give to hear Sue’s laugh right now. There’s not much to smile about.
I glance over towards the bench where Garry stands agape. There’s no shouting from the touchline or remonstrating with his players. From where I’m stood, they seem to be executing his gameplan and have looked so much better than last weekend despite the scoreline. And yet still, the better side are two goals down. Welcome to a new season at Church Lane.