More to football than just the big two in Manchester
It is an hour before the local derby and the visiting manager, in the rain outside the main stand, is distracted by his telephone. The mobile phone will not work.
Whatever the circumstances, this would be a big game, but today it is huge. Manchester City and United may be England's No 1 and No 2, but Stalybridge Celtic and Hyde, who play in the country's sixth level, are first and second in the Blue Square North, a league which includes teams from near London to Blyth, near Newcastle, in the north.
It is wonderful for an area which, as "Stalybridge and Hyde", is a single parliamentary constituency.
Gary Lowe has been a revelation since taking over at Hyde at the start of the season, but he is a player down and he can't make a phone call.
His suited opposite number, Jim Harvey, an experienced top level non-league manager, shakes his hand in the narrow corridor by the dressing rooms and states that he is "as confident as can be" when asked about the game. The pair are rivals but they get on and both have every reason to feel delighted with their seasons so far.
"Did he look nervous to you?" asks Lowe. "He did to me."
Is Lowe nervous?
"No ... a bit."
Harvey is a full-time manager of full-time professionals. Lowe's talent means he should be and will be as more clubs study his management record but, like his team, he is part-time. The majority of his income is derived from being a one-man haulage company from his base east of Manchester.
"But then I had my van stolen in the summer," he says. "It's my fault, I left the keys in the ignition and popped into a shop to buy a sandwich. I came back and it had gone."
A crowd of 2,000 are expected today, though it is raining hard in the Pennine foothills and Manchester City's Premier League game at Sunderland is on television.
Most people in Hyde or Stalybridge, two towns 10 miles to the east of Manchester, are either United or City fans, but Greater Manchester, a conurbation of 2.5 million, boasts more than 20 professional and semi-professional football clubs, a higher density than anywhere on the planet.
Nowhere in that area has more non-league clubs than Tameside, the metropolitan borough where Hyde and Stalybridge play.
Lowe is now outside his dressing room. The vibe inside among the players inside is positive. Two girls massage the legs of Tunji Moses on a table, the midfielder being the son of the former Manchester United cult midfielder Remi. An indecipherable noise comes from the adjacent Stalybridge dressing room.
"Apparently that's music," says an official.
Lowe is still cursing his phone when his absent player turns up.
"Where have you been?" he shouts. "You should have been here half an hour ago."
"I couldn't find the ground," says the player.
"Well it hasn't moved," retorts Lowe.
Stalybridge Celtic have played at Bower Fold since 1909. A former Football League club, they have spent the majority of their existence as a non-league side, though their superb facilities belie their status.
"The ground is virtually at League 1 level," says Rob Gorski, the chairman, in an office under the main stand. Gorski is a local boy done well. He grew up in a council house close to the ground, went to the local grammar school and then excelled as an oil trader in London, before moving to Monaco.
"I've always followed Celtic and bored people around the world with stories of the club for years," he says. "The club were in financial trouble a decade ago and I got involved on the board. I know it's a cliché, but I wanted to put something back into the community. By 2007, I owned 51 per cent [of the club] and wanted to take the club further."
Others in Gorski's position would be enjoying the executive facilities at Old Trafford or the Etihad Stadium, but it's not for him.
"Non league is real football, what professional football used to be like 30 or 40 years ago," he says. "There's no acting or diving and you can have a drink with the players after the match.
"Top level English football has sold its soul to Sky television and Sky has utterly discarded grass roots football. Fans should be supporting their local teams and attending games, not watching the big Premier League clubs on Sky or a Norwegian satellite link up."
Gorski's club have numerous competitors. "There's a lot of football close to here and two big clubs in Manchester, but what frustrates me is seeing the pubs of Stalybridge full of people watching games on television when they could be watching very good live football here."
The club phone rings and Gorski answers. The caller wants to know if there is a match on today and how much a ticket costs. "There is indeed a game and it's a top of the table clash," says Gorski. "It's £10 (Dh56) to get in."
Gorski is ambitious, but he is no sugar daddy. "I want Celtic to get out of this league without spending," he says. "Our philosophy here is that the manager is the most important person at the club and Jim Harvey has a great track record of developing young players.
"We have a full-time squad of very young players and our own academy, where players are also educated.
"We think that being full-time is crucial for the players' fitness. Like Hyde, who've done very well, we also give a chance to players discarded by Football League clubs.
"Like Hyde, we aim to play good football and we also aim to produce a conveyor belt of talent and to give the local footballers an opportunity, boys who, with the greatest respect, are not going to be doctors or dentists."
It's working. A dozen league clubs have requested accreditation for the game today.
"Most are watching our striker Connor Jennings," Gorski says. "We've had a bid from Scunthorpe United for him and we're getting a lot more interest." Less than a week after the match, which was played on New Year's Day, Stalybridge accepted an undisclosed bid from Scunthorpe, the third tier side, for Jennings.
The full-time players are not wealthy.
"One lost his wallet recently and didn't report it stolen because there was only £5 in it," say a fan who goes to a gym which the players use. "And you see them waiting at the bus stop. I've given them a lift in the back of my Transit van a few times."
One hopes it's not Lowe's missing vehicle.
There are 20 minutes to kick off and Lowe is in the centre circle as the rain lashes down. His assistant Martyn Booty, a time-served, former professional footballer, approaches.
"No surprises apart from one," says Booty of the Stalybridge's line-up.
"Does he have pace?" Lowe nods, but he's got a surprise of his own.
"Ellison," he says of Hyde's new signing James Ellison, a former Liverpool striker who signed professional terms but never made the first team and arrived via Burton Albion. Like some of the other Hyde players, his career was affected by off the pitch incidents. Ellison was stabbed outside a Liverpool bar in October 2010.
After just three games Ellison switched to Southport in the league above Hyde.
Back in the dry outside the dressing room, the players who haven't been selected are not happy.
"Hardest part of my job, leaving players out," he says on his return. "You have to be honest with them though otherwise problems fester."
The unused players are soon smiling and suggesting that this writer covers the £50 million (Dh287.5m) worth of talent wasted in the stands.
Lowe hears this. "Yeah, fifty million Greek drachmas," he shouts. The changing room smells of football, a potent mix of heat rub and massage oil. The sounds are of studs on the floor and young men taking the sting out of the tension by joking.
Booty runs through their tactics, then Lowe gives his final message.
"Win this and we go 11 points clear," he says. "They'll know that. It's a massive game. Relax in front of goal. Talk. Open your mouths."
As the referee knocks on the door to signal the teams to go to the pitch, the Hyde players shake hands and wish each other "All the best". They are infused with the confidence of a top-of-table team who have exceeded all expectations, but the neutral sages in the stands think full-time Stalybridge are slight favourites.
Stalybridge's usual crowd is around 600, but three times that number have braved the elements, including around 350 from Hyde. They stand and sit in a stadium flanked by rolling hills under the busy flight path of Manchester Airport.
"Hail, hail, the Celts are here," sing the home fans.
"United! Hyde!" reply the away fans, who don't forget their history, despite the "United" being dropped from their name when Manchester City started using their home ground for reserve games in 2010.
There is an obvious rivalry between these teams based just three miles apart, but no trouble and the fans swap ends at half time, just as they did four days earlier when the sides met at Hyde in front of 1,868 - Hyde's biggest crowd in over 15 years.
Despite the conditions, the excellent pitch holds up, allowing some superb football, a credit to ground staff. It is 0-0 at half time, but Hyde are the better side. They prove that in the second half with three goals, each celebrated wildly on the pitch and terraces. The home team get a late consolation in a 3-1 defeat.
Hyde move 11 points clear (though Stalybridge have two games in hand) and the players are buzzing, Lowe too. "We deserved it," he says. If Hyde's good form continues then the next step up is a big one: Hyde average 500, while Luton Town, the best-supported team in the league above, average 6,000.
Both clubs have their eyes on the single automatic promotion slot for the champions and hope to avoid the four-team play-offs which proved Stalybridge's nemesis in 2008. Double promotion would be a dream come true and more than a possibility on current form.
Published: January 13, 2012 04:00 AM