Christmas in Carlisle... no, Preston... er, Southport?!

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The news came through on the M6 just north of Preston.

“Carlisle game off,” the text read.

You can probably think of better ways to spend Boxing Day than watching Carlisle United vs Huddersfield Town, but I want to visit all 92 English league grounds and sacrifices have to be made, travel taverns booked.

I’ve done about 80 so far, and about 500 grounds around the world in total, a mild obsession I can trace back to buying Simon Inglis’ seminal Football Grounds of Great Britain as a 10-year-old in 1984.

That and a man with a packet of sweets, a cheeky smile and a cagoule showing me photos of Hyde United’s ground while my dad played for Urmston Town.

I’ve tried to watch Carlisle at home three times, usually around Christmas time, and failed on each occasion.

I accept it may never happen.

My anorak-in-crime was my 15-year-old brother.

A centre-forward, he’s just spent six weeks with Manchester United at Carrington and scored the winner at Aston Villa away, though Stockport County hold his registration.

They wanted a fee of £70,000 in total if United took him. He’s currently injured after a sledging accident and a collision with a tree.

Carlisle being called off summed up my football-watching month.

United had been beaten at home to Villa and I stood in temperatures of -3˚C at Craven Cottage as United shipped three goals.

Still, as the game got worse, the 3,000 United fans got louder and louder, which confused nearby Fulham fans in seats which sat empty before the Premier League.

I chose that over an all-expenses trip to see Barça win their sixth trophy of the season in the sunshine of Abu Dhabi, but there were highs…

There was the Christmas do for two with Andrew Cole at a fancy Alderley Edge bar where I was the only patron who arrived using public transport.

Andrew picked me up from the station in his superb car, which was so smart that I couldn’t work out how to open the passenger door.

And there was a phone call from the Manchester United club president Martin Edwards to wish me a Happy Christmas and ask me if I had a pen handy “because I have found three small mistakes in your latest book.”

I was in a dentist’s waiting room at the time in Stretford Arndale – once described by the sadly deceased The Face as being a hotbed for teenage pram wars – where I was already treated with suspicion on account of not being on benefits.

A lad opposite was missing two teeth (“A crowbar in Cheetham Hill last night,” he kindly explained).

And on the line I had a man who sold his Manchester United shares for £85 million asking me to take dictation.

I love it when my worlds collide.

With Carlisle off, we went to a snowbound Deepdale instead, but the game there between Preston and Barnsley had also just been called off.

"No chance, pal. Try the museum"

We visited the National Football Museum, which has always been good, but doesn’t draw enough visitors and will move to Manchester soon.

That’s sad for proud Preston, but it should make sense. Manchester welcomes far more visiting football fans and I’m sure a lot of the fans of European clubs who visit Old Trafford (and maybe Eastlands in the future) will visit.

We both wanted to see a game so we looked around to find one which was on, before deciding on the Southport vs Fleetwood Town top-of-the-table clash in the Blue Square North.

Southport’s website said that the game would be on, but that they were looking for volunteers to clear snow off the pitch at their Haig Avenue home.

We set off in earnest.

General Haig view

We’d never been to the ground before, though our other brother scored a winning goal there in a league game in 2004.

I greeted news of that that by jumping up and down and shouting "Get in!" On a ferry. In Latvia. To incredulous looks from other passengers and a remark from my girlfriend that she was going to jump overboard to escape the embarrassment.

That wasn’t the worst one. A girl once came to my place in Barcelona on a second date.

Problem was, it clashed with Altrincham’s crucial Conference play-off game at Nuneaton Borough.

Brother was playing and I managed to track the game on BBC Radio Warwickshire. I had it on in the background.

When he came on as sub, the commentator said: “Looks a handful, this big lad Mitten.”

I felt a surge of pride and was shouting at the computer for him to “f****** get into the Nuneaton ****s.”

When he scored a penalty in a successful shoot-out which helped propel Altrincham towards the Conference, a neighbour switched a light on to check the commotion.

Anyway, a friend offered to leave some tickets on the door at Southport’s Haig Avenue. I politely declined.

“What, you’re going to pay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’d rather pay,” I answered, without going into one about how clubs don’t make money at non-league level and need all the support they can get.


Fleetwood are a club on the up. They have rebuilt their Highbury home and average crowds over 1,000.

Four hundred visiting fans swelled the gate to over 1,800 – and they were rewarded for their attendance with a chant of "Where’s your pier gone?"

Fleetwood’s pier was destroyed by fire. Southport’s is still going strong and stretches over a kilometre into the Irish Sea.

Pier pressure: Southport 1, Fleetwood 0

The streets around the ground were covered in ice, but the pitch had been largely cleared of snow and a letter in the match programme warmed many.

The writer, whose computer appeared to be stuck on CAPS LOCK, wrote a sincere apology to the Southport manager and players for shouting "Cheat" at an away game at Stalybridge Celtic recently.

The letter writer didn’t want any Southport players to think he meant them.

That he managed to sneak in some birthday wishes in the same letter illustrated the wonderful nuances of non-league football.

The former Blackpool, Blackburn and Aston Villa full-back Alan Wright played for Fleetwood.

Now 38, the diminutive Mancunian – at 5ft 4in, the smallest man ever to play in the Premier League – showed the experience of someone who has played over 620 league games and barely put a foot wrong.

However, his influence was limited at left-back and his side were hammered 5-0 by a side who are favourites to return to the Blue Square Premier.

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