Trips down into the Manchester League usually prove to be entertaining and this was no different. A visit to Chapel Town in the idyllic setting of the Peak District saw us bump into the local nutter who informed us his father was the devil, while my morning down the road from my house watching Pennington saw me end up being the linesman. Even closer to home are Atherton Town and Hindsford who always end up being involved in matches with plenty of goals and cards.
This fixture came on a Tuesday night right at the end of the season. Irlam Steel came into the match knowing they needed maximum points from their remaining two matches to secure a play-off spot. Their opponents Westbury Sports Club were second bottom but had scored 27 goals in their last six matches, so it was not going to be easy evening for the home side.
I had first heard of Irlam Steel a couple of seasons ago when Atherton Laburnum Rovers played them in a pre-season friendly. The photographs that were posted afterwards suggested that it was a decent set up at the Recreation Ground but it definitely looked like more of a summer ground and my instincts were spot on.
My groundhopping companion Matt has worked in Irlam for quite a few years now, so I asked him whether he had ever been to Irlam Steel or knew anything about the club and it’s ground. If anybody would know, Matt would surely know… but he also knew very little about the club who seemingly live in the shadow of their NWCFL neighbours Irlam FC.
With neither of us knowing anything about the club we set off blindly on this Tuesday night. Ollie and I had been on placement at Manchester United for the week, so having dashed back from Old Trafford to Atherton we had a brief break before then driving over to Irlam. I was convinced we could go the scenic route through Culcheth without a GPS in an attempt to avoid the rush hour traffic near the Trafford Centre and in the end it turned out to be quite a pleasant journey. What made it even better was the fact BBC Radio 1’s ten minute takeover was playing some absolutely fantastic songs, including one of our favourites Still D.R.E.
After passing various llama farms and residential areas, subjecting all around to the sounds of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg we arrived in the town of Irlam. A suburb of Salford it sits on the north bank of the Manchester Ship Canal, neighbouring the Barton Moss land which has recently been used for a number of fracking tests.
As previously mentioned, Irlam has another football team who compete in the NWCFL. Last season they finished second in Division One meaning they will be competing against Atherton Collieries in the upcoming campaign. They are one of my favourite non-league clubs and are on the up having just opened a brand new clubhouse and changing room facility.
Irlam Steel only joined the Manchester League in 2012 having previously competed in the Lancashire & Cheshire Amateur League. During their time in the Manchester League they have consistently finished mid-table in the league’s second tier. In 2012, the cricket pavilion and changing facilities were redeveloped at a cost of £400,000 to leave Irlam Steel with facilities that would leave many clubs in divisions far higher than them jealous. Of course, it always helps sharing facilities with cricket clubs because the ECB are always willing to pump money into their lower leagues. It was no different at Irlam Steel with £121,000 coming from the national governing body, while a further £250,000 came from a grant from a local trust.
Away from the glitz and glamour of the pavilion at Irlam Steel, Ollie and I initially met with Matt, Aaron and George in the White Horse pub on the main road that runs through the town. We dumped the car down a side street that clearly stated we couldn’t and fully expected to return to find it sitting on a pile of bricks with all items of any value gone.
The White Horse wasn’t really my cup of tea and having had one pint we moved on to the ground. With the other three more than happy to make the short journey by foot, Ollie and I headed back to the car before I attempted to direct us there without looking at a map. I didn’t have a clue where I was going and in the end we ended up having to do a u-turn on a dirt track at the back of a residential estate. We may, or may not have also lost a wing mirror in the process. The slight diversion did have it’s uses though as over the hedge in front of us you could clearly see the near goalposts and floodlights.
By now Aaron was ringing us asking where on earth we had got to. He managed to give us some useful directions before we dumped the car outside the Irlam Steel Recreation Club. From there we then had to weave in and out of a number of bowling greens, trundle over another car park and then skip through a doorway which read Players Entrance. From there we could make out the small figures of people playing football in the far distance at the other end of the cricket field.
As the three of us trudged over the field towards the lengthy shed which serves as a spectator area I noticed some smoke coming from the right hand corner of the ground. I wondered whether another set of groundhoppers had got lost and ended up in the same field that we did but had done a bit more damage to their car. Perhaps the Westbury Sports Club Ultras had also arrived late and were setting off flares to warn the vast army of home fans about their imminent arrival? We will never know why the stand was nearly set alight but I do like the sound of the latter fictitious story.
The first half was pretty flat with the only highlight being the opening goal which was in favour of the visitors from Bury. A ball was played through to the right hand side to pacy striker James Brooks who neatly lobbed his shot over the oncoming goalkeeper.
So it was Westbury who held the lead at the interval and Irlam knew that if they wanted to keep their hopes of promotion alive they would need to come out fighting in the second half.
The players remained on the pitch for half time, with both managers opting to give their respective squads the infamous Phil Brown treatment. We weren’t going to sit around watching that so we headed off in search of a quick half time pint, not knowing if we would be successful or not. Thinking it would be best to head to the Recreational Club back where we parked the car we made the long arduous journey back through the cricket and bowling facilities.
Opening the door we could have gone either left or right. We chose to go right and quickly ran back out of the function room we found ourselves in when we managed to gatecrash the weekly Weight Watchers meeting. Slightly bemused by what we had just done we then headed over the corridor and in through the other door where we were met by a bloke in a shirt and tie. The big sign on the wall next to us that said ‘Members Only’ had us thinking we were soon going to be turfed out but luckily the man in charge was more than pleasant and invited us in for a drink, even telling us we could take our glasses outside to watch the match as long as we returned them.
I was suddenly feeling a bit more upbeat for the second half. The sun was still shining, we were able to sit on the grass a metre from the pitch and drink beer from glasses. If the health and safety committee at The FA knew what was going on I’m sure we’d have been issued with long standing banning orders. We were loving it though, this is how the end of season should be.
Again, we missed the opening exchanges of the half and by now Irlam Steel had pulled one back. Matt informed me of this as we stood watching Sky Sports News in the Recreational Club. This made me very confused and I subsequently went on to have my blonde moment of the year when I inspected the score bar at the bottom of the screen to see whether the match we were attending was being covered by Jeff Stelling. Back pitchside I soon figured out that we had left George behind with another one of our groundhopping companions, Football Spoon. I assume they had been texting Matt scores behind our backs.
Irlam were now going in search of the win that they needed and they found themselves 2-1 ahead following one of my favourite goals of the season. A loose ball fell around 25 yards from goal and a big boned sweeper met it sweetly with his right foot to volley it straight past the goalkeeper. One Irlam player told us he would never hit one like that again in his life, a comment which was backed up by his team mates who were in hysterics as they celebrated with him.
The match then became extremely physical with the referee obviously not caring if somebody got killed. Late challenge after late challenge flew in and he didn’t even blow his whistle. I was loving it but we felt it was only a matter of time before something nasty happened.
Westbury then pulled an equaliser back when James Clifton headed in at the near post from a corner. He towered above everybody and steered the ball towards the back post which it bounced off before nestling into the corner. This made the match very frantic and wide open; it was a dream to watch. Irlam pressed for the winner and it left them very exposed at the back.
With just a few minutes remaining Irlam Steel won a corner in front of us. We were stood on the touchline only five metres from the corner taker when he swung in an inch perfect ball. The cross was that perfect it resulted in a scramble and it was eventually thumped past the goalkeeper to hand Irlam a late lead. Initially the set piece taker opted to celebrate to us and we all got a bit caught up in the moment and were about to run on to hug him before the rest of his teammates raced towards him.
It was a fantastic ending to a fantastic game. Who says football at this level doesn’t matter? Yes, it was Division 12 but it was bloody brilliant. In short, we got free admission, beer in glasses sat on the touchline and tackles that would have resulted in an abandonment in the Premier League. Could we watch Manchester League football every week?
The season came to an end with Irlam Steel reaching the play-offs. Unfortunately, they lost 2-1 to Elton Vale after extra-time, setting them up for a final with Chapel Town. For one reason or another, Chapel Town then decided they didn’t want promotion after all, promoting Elton Vale without them even having to kick a ball. Nothing is ever straight forward in non-league, is it?
So, next season Irlam Steel will continue in Division 1 and will be playing the likes of Atherton Town following their cruel and unwarranted relegation from the Premier Division due to Rochdale Town being demoted from the NWCFL.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 14 miles
- ADMISSION: Free
- PROGRAMME PRICE: N/A