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Steve Hill column: It’s backs against the wall on away days

By Steve Hill

Hello readers! Hello Albert! Apologies for the extended radio silence, but I have been busy writing the sequel to my award-nominated book, The Card, “an entertaining and well-written account of the life of a Non-League fan.” 

Not my words, the words of an Amazon Customer, another of whom described it as “funny, moving and a fascinating insight into the mind of a man on a very difficult mission.” Correct.

Penning this next tome in bleak mid-winter, I fear it may lack the sunny optimism of its predecessor, but I heartily recommend that you buy both. After all, following the National League North doesn’t come cheap…

But what to write about in this comeback column? I did initially suggest a rant about the FA Cup and the despicable disrespect shown to it by Premier League clubs.

If they’re not interested in it, they should simply be allowed to withdraw from the competition before it begins, with the extra places filtering down the Non-League pyramid. At one point we were looking at a Barnet v Newport final, but the moment passed.

I was then struck by another idea. Attempting to start some songs at Chester’s trip to FC United Of Manchester in January, I turned round to the hushed main stand to be confronted by row after row of inert cadavers. It was like being at a whist drive.

Unless Non-League football can attract a younger audience, it is in danger of literally dying out.

However, that suggestion fell flat when I realised that I am part of the problem. Having recently endured a significant birthday, I am nearer to a thermos and a blanket than I am to a pre-match Stella bender and Snapchat session.

Incidentally, I would like to thank Stockport County for accommodating me on my birthday weekend. ‘Her Indoors’ asked me to select a glamorous location for us to mark this auspicious occasion, and after a quick check of the fixtures I chose Edgeley Park in December.

A slap-up corporate feed was followed by a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday from an adjacent table of Chester faces, and I was even presented with a cake. I’d rather the ref had given us that clear penalty, but a nice touch all the same.

Searching back issues for inspiration, I came across a column that I wrote pleading for Chester to win a home game, something that we failed to do between Christmas and the end of that season.

Under the new management team of Bernard and Jonno, that wish has now come true and The Deva is a veritable fortress. Sadly, the away form has gone to pieces, seriously jeopardising our play-off push. Traditionally, I would drink through the pain.

However, my newfound maturity, allied to my regular driver selfishly emigrating, has put paid to this time-honoured pre-match ritual.

Away days no longer find me in a foul hostelry in front of a flapping screen pouring lager into my head. I have instead decided to use the fixture list as an excuse to explore the more cultural aspects of this fine nation, specifically the north of it.

Call it thinly veiled bribery, but our recent family outing to Bradford Park Avenue was preceded by a Hockney exhibition
and a hat trick of National Trust properties.

Trudging endlessly round musty houses and twee gardens. Enduring the mindlessly enthusiastic staff. The almost depraved deference to an earlier – considerably more boring – time. Paying five quid for a plastic bowl of soup. All in return for 90 minutes of Non-League action in an abomination of a stadium with a lukewarm cup of tea.

Lost 2-0. But I don’t consider it a wasted weekend, and will treasure the memories of fresh air, beautiful scenery and quality family time spent shouting at each other between meals. Admittedly, I did almost drive off the motorway in cold sober rage on the way home. But once I’d calmed down, instead of recriminations and a hangover, I came away with a greater appreciation of the history of this remarkable country…

Would I swap it all for three points and a skinful of fizzy muck? In a heartbeat.

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