Edgeley Park, Stockport

Edgeley Park © Hans Henrik Appel

Among his “50 delights of modern football”, Daniel Gray describes “seeing a ground from the train” as the first one. He describes what people do on a train “some jab at their laptop keyboard or a tablet screen. But not me: I have the vague feeling that a flicker of Edgeley Park can be caught, so I am looking out of the window”. I can relate to that. On my first ever trip to Manchester by train in 1980, I remember suddenly seeing Edgeley Park as the train was slowing down on the way into Stockport Railway station. Since then, I have always waited for the glimpse of Edgeley Park from the train when my journey has taken me through Stockport. To me, Stockport has for many years been synonymous with a fascinating glimpse of a proper football ground caught from a train window.

Maybe because the sight from the train was so enchanting, it took me quite a few years before planning a visit. It felt as though I had already been there. And it probably wouldn’t to live up to my romantic idea of it, once I went. It was not until 2018 that I put it into my match day schedule. But, alas, that match was called off in the morning because of a water-logged pitch. Then the covid pandemic put my football travels to a halt for some three years, before I went on my next trip in September 2022. By then, Stockport County had won promotion to the football league after some years in the National league, and I planned to see their away match at Tranmere Rovers’s Prenton Park, another ground on my to-do list. It seemed a fairly safe time of the year to travel – the football pitches are still in prime condition in September. But on the very day of my arrival, the Queen died and all matches were called off during the following weekend.

With no matches on, my good friend Dale in stead took me on a couple of road trips to visit as many football grounds as possible. And we started one of them at Edgeley Park before going to Coventry to see the Coventry Arena. The contrast between the two grounds was startling. It is perhaps unfair to compare two football grounds on the basis of visits on a non-match day. But I can’t help doing it …

In 2005, Coventry City moved from Highfield Road near the city centre of Coventry to Holbrooks near the M6. Not just to build a larger ground but also to get better parking facilities and road links. The A444 – named the Jimmy Hill way – with four lanes each side of the road runs past it. In fact, a roundabout just outside the ground makes the traffic seem even more hectic. On the other sides of the ground, you have a shopping centre with a huge car park and an industrial area. The residential area of Holbrook may not be far away, but it feels like an uninhabited place. It is a stark contrast to the old ground, Highfield Road, surrounded by terraced housing – and to Stockport County’s Edgeley Park.

You approach Edgeley Park through streets with terraced houses. Whereas Coventry Arena has been dumped in an industrial area, Edgeley Park and the surrounding streets go back to the decades between 1880 and 1910, when urban development with terraced houses, parks, churches, local pubs, clubs and sport fields spread on the land around the residence of the Sykes family (Edgeley House), the Edgeley Mills and the reservoirs behind them. The Stockport Rugby Club got Edgeley Park as their playing field in 1891, but at that time it was rather basic. If you look at a map from 1895, you can see how Hardcastle Road still did not extend all the way past the ground; how the ground only had two small stands; and how terraced houses had not yet been built opposite the ground. It has all changed on a map of 1914. In fact, the terraced housing in Hardcastle Road opposite the football ground was built so close to it that when the main stand burned down in 1935, 11 of the houses opposite it caught fire as well. Whereas you just feel surrounded by cars and traffic at Coventry Arena, you feel surrounded by human life at Edgeley Park.

Then there is the ground itself. The Coventry Arena is of a modern bowl-shaped design. When you walk around it, it looks more or less the same from all angles. To be fair, The Coventry Arena do have a couple of distinct features to help you orientate yourself. To the west, a casino and conference centre is attached, and to the East, you find a memorial garden behind it (the previous day, we went to Rotherham United and Doncaster Rovers, two bowl-shaped grounds with hardly any features to give the sides of the ground distinct characters, at least from the outside.) But apart from that, the Coventry Arena basically looks the same from all angles. At Edgeley Park, all the four sides of the ground are distinct. You have the main stand at Hardcastle Road, rebuilt in 1936 after the fire. The two ends contrast sharply. Towards the railway, you have uncovered seats, whereas you have the two-tiered 5.000 capacity stand from 1995 rising high above the rest of the ground at the Cheadle End. Opposite the main stand, the family stand seems to have been squeezed in between the playing pitch and a reservoir. I didn’t visit the family stand, but apparently toilets and refreshment facilities are located in an outdoor concourse behind it.

Supporters may not find an uncovered stand or an uncovered concourse charming on a cold, rainy day, and Stockport are therefore about to undertake a long-term development of the current ground. I do hope that the stands will remain distinct, though. It is not that a stand has to be old to have character. I really like the Cheadle End from 1995, for example. The view is great, the seats are good, the concourse wide and welcoming, and they have still managed to put in conference facilities.

On the Sunday that we visit Edgeley Park and Coventry Arena, there is a football programme and memorabilia fair on in the Cheadle End conference centre at Stockport; at the Coventry Arena there is Nails and Beauty fair. At the programme fair, all visitors are football fans, most of them male, most of them +50. At the Nails and Beauty fair, it is hard to spot someone who looks like a football fan, and we definetely feel that we do not belong there! It sums it up well. Edgeley Park – including the relative new Cheadle End – is a proper football ground in a community. Coventry Arena is an event facility that could be anywhere and could host anything (and I haven’t mentioned the casino!).

So, I really look forward to finally visiting Edgeley Park for a match together with my son Thomas and my friend Dale. After a couple of days with glorious sunshine, the weather is grey and rainy. Dale has arranged that we can park at the house of his friend Matt, who will drive us straight to the ground (he is not attending). We go there three hours before kick-off to have a look around the streets surrounding the ground, but just as we approach, rain suddenly starts to lash down, so we quickly head to the Edgeley Conservative Club in St. Matthews Road for shelter. This is where we are due to meet another of Dale’s good friends, Graham. Whereas Matt is a Manchester City supporter, Graham is Stockport County season ticket holder, and he has bought the tickets for us. And along with the tickets, he presents me with a Stockport County scarf, so that I am properly dressed for the match.

The Edgeley Conservative Club with Edgeley Park at the end of the street. © Hans Henrik Appel

Graham’s friends David and Allan join us for a drink, and we look for a table for the seven of us. I ask a group at a neighboring table, if we can have one of their chairs. “Only if you buy a fanzine!” one of them replies. As I like fanzines, I am happy to pay £2 for issue number 100 of “When I was Young & Lazy”. The content is mainly photos of County fans – from 1937 up to recently. Much to my surprise, there are no sarcastic articles on how the club is run, but then, of course, Stockport County fans have every reason to be satisfied with the way things are going, as they are chasing their second successive promotion.

Churchill watching over us © Hans Henrik Appel

The Edgeley Conservative Club predates the football ground. It was opened by the former mayor of Stockport, A.H. Sykes on 16th February 1889, two years before the Rugby club moved in. The purpose of the conservative working men’s clubs was partly to serve as a political platform, partly to provide a ‘moral’ alternative to the local pubs. Whether they still serve as a political platform, I don’t know. Apart from the inscription “Edgeley Conservative Club” over the main entrance, there is a photo of Churchill hanging on the wall. As for being a ‘moral’ alternative to the local pubs, you can go to “Higginson’ Dance & Fitness” before going to the bar. But as I look round the room, there doesn’t seem to be many customers from the dance & fitness studio. Most are male +50 football supporters, having a drink and a chat before the match. It is a real nice atmosphere, and Graham and his friends make us feel welcome. They hope that we will bring some luck. Stockport County have been held to a draw in their last four home matches, whereas visitors Newport County are unbeaten in six games. The match seems to have “draw” written all over it.

If I had been on my own, I propably wouldn’t have known what Higginson’s Dance & Fitness is hiding. © Hans Henrik Appel

Just under an hour before kick-off we drink up and leave for the ground. It is still raining, so rather than stroll around the area to take photos, we head purposefully towards the covered fan-zone behind the Cheadle End. Which is a shame. I am really curious to see how many former pubs in the streets, it is possible to detect. A few years after Stockport County took over Edgeley Park, in 1906, there was a fascinating confrontation at the local police court between the owner of the Commercial Hotel by the railway station and the reverend of the St. Matthews church over the former’s application for a license to sell intoxicating liquors inside the football ground on match days.

Arnold Street © Hans Henrik Appel

The football club and the hotel owner argued that somewhere between 1500 and 2000 of a normal 5000 crowd asked for pass-out checks to go to a pub at half-time, as many of the spectators came from a distance and therefore went direct from their work to the ground without dinner. This resulted in chaos, as first everybody had to get out through two narrow gates into the narrow streets. Then, on their return, there usually was a crush to get back in, with some people having lost their pass-out checks.

Hardcastle Road © Hans Henrik Appel

On the other hand, the reverend argued that “thousands of people who did not belong to Stockport, some of them not the best characters, went on the ground, and he was sure if the magistrates heard the foul language that the children had to hear in the streets on Saturday afternoons in Edgeley they would not grant the application. Some of the property in Edgeley built by a brewer was tenanted by some of the poorest people, and he was sure it was lowering to the neighbourhood to have the football ground there”.The court granted the license for the following match, and therefore the club abandoned the pass-out check system. Although all the spectators were kept off the street during the match in this way, the solicitor of the church used the abandonment of the pass-out checks to have the application turned down for the following match. He argued that by keeping the spectators locked-up inside the ground, the club was disturbing the free trade of all the local pubs around the ground! The 1906 autumn clashes in court between the agent of the hotel owner (and the football club that was entitled to 30% of the profits) and the solicitor of the church over the applications for a license were more frequent and arguably more exciting than the football matches at Edgeley Park. I try to envisage the rush of up to 2.000 spectators to get to a pub and have a drink and back into the football ground during the half-time interval. It is usually bad enough for people to find enough time for half-time drink in the concourse inside the ground. Getting in and out of the ground must have been an ordeal.

The fan-zone is a novelty this season. It is located behind the Cheadle End, and you can enter on display of your match ticket. It basically consists in three ship containers, one of which serves street food, one is a bar, and the last one has a scene with live music. A tent covering the area in front of the containers gives shelter for the rain. After a hat-trick of fish ‘n chips Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we have already decided to go for pies today. And that is a great decision. The steak ‘n ale pie with mash and gravy is home made and is definetely in the top three pies, I have ever had at football grounds.

Quite unusually, I haven’t spotted any programme sellers on the walk to the ground. It is probably the rain that has either made the sellers look for shelter or me overlook them. Match day programmes is a serious matter. The best football book I have ever read is the late Dave Roberts’ brillant “32 programmes” – that is probably my biggest regret in groundhopping that I never got to go to a Bromley match with him and get him to sign the programme. One rainy match day, I relied on buying a programme inside the ground, but presumably because everybody else did the same, they had run out of programmes in the stall on the concourse. So I insist on visiting the club store to ensure I get a programme, despite kick-off approaching fast.

Being reminded of my hip replacement operation 6 weeks ago © Hans Henrik Appel

As I wait in the club shop queue, I worry if I will be further delayed on entering the ground by the fact that the security staff at our entrance gates are carrying metal detectors. One thing is that I am carrying my camera, which some grounds do not allow. I have also just got an articifial hip replacement which set off the alarms at the airport. There, I had to go to the body scan machine, but I guess that they won’t have any at Edgeley Park. Maybe it is my luck that I go to club shop. Because by the time we get to our entrance, the security staff with the metal detectors have left, so I enter the ground without any problems.

Inside the ground, we head straight for our seats in the middle of the Cheadle End stand. The view is fabulous, something you don’t get at the modern bowl-shaped football grounds.

What a view! © Hans Henrik Appel

The view of the pitch is perfect. I do prefer to watch matches from behind one of the goals. It gives you a much better view of the positioning of the defenders and the movement of the forwards. But the real exciting thing is that you all the time are aware of being at this very ground. The 1936 Main stand. The open Railway End. The narrow Family stand. Behind and inbetween them, you can see trees, housing, the spire of the St. George’s Church – and in the distance the hill tops of the Peak District. This is not an anonymous, placeless bowl. It is a unique place. I can even see the trains passing by in the corner between the open Railway End and the Family Stand. After all these years looking at the ground from the train, I am now looking at the trains passing by from the ground. And the hill tops in the distance keep disappearing from view and reappearing, as the rain clouds thicken or are lifting.

From my seat, I can even look into the streets around the ground, where late arrivers are hurrying towards the entrances. And again I imagine what it has been like in 1906, when hundreds were leaving and reentering during the half time interval to go to a pub.

Late arrivers hurrying to the ground © Hans Henrik Appel

The modern bowl-shaped grounds strive for sameness. Ideally, you should have the same view from and the same comfort in all the seats around the ground. A sharp contrast to the traditional football ground, where you only had all the comforts of a sheltered seat and good facilities in the grandstand, whereas you sometimes would be standing in the open with poor if any catering or toilet facilities on the popular side. I have been brought up on such a ground in Denmark, and depending on my age, my mood and the weather, and depending on my going on my own, with my father, my son or my mates, I have gone to different stands in the ground. All offering slightly different experiences. Edgeley Park offer the same variety. Graham told us, that he used to go the Cheadle End, but now he has a season ticket in the main stand. But sometimes miss the Cheadle End.

Getting soaked in the uncovered Railway End © Hans Henrik Appel

Of course, as the rain is pouring down, I do not envy the brave supporters at the open Railway End. On such a day, everybody prefers a covered stand, especially when you are seated. But on the match highlights on television the other day, I noticed the packed open end at Brunton Park, bathed in sunshine. Some times an open end is great, although obviously not in rainy weather. Usually, grandstands were always placed on the west side, so the spectators wouldn’t be bothered by sun in their eyes. But I remember many a cold but sunny match day in early spring at my local ground in Denmark, where more people would go to the open popular stand on the East side to enjoy the warmth of the sun than sit freezing in the covered western main stand. I am not claiming that open stands are preferable to covered, far from it. But I am questioning the ideal of same-ness inside the ground. The same goes for restricted view. Sometimes you find old grounds with shocking restricted views; but I do not mind to have to lean back or forth to see the all action, rather than being rooted in the same position all the time.

The away support from Newport in the Family Stand © Hans Henrik Appel

On this rainy day, I am pretty sure that the travelling Newport County supporters are grateful that they have not been put in the open Railway End but in the section of the Family Stand next to it. And from there, they probably have a much better view of the main stand than I do. But then, they can’t see the rain clouds rolling over the hill tops in the distance. The sight from every part of the ground is different.

Players entering the pitch © Hans Henrik Appel

The players enter the pitch, and the atmosphere is quite good. There is a drummer not far from our seats. Usually, I find it very annoying, but maybe because there are so many visual impressions, I don’t bother that much today. Or maybe he is just more in sync with the crowd than they usually are.

1-0 for Stockport! © Hans Henrik Appel

Stockport County take an early lead from a brillant header by their striker Wooton after a perfect cross. In fact, Stockport County are comfortably the better team. They are much stronger, and they look dangerous whenever they manage to put crosses into the area. Newport County, on the other hand, seem short of attacking ideas, and their only real threat at goal comes from a hazardous pass across the back line by a Stockport defender. Just before half-time, Wooton doubles Stockport’s lead, and the game seems over as a contest.

There may not be a need for pass-out checks at half-time anylonger, but I notice quite a few people passing from the main stand to the Cheadle End at half time. More people than are queueing at the food kiosk in the main stand. It is probably because you are not allowed to drink alcohol in sight of the pitch, and maybe the facilities for that are poor (or even non-existent) inside the main stand. But pass-out checks do not seem to be necessary to regulate this traffic. While I am watching it, I suddenly hear the announcer over the PA system welcoming me and Thomas to Edgeley Park! It is Graham, who has asked him to do it. I am introduced as a historian from Denmark, taking photos for my writings, and then the greeting message is repeated. What a nice surprise! I see Graham by the kiosk trying to spot where we are. It puts a bit of pressure on me. I hope that my blog post won’t make disappointing reading.

Graham trying to spot us, as his message is read out over the PA © Hans Henrik Appel

The second half just confirms Stockport County’s superiority. Whereas their forrays down the wings in the first half were dangerous, they mainly came from deep balls in behind the Newport defence. During the second half, they also find their crossing positions from slick passing moves, and whenever they put a cross in, they look like scoring. The guy in front of us gets more and more excited. He follows the scores of Carlisle and Stevenage, Stockport County’s rivals for third spot and automatic promotion. He is going wild as Stockport gets their fourth goal just before the end, as other results mean that they move into third spot on goal difference, at least for the time being.

Fourth goal and third spot © Hans Henrik Appel

At the final whistle, I once again enjoy the view from the stand into the side streets. They are buzzing with life, as the crowd of just under 10,000 leaves the ground – reminding me of the disapproval of the football crowd in the streets from the church back in 1906.

Into the streets © Hans Henrik Appel

On our way out, I take a quick look at the concourse to see the facilities that attracted so many of the main stand ticket holders during half time. It is pretty spacious, a nice bar, quite a few tables, and even some plastic seats.

As we leave the ground, I am hoping finally to take some good photos of the ground with the surrounding streets. But just as we get out into Hardcastle Road, rain turns into hail, and we end up hurrying back to the Conservative Club for shelter.

I do, though, notice The Prince Albert pub on the way and wonder, if it was one of the watering holes around the ground in 1906. I have to do a search on that, and if so, perhaps I should see what it looks like inside on my next visit. But today, we are meeting Graham and Matt again for post-match drinks and evaluation of the match at the Conservative Club. There seems to be more young people now than before the match. Everybody seems excited with the emphatic four goal win and the new position in the league table. There is an air of contentment around our table. A good game, a great result, a lovely football ground, a terrific day out. Edgeley Park is definetely worth another visit. Thanks to Graham, Dale and Matt!

Contentment © Hans Henrik Appel

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