1996/97 by @cheadle_ender

A guest writing appearance from @cheadle_ender on Twitter, reviewing the magical League Cup run from 1996/97.

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96/97 - numbers that roll off the tongue for a lot of County fans. Depending on your age, you will view that era in British culture differently. Often sneered at by the older generation (wasn’t as good as the 60s and 70s apparently). If you were yet to be born or a young child at that time, you’re probably sick of hearing about it from your Dad or brother  and wonder what the fuss was all about. 
The 90s began with Italia 90, Gazza, tears, The Stone Roses. It moved into the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, Graham Taylor’s comedy England team, closely followed by Euro 96, Oasis, Brit Pop, Trainspotting, Tarantino, Fantasy football, Skinner and Baddiel, new Labour and err, the Spice Girls. It was a glorious time to be young and alive. Whatever your view of it, one thing is indisputable, it’s also the most glorious decade in the history of Stockport County. 
The 96/97 season has been written about many times over. As a 19 year old, it came at the perfect time for me and something I’ll take to my grave. Here are some of my memories of the league cup run that season that almost ended in a Wembley final. 

First round, first leg, Chesterfield (h) 2-1. 

As usual at this stage of the competition, passing interest from most fans of a third tier club. Apprehension of having to beat run-of-the-mill  teams to reach a later stage, where we might get a big club and some  much needed income. None of the 3,088 home or away fans that night would have envisioned where that season would end for either team. Whilst this one became OUR competition, our visitors that night went all the way to the semi finals of the FA Cup, a game I sat in a box at Old Trafford for - I worked in a sports shop and we got tickets from Umbro. Ironically, their semi final opponents were the same as ours. 
I watched this particular game from the Cheadle End as usual, as an Andy Mutch brace put County in the driving seat, 2-1 on the night. The first, a typical poachers goal, muscling his way between two defenders, the second a header that squirmed embarrassingly under the very capable Billy Mercer. The visitors pulled one back from the penalty spot after Matty Bound was sent off for a clumsy challenge on a young Kevin Davies, to the glee of a healthy number of away fans in the Railway End. 

First round, second leg, Chesterfield (a) 2-1. 

I went to to this one but couldn’t tell you how I got there. Chesterfield took the lead after a through ball from County legend Chrissy Beaumont. County equalised with a rasping low screamer from the late Paul Ware. Andy Mutch sealed the aggregate win with almost a carbon copy header from the first leg, without the goalkeeping blunder, from a carbon copy lovely weighted cross from the magical left foot of John Jeffers. 

Second round, first leg, Sheffield United (h) 2-1. 

When you look back on this game it was crucial from a time perspective. We had a rocky start to the season that culminated in the famous meeting between Dave Jones and senior players, where they apparently aired their dirty laundry and came out more united and beat Plymouth 3-1 at home. This first leg came three days later and two first half goals at the Cheadle End, a thumping Mike Flynn header and Tom Bennett finishing off a nice move, gave us a glimmer of things to come. Michael Vonk pulled one back but it was a great performance and our first “scalp” of many and it set up an intriguing second leg and a ground not many of us had been to before. 

Second round, second leg, Sheffield United (a) 5-2. 

There’s two glorious things about this game, the memories of being there and the comical commentary from Richard Harnwell which is on YouTube to enjoy whenever we want. 
My memories are that we were located in the top tier behind the goal, opposite the massive home Kop. The bottom tier was empty and we generated a massive din at the top. I’m going to go on record and say the first half is probably the best half of football I have ever seen us play. There was a month or so around that time where we were simply unplayable. The 4-3 at Millwall was another one. It was peak County in a peak season. We scored three in about ten minutes this night. Each goal was greeted by bedlam in the County end, a very steep stand that you felt you could fall out of at any moment and chants of “EA-SY, EA-SY, EA-SY”. The players celebrated every one like it was a final, kicking advertising hoardings, arms aloft at the traveling support. The first one, a typical “ghostly” header from our current gaffer, is narrated by Richard Harnwell with such joy immediately pointing out he had placed a bet on him at 28/1 “and the cameraman had him too!”. That was the first away game I remember with the novelty of a bookies on the concourse. I had Gannon at 28/1 too. I think we all did! 
The second goal, a glorious touch and finish from Alun Armstrong and the third, a low drive from Tom Bennett at the second attempt. We were in dreamland. 
The rest of the game was just non stop singing. “David Jones’ blue and white army” bellowing around Bramhall Lane. “We want five” is also picked up on the highlights. 
Angell and Armstong duly obliged. Harnwell starts the second half with “Jeffers...Angell offers himself...ooh err”.  It was a magical night that is right up there with the best of them for me. 

Third round, Blackburn (a) 1-0. 

When I think back to this one it felt like we packed out that whole massive end behind the goal and took about 7,000. When I look back on the highlights, it was half that end and number, with a cordon in the middle. Other than Wembley, it was still the biggest gathering of County fans at an away game I had seen and I’d be surprised if there’s been one since. 
We drove to this one, ending up in an official looking car park at the ground. This was a Premier League ground, home of the champions a few years earlier. This was uncharted territory. They had bookies on the concourse too! 
The 90 minutes of football is a blur. I don’t think it was a thriller by any stretch. We won it with an own goal by Tim Sherwood after a typically massive throw in from Mike Flynn. Non stop singing, party atmosphere, that famous “Romania” kit. They were struggling in the Prem and we were flying. We took full advantage. 
On the way out of the car park, a big furry microphone came towards my passenger window, Radio Lancashire, not detecting we were County fans, asked if we thought it was the end for Ray Harford the Blackburn manager. My mate shouts into the mic, “it should be, Stockport? he’s a f***ing disgrace, get him out!”.

Fourth round, West Ham (a) 1-1

A bitterly cold day and night at the end of November. We left my car at a mates house near Edgeley and got the supporters coach from the ground. As is fairly typical with coaches, I don’t know if this still happens but it got there hours before kick off. I would say about 5pm for an evening game. Everyone piled into a pub near the ground. It wasn’t until we were in there and chatting to some County “casuals” it became evident that it was a notorious boozer in the world of football, The Boleyn”. Not the type of place away fans were usually welcome but we were little old Stockport, what did they care? We packed into one side of the pub, closely watched by the Cheshire police or football intelligence, whoever it was who used to travel with County and monitor known troublemakers in those days. As a group of late teens, it was a buzz to be in there and mixing with older lads. I remember walking en masse to the away end and being confronted a couple of times by home fans. We might be little old Stockport but that didn’t stop them making it an intimidating place. 
20,000 packed into Upton Park that night, when the league cup meant something. They were up for it, you can see that from the scenes behind the goal, when the classy Florin Raducioiu put them 1-0 up early on. We were situated in the lower tier of the opposite end. A healthy contingent of County making our usual racket all night. When Luis Cavaco dispossessed Julian Dicks in the second half, danced amongst three players and scored, we went mental. The whole end erupted. We weren’t sure if we really deserved it. We didn’t play as well as the other big nights but you couldn’t doubt the grit, determination and touch of class that was fast becoming a match for anyone. When the final whistle blew, my mate Paul was jumping on his seat in jubilation and it gave way beneath him. It resulted in a tongue lashing from the famous “Dosser” who proceeded to glare at us for the rest of the season. 
The coach journey home was joyous. Beer-fueled and long. As we walked down my mates street back near Edgeley Park, we found his Dad in his dressing gown, middle of the road, 2am, de-icing my car. He’d seen the score on teletext and waited up to hear all about it. We were just about sober enough to drive home and dream about the replay. 

Fourth round replay, West Ham (h), 2-1

Looking back at the dates on this there was a three week gap between the Upton Park game and the replay. Can’t remember if it was called off once but the weather for this game was shocking. Cold, soaking wet, pitch almost unplayable, Sky Sports! An unfamiliar green studio box started to appear at Edgeley Park containing old hairy hands himself, Richard Keys and his side kick Andy Gray, when they were the most respected football pundits around, before the loose lipped sexist comments and off camera behaviour, that started their decline to obscure channels. 
County live on Sky was a massive thing, not something we were used to other than Autoglass finals. A genuine national audience witnessed a classic blood and guts cup tie between the classic northern underdogs with the crowd behind them and the Premier League fancy dans from London. This was the last home cup tie this season that I managed to get a ticket in the Cheadle End, that’s how mental it was. We started selling games out and this being pre internet ticket sales, you had to get time off work or phone in sick to get down to the ground to get a ticket. 
The game is famous for one of the most comical own goals and unbelievable ugly face of Ian Dowie. County were better, slicker and wanted it more. A superb Brett Angell header sealed a memorable night under the lights and a an electric atmosphere. We were starting to fear no one and the national media were taking notice. 

Quarter Final, Southampton (h) 2-2

The Pop Side. Somewhere I hadn’t been since falling in love with County at the start of the decade. It was a terrace then, full of cigarette smoke, banter and naughty lads. Now it was a seated stand that not many people visited but on a night like this it didn’t really matter. The vocal County fans were all over the ground and the place was bouncing. The cameras were there again. 
The first half was frantic. We fell behind early again, Egil Ostenstad cooly slotting under Paul Jones at the Cheadle End. With peak Matt Le Tissier gracing Edgeley Park, was this the night we would be found out and taken to the cleaners? Not a chance. Too quick goals from the strike partnership from heaven, Angell and Armstrong, County were in control and bossing the game. Second half, Southampton were the better team. They had more chances, equalized from Ostenstad again and Le Tissier should have won it at the death, clean through on goal, deft lob over Jones towards an empty goal and packed away end, only for captain fantastic, Mike Flynn, to pop out of nowhere and head off the line. Overall we deserved a replay but surely the run would end now. 

Quarter Final replay, Southampton (a) 2-1

This is the only one I didn’t go to. I was starting to take the piss at work with time off and as a 19 year old I was way down the pecking order for taking the piss. I settled for watching it at a mates house, Sky Sports again! The only thing I remember is growing in confidence as the game went on and ultimately knocking over a full can of lager over my mates mums carpet when Andy Mutch tapped in the winner. 
We were dressed up to go out that night. Wednesday night, student night at The Ritz in town. Dirty floors and dirty girls. All we needed to drown our sorrows at what we assumed would be the end of the cup run. As it turned out we jubilantly boarded the metrolink at Timperley, chanting County songs and had a great night. If I remember we bumped into other County fans and were singing the same songs arm in arm on the dance floor. The semi finals! It was an unbelievable feeling. 

Semi Final, first leg, Middlesbrough (h)

£18! County put the ticket prices up by £3 if I remember right. Uproar from many but also an understanding, league cup semi finals don’t come around very often so why not cash in a little bit. Almost didn’t get a ticket such was the rush. Managed to get the few scraps that were left, front row of the Pop Side closer to the Railway End. This one was on ITV! Prime time after Corrie. We were almost getting used to it. Maybe the occasion got the better of us but I don’t remember us really being in the game. I remember being disappointed we were kicking towards the Cheadle End in the first half. There’s nothing like a late winner in front of the adoring masses. Something this whole cup run lacked funnily enough. Probably the only thing it lacked. 
David Elleray was the ref that night. Maybe the first time since that play off final in 94, maybe not, can’t remember. I do recall a couple of fans running on after Mikel Beck’s opener and one of them running straight at “The Harrow Headmaster” and hurling abuse at him. Ravenelli’s clincher was just as fortuitous as the first. We looked dead and buried. The whole night was a bit of damp squib. 

Semi Final second leg, Middlesbrough (a), 1-0. 

I don’t know what the criteria was a for a ticket for the Riverside. Season ticket holders first without doubt. Not sure what came next but we missed out. The first and only time I’ve ever gone to a County game looking for touts. Two of us drove up, reluctantly due to the score line. Not only did we not have tickets, we were 2-0 down and had little chance. It would have been easier to watch on tele. Regardless, we couldn’t not be there, what if the impossible happened? We parked up, wondered around, snarled at the Wembley memorabilia they were already selling and eventually found a tout. They weren’t exactly swarming around. We had to do the asking. Some local fella beckoned us to follow him away from the prying eyes of the law. He took us down a dodgy alleyway to an equally dodgy boozer. He knew we were County so we weren’t exactly sure what we were letting ourselves in for. I think we payed about £30 which didn’t seem unreasonable. Only problem was it was right slap bang in the middle behind the goal. The wrong goal. We sat quietly, County shirts tucked discreetly under jackets, not making eye contact with those around us. We watched, gutted, as the mass County following sang and danced and generally made the usual racket. We matched them that night. We could have taken it to extra time but a Sean Connolly  screamer was as good as it got. We sat for most of the game excited but worried, what if we equalized or even won, how would we celebrate? Would we get battered or just make a run for it?
As the final whistle blew, inevitably winning fans stay behind and cheer their team off in a semi final, so we immediately started moving down the row towards the exit. Turns out we hadn’t been very discreet at all, multiple Boro fans patted us on the back, reached out for handshakes and said well done. It was a nice touch but we knew it could have very been different. 

Generally when I look back on that cup run it’s immense pride, memorable goals, driving rain, big new grounds, dodgy pubs, Jim Gannon at 28/1, touts, cockney nutters and frozen cars. They’ll probably never be another one like it.

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