City, City What's the Score? by @cheadle_ender
The title of this may seem a little juvenile but believe it or not, Stockport County once produced an official DVD sold in the club shop by the same name. In hindsight, it was worthy of release considering where City are now.
Between 1997 and 2002, the five seasons that County played in the second tier of English football, they played Manchester City in six league games, winning three, drawing two and losing just once. All of them played in packed grounds with electric atmospheres.
City famously have a huge fan base in Stockport and some of them, still to this day, claim they saved County from extinction in the 80s by turning up to Friday night games at Edgeley Park to help their local team. Their reaction to these six games now would be of scorn and dismissal but let me tell you, they hated it at the time. We got right under their skin whether they admit it or not.
Here are some of my memories of those pulsating encounters.
November 29th 1997
Stockport County 3 Manchester City 1
This was the first league game between the two clubs since 1910 with only one competitive game in between, a league cup tie in 1960. City had won all five games that had ever occurred. Over 11,000 packed into Edgeley Park on a very chilly November afternoon. Tickets were hard to come by and me and a couple of mates, one an avid Manchester United fan, sat (stood) on the top row of the Cheadle End. This is another game magically captured by the brilliant video commentary of the late Richard Harnwell. County stormed into a 2-0 lead after eight minutes. The first, an absolute pile driver from Paul Cook, smashing the net in front of a few thousand away statues in the Railway End, sent Edgeley Park into an early frenzy. One of the cameras magically spends much of the first half focused on the Coronation Street actor Bruce Jones aka Les Battersby, a well known City fan, as seemingly his only option for tickets was the front row of the Cheadle End amongst the gloating County faithful. Cooks goal is greeted by Harnwell screaming “I’VE WAITED ALL MY LIFE FOR THAT!” before the camera switches to the Corrie actor with his head in his heads. The second, a tap in from Alun Armstrong provokes “YOU’RE JOKING! YOU’RE JOKING!” from Harnwell. Brett Angell adds a third on 31 minutes and we were in dreamland. Les had had enough at this point as the camera spots him leaving early. Anyone that’s ever sat on the front of the Cheadle End will know there’s only one way out and that’s a walk to the exit at the corner flag. The whole stand roared the actor out with waving hands. Every goal was celebrated wildly, much more wildly than a league game in November usually would or should. It felt more like an FA Cup tie.
The second half was calmer and much nervier. Ged Brannan pulled one back in the 49th minute but that was as good as it got for City. County recorded a historic three points and was adapting better than anyone expected to their new league.
April 4th 1998
Manchester City 4 Stockport County 1
City were struggling at this stage of the season and ultimately ended up hilariously relegated to the third tier. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop them giving us a pasting on the way down, although two players in the line up for County that day with City connections will forever be remembered for the part they played in it. When I say connections, one of them was actually on loan from City, Eddie McGoldrick. My memory is hazy about what he was actually quoted as saying before or after but it was something along the lines of a draw would be a good result for him. His performance over 90 minutes has many County fans still to this day wondering if he actually threw the game and was intentionally horrendous.
City went 1-0 up on 5 minutes, McGoldrick gave the ball away before Shaun Goater bundled in his first of 84 goals for the club, past the hapless Eric Nixon, a former City goalkeeper and self-confessed fan. One minute later, something miraculous happened. Not only did County equalize, but they did it through 18-year-old striker Aaron Wilbraham, another lifelong City fan, who actually had a season ticket at Maine Road that season and gave up his seat that day to a family member. I knew Aaron from attending the same high school in Knutsford. He was three years younger than me but our paths crossed regularly due to one of my best mates’ brother being in his year. We sometimes played football against them at lunchtime, Wilbraham, or “Az” as he was known at school, towered above his peers at the same height as most of us. We used to put half a dozen lads on him and rough him up a bit but he still came out on top. He was what was commonly known as a bit of a scally. Knutsford High School was unique in that it fell within the Cheshire education system where they didn’t have the “11+” exam so the population of kids was wide-ranging with kids from Trafford like me, of various education levels but mostly failed 11 pluses, along with the children of wealthy Knutsford families and a fair share of council estate kids from nearby Longridge - Aaron was of the latter. As we grew slightly older I had a couple of minor altercations with him on drunken Friday nights but kept him onside the best I could because he was coming through the County system.
So unfamiliar was he to most County fans as he swept home the equalizer with a rasping drive at Maine Road, even Richard Harnwell refers to him as “Aaron Williams”. Sadly it all went downhill for County after that. Nixon blundered again as Richard Jobson restored City’s lead and his twin pantomime villain McGoldrick was dispossessed again, which leads to Lee Bradbury making it 3-1 before half time.
I remember having contrasting emotions at half time. Mildly buzzing I was watching County at Maine Road and Aaron had scored but absolutely livid and suspicious at the performances of Nixon and McGoldrick. Lee Bradbury slammed home a fourth in the second half and City coasted the rest of the game.
That night, as I did most weekends, i got the train to Knutsford to drink with mates. Aaron was in the Red Cow pub, celebrating loudly and proudly, buying everyone drinks and telling them about his goal. I was fuming. I think I said a couple of things to him and he laughed it off. In the seasons that followed he sorted out tickets at away games on more than one occasion. He’s had an unbelievable career and is still playing league football now at 40, which if you had told us back then we would have pissed ourselves laughing. I was quite impacted by the podcast interview he did recently where he detailed many highly amusing stories about Carlton Palmer's reign as County manager but also the struggles he went through as a kid, losing his Mum and dealing with his Dad in jail. I didn’t know any of that and it gave me a new perspective on him during those days. Good luck to him whatever he does next.
December 7th, 1999
Manchester City 1 Stockport County 2
After one year in the third tier and local derbies with Macclesfield, City were back. As I wasn’t at Wembley in 2008 due to emigrating, this is my favourite night watching County. It’s just above promotion at Chesterfield for me which may seem narrow-minded but hey, that’s how much I dislike City.
This game featured two memorable performances from two players who barely played for us before or after, Chris Allen and Alan Bailey. Allen was a pacy winger who caused City all kinds of problems this night and Bailey was a former unsuccessful City striker.
There was an anticipation in the air as a few of us had a few pre-match drinks in Didsbury where I was working, before boarding a bus to Maine Road. 32,000 packed in nicely with a cracking atmosphere under the lights. This game was captured marvellously on Granada Soccer Night by the always decent commentary of Alistair Mann. Most of the scenes that unfolded often replay in my head to this day, to the words of Mann.
Not much happened in the first half but Gerard Wiekens, forced City ahead early in the second. In the 65th minute, the on-fire Chris Allen whipped in a cross that Tony Dinning slammed against a post and Alan Bailey followed up and put County level in front of the mass travelling support. With five minutes left, Nicky Weaver went walkabout outside his box and lost possession to Bailey, who after a couple of ricochets was bundled over from behind by Danny Granville with Weaver still out of his goal. It was barely inside the box, possibly started outside but now is not the time to debate that. The referee points to the spot and up steps Tony Dinning, a bit-part player three years earlier in the promotion campaign, now one of the most dynamic midfielders outside the Premier League, scorer of stunning free-kicks, screamers and always good for a cheeky opposition wind up. In the immense pressure of that moment, Dinning sells Weaver a little dummy on his run-up before coolly slotting it in the corner. Weaver never moved. The County end goes absolutely ballistic. “Limbs” I think the young lads say these days. The scenes behind the goal are sheer bedlam but not as pleasing on the eye as Dinning, who immediately turns to Weaver and mockingly beckons him to follow him to the corner flag, a homage to Weaver's penalty saving heroics in the play off final a few months earlier. We were located on the far side of the away end in the corner, next to the City fans and we climbed the perimeter fence, jumped around, shook fists and goaded them like we might never get the chance again. After what seemed an eternity, the ref blew the final whistle and we had a magnificent, if not slightly fortuitous win and lifelong memories.
March 21st 2000
Stockport County 2 Manchester City 2
City actually ended up getting promoted to the Premier League this season but you wouldn’t know it from their scruffy performances against us. I put this one down as two points dropped as Carlo Nash (future City keeper, is there’s a theme here?) had a shocker and in my opinion, was at fault for both goals.
Again, another packed house at Edgeley Park
and again we were located in the bouncing Cheadle End. I had to watch the highlights again to remember exactly the order of play in this one as it wasn’t as memorable as the others but Jamie Pollock put City 1-0 up before the ever-energetic Ian Moore collects a lovely through ball from County’s French playmaker, Karim Fradin and cooly slots home in front of the travelling City hoards. Right before half time County take the lead from captain fantastic Mike Flynn, with what at first glance, even on the highlights looks like a thumping header, actually came off his arse. With County looking good for the win, Richard Jobson equalizes for City with eleven minutes to go. I remember leaving deflated after this one. Should have been a historic league double.
There was actually a pre season friendly in between this next one where the current President of Liberia, George Weah, made his debut for City at Edgeley Park. He scored that day but unfortunately for him and our blue friends, County scored four. One of them, a Tony Dinning free kick past his old mate Nicky Weaver. I’m not including it in the list of wins but it was still brilliant and smugly satisfying.
October 13th 2001
Manchester City 2 Stockport County 2
After one year in the Premier League for City, they were back where they belonged and thankfully for me after one year travelling in New Zealand, I didn’t miss one of these neighbourly clashes.
We headed to Maine Road in confident mood for this one. 34,000 packed in for an uneventful first half but early in the second half, kicking towards the packed away end, Glynn Hurst, a short but fairly stocky striker, put County 1-0 up following a header from the giant Finnish international, Shefki Kuqi. The away fans were still celebrating a minute later when Ali Benarbia equalized for City. County stayed on the front foot and halfway through the half, Hurst was involved again, this time bundled over in the box and we had another penalty at Maine Road in front of the County fans. This time it's Kuqi who smashes it home before launching himself into the air, spread-eagled like an airplane, a celebration he would famously continue at a higher level. History was repeating itself, 2-1. This time City were a much better team though than the relegated lot a few years earlier. This lot actually yo yo’ed back into the Premier League and with six minutes left, Shaun Goater, slammed home a leveller from a Wright-Phillips cross. I remember being gutted but we left with our heads held high.
March 19th 2002
Stockport County 2 Manchester City 1
Confession time, one of the biggest regrets of my footballing life, I didn’t go to this one. It was a combination of a lack of money after blowing through it like paper in New Zealand, staying at a mates house in Knutsford and not fancying the drive, having to get up at the crack dawn for work and probably most importantly, furious at how the season had panned out with Carlton Palmer taking us back down to the third tier. Although we could debate how much of that was his fault, the problems ran deep on and off the pitch before he arrived but as we came head to head with City for the last time in that era and haven’t done since, they were top of the table and we, unbelievably in the middle of March, were already down and 66 points behind them.
Still, another memorable night at Edgeley Park unfolded and it still ranks very high in a lot of fans memory banks, I think due to the manner in which it was won, with two goals in the last few minutes at the Cheadle End.
Jon Macken put City 1-0 up after another goalkeeping error in this series, this time by Andy Dibble. Ironically and in line with the theme throughout, Dibble used to play for City and guess who was in goal at the other end this night? Carlo Nash.
Jon Hardiker a player who was solid but didn’t do an awful lot in a County shirt other than this night levelled things up in the 85th minute with a looping header. In the last minute, Macken was clean through on goal for City when County’s player-manager Carlton Palmer, rolled back the years and came bounding across to whip the ball off his foot, turn gracefully and started an attack down the other end which led to the unmarked Hardiker, gleefully slotting home to the joy of the County fans. Mass celebrations followed. Next season we would be two leagues below them. We didn’t know then what we know now. They moved to a shiny new stadium and have become one of the richest clubs in the world, while we fell all the way into six years of regional part-time football. I suspect if we played City in the league again it wouldn’t look anything like these games. It would be more sterile, mostly on their end. I went to a City game last season, it was soul-destroying. They are unrecognizable from that yo-yo club from Maine Road. Many of their fans miss those days, just not when poxy little Stockport County got right under their skin.
Some of the missing highlights are lumped together here: https://youtu.be/rK5qTNOSgt0