Almanack: Coal dust and a pocket of hope

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The Independent Online
ATHERTON did not tamper with the ball. Of that there can be no doubt. Let's face it, Atherton barely saw the ball. Dirt on the ball? Oh yes, heaps of it. But you can hardly avoid that. Football's a dirty game.

The Atherton we are concerned with is Atherton Collieries AFC of the Carling North West Counties Football League Second Division. On Thursday they were up against Manchester City, and Almanack went to watch.

The pre-season friendly is good for all concerned. Senior clubs get a competitive kick- around, junior clubs get a boost to the takings and the fans get to see a few stars in the making. Premiership first-team squads tend to fly off on mini-tours to Europe or Scandinavia, or take part in contrivances like the Makita tournament in London. The reserves make shorter journeys, like the half-hour drive Manchester City's team took to Alder House last week.

Atherton's ground has seen better days, but like many non- league venues it is all the more alluring for that. Grandstands appear to lean at peculiar angles; piles of corrugated iron stand here and there, ready to fill the gaps on the roof. But the fans are fiercely proud of it. 'The Collieries' ground is the equivalent of any other,' Terry Raftry, a regular, claimed. 'We brag about it.'

Manchester City's players may not have thought much of the rudimentary dressing- rooms, or of the pitch, which slopes diagonally and has more undulations than the Bay of Biscay on a choppy day, but they got a friendly welcome from 250-odd home fans. No shortage of wags in the crowd. 'Oo's that in blue, Jeff?' one Atherton fan asked another as the teams took the field. 'United third team,' dead-panned his companion.

The game started at a lively pace and Atherton had most of the early possession, the midfielder David Roach putting himself about to some effect. Was an upset on the cards? No. A City breakaway, a low cross from the left, a rifled shot: 1-0. Roach began putting himself about too much. A clash, another, a tackle that wouldn't have looked out of place down the road at Salford Rugby League club. A heated discussion ensued between 'Roachy' and the City captain. Heated words were bandied around, and the match was becoming a pre-

season unfriendly.

A difficult situation for the referee, Mr Brand of the Wirral; it wouldn't do to send off one of the home side. So he turns to the Atherton bench, rotating his arms. Roachy is to be temporarily substituted. No sooner is he off the field than Martyn Margetson, the youthful City goalkeeper, tries an ill- advised Jorge Campos-style dribble out of defence. As if to take the Michael, Atherton equalise - to general delirium.

It was 1-1 at half-time, and the players retreated to the dressing-rooms for their pep talks. Steve Walton, Atherton's manager, was upbeat. 'We've done well there, lads,' he said. 'We just need a little more composure. When we're banging the balls up, get the first touch right and wait for the midfield. Come on.' (Expletives have been deleted.)

The teams returned to the field, and City quickly took charge as Atherton's non- league legs started to go. Adie Mike and Carl Griffiths were rampant, and the goals were pinging in. Meanwhile City's coach, Les Chapman, faced a twin assault on the touch-line. To one side of him local youngsters ostentatiously played keepy-uppy, waiting to be asked for a trial. On the other side, local nonagerians leaned over to quiz him about City players dead before Chapman was born. He dealt kindly with both, in between bouts of yelling at his players.

His team were 6-1 up at the final whistle. Had the match been useful for them? 'Oh yes,' Chapman said. 'But it's just a competitive fitness test, really. They're good players, my lot. But they'll be better when they're fitter.' The Atherton players were not downcast by the result. 'We like to play the Premier sides in these games,' puffed their full-back Jimmy Blair, pouring sweat. 'They give us a good run-around.'