Football fans are only supporters because they weren’t good enough to play for their team of choice; it’s the closest they can get to running out on that hallowed turf.
However, if you supported Northwich Victoria back in 1986, then you had a greater chance than any fan ever has to play for their team.
A cold November afternoon, against Conference league leaders, Maidstone United, was on offer for three lucky fans, with Northwich unable to field a starting XI – slightly different scenario to when Harry Redknapp brought on a mouthy West Ham fan against Oxford United in a pre-season friendly – naturally, because football loves a script, the Hammers fan, Steve Davies, scored!
Northwich manager, Stuart Pearson – who boasts 15 England caps to his name – had tried to get the game called off the week before, with his squad struck down with injuries and illness.
Unfortunately for Victoria:
“As it happened, the chairman of the league was Jim Thompson, and he was the chairman of Maidstone, so it would have been a bit of an embarrassment to him if the game had been called off,”
Derek Nuttall, Northwich Victoria Chairman in 1986
At 2pm, an hour before kick-off, Nuttall found out that his club were going to playing with eight men, in what can only be seen as some form of protest by manager Pearson – how very Jose Mourinho of you, Stuart.
The proactive Nuttall, through fear of watching Northwich Victoria running out like lambs to the slaughter to the swashbuckling league leaders, Maidstone, opted to do something that wouldn’t look out of place in one of those British indie films – watch Jimmy Grimble, if you haven’t.
“So I went into the social club, into the lounge area where they were all having a drink and a pie and so on, and said: ‘Would anybody like a game of football?’ They all looked at me like I was mad.”
“One of them had to go home for his boots. One had them in the boot of his car. And the other man was the boy who normally did the Tannoy. He fancied himself as a centre-forward, so he played up front.”
Steve Garnett, Mark Fogg and Rick Parkin were the three musketeers plucked from obscurity to become household names in the football history books.
Registered just in time for kick-off – and pork pies and pints digested – the game kicked-off, with Northwich Victoria’s game plan, in order to avoid a humiliation, to give the ball to their former Manchester United winger, Gordon Hill, who, although in the twilight of his career, was still showing why the Red Devils once owned his registration.
The game finished in utter humiliation. But not for Northwich, who managed to secure a 1-1 draw against their table-topping rivals.
“You wouldn’t really have known that they weren’t professionals. A couple of them had played amateur football. They were so happy to be playing for the team they support and they raised their game.”
Next time you’re holding your overpriced pie in one hand, and freezing cold pint in the other, make sure you’re, at the very least, jogging on the spot, because you never know when the man in the dugout might need you.