“There won’t be much to write about”, mutters a bloke sat just behind me on the wooden benches of Victory Park’s historic Main Stand, his tone a mixture of resignation and sympathy, as I scribble a few words into my battered matchday notebook. It’s hard to disagree. We’re just beyond the 75-minute mark, and Chorley and Brackley Town are deadlocked in a drab and goalless embrace. Then, the drama happens. Following a scruffy free-kick, the ball lands at the feet of the Magpies Darren Stephenson. The Jamaican striker – with class and composure – fires the ball under Brackley ‘keeper Sam Hornby. Chorley celebrate. The latest round of fireworks go off in perfect harmony from somewhere in the distance. It’s a rare treat in a tight and tricky contest. But is it enough to bring 3 points to this corner of South Lancashire?
I arrive in Chorley on Saturday lunchtime, to witness one of the town’s regular markets – a tradition here since the 15th century. As with the unwavering support of the local Non-League club, it’s a sign that community and tradition are still alive and well in Chorley. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Chorley has been hit hard in recent decades. One of many Lancashire towns to grow up around the booming cotton trade of the Industrial Revolution, it’s struggled to cope with the end of traditional industry. Its terraced streets look tired, and serve to make the town’s handful of stunning buildings look even more impressive and incongruous.
Despite the tough exterior, Chorley has a good range of pre-match options for the visitor. I decide to take in one of Chorley’s smart, urbane restaurants and one of its resolutely unpretentious pubs – partly because it’s an interesting combination, but mostly because they’re near each other. I’m lazy like that.
I eat at Cosmopolitan, a sleek eatery at the heart of the town. With a timeless, stylish interior – and more importantly, tasty, hearty food for excellent value (at lunchtimes, at least), I’m impressed. I go for a spiced vegetable soup (delicious) and a crispy chicken burger with fries (pretty good). It’s followed by a visit to The George pub, also located about 1km from Victory Park. There’s football on the TV, inexpensive beer and a spacious, unfussy vibe. It won’t set the world alight, but it’s a decent enough spot to grab a drink.
The next destination, though, is the most evocative. Victory Park (officially ‘The Chorley Group Victory Park Stadium’), reached by a muddy car park off of Duke Street, is redolent with the aura of football grounds of decades gone by. The Main Stand- running along one end of the pitch – is resplendent with old wooden benches, reached by a set of crumbling steps, and offering a superb vantage point towards the pitch. There’s a few pillars, but provided you don’t sit too near them, they’re more a minor irritation than an inconvenience. Behind each goal are reasonably sized terraces – and at half-time fans of both sides swap between the covered Pilling Lane End and the weather-beaten Duke Street Terrace, to watch their beloved sides in action. Across the other side of the pitch, fans lean casually on the hoardings, whilst one cheeky viewer avoids the entry fee by pitching up a chair on a hill behind the ground. It all feels like a glorious ‘fuck you’ to the increasing encroachment of soulless, bowl-shaped, all-seater grounds imposed on fans across the land.
I take a pew on the benches of the Main Stand, and keen to get a fan’s view, chat to Chris, a Chorley supporter bedecked with a rather stylish Chorley FC beanie hat (I’m almost tempted into getting my own). He tells me that this campaign has been “up and down”, predicting the club to finish the season “mid-table, the way they’re playing”. “No way we’ll get play-offs”, he adds glumly. After last season’s devastating play-off final collapse against Guiseley, and this week’s shock cup exit to Northwich Victoria, it’s easy to see why optimism might be in short supply amidst the Victory Park Faithful. The tannoy announcer is finding gallows humour a bit easier. “Horizontal rain”, he announces of the afternoon’s forecast. “Well”, he concedes, “it’s the North, innit”.
The teams kick-off, Chorley in the famous black & white stripes that garnered their nickname, Brackley in shirts of a relatively demure yellow. The home side press their visitors in the opening moments, but are let down by some sloppy passing. The first chance – on the break – goes to The Saints. David Moyo’s header across goal finds tireless striker Glenn Walker, but his shot flashes wide of Sam Ashton’s near post. A collective sigh of relief rings out from three corners of the ground.
As the half wears on, though, Chorley have the better of what few chances are on offer, on a rather churned-up pitch. Marcus Carver, on loan from Accrington Stanley, slashes through the Brackley defence twice in quick succession, showing a real touch of class. First, his rasping shot forces Brackley ‘keeper Sam Hornby into a smart, low save, before Carver darts down the wing mere moments later, playing in a sumptuous cross across the 6-yard-box. Only a superb defensive clearance saves Brackley from a certain goal. And it is Chorley who look the more threatening – albeit sporadically – throughout the half.
Both sides manage to slash a free-kick off target from a decent range, before the home side waste a few headed opportunities, and the half goes into something of a lull. The encouragement from the home faithful never lets up, even as the game drifts aimlessly towards half-time. The whistle goes, and one hopes that a rousing team talk from either of Messrs. Jansen and Wilkin will lead to a blistering start to the second period. It doesn’t.
As the daylight ebbs away, the second half shows no sign of sparking into life. Chorley struggle to build any momentum, and visiting Brackley (without an away win in the National League North all season) look increasingly happy to sit back and occasionally try to hit their opponents on the break. It takes about 15 minutes for the second period to spawn a chance of note, as an inventive strike from Darren Stephenson is matched by an excellent stop from Sam Hornsby, who tips the ball up and over the crossbar.
To give both sides credit, the defences have been strong, and Chorley’s Mark Ross and Chris Doyle look particularly calm and imperious. That defensive certainty is needed when Brackley’s Moyo bursts through on goal, and only a fantastic last-gasp tackle guides the ball past the post, preventing a certain goal and a likely winner. And the Northamptonshire side are made to pay. A Chorley free-kick eventually finds its way to the Magpies’ Stephenson, who slots nonchalantly through the legs of Hornby. 77 minutes gone. 1-0.
The closing moments are surprisingly end-to-end, but the solitary goal proves enough for the hosts. The referee’s whistle rings out in the darkening Lancashire sky, and the eleven men in black & white wander off the pitch, as a sea of scarves, hats and applauding hands look back at them. Chorley has had some tough times, not just in the arena of football, but the people of this proud town are sticking with their club. It’s a win. They deserve this win.
Chorley – 1 (Stephenson, ’77)
Brackley Town – 0
3pm, 31st October 2015
The Chorley Group Victory Park Stadium, Chorley (Att: 982)
Ticket & Travel Info:
Ticket Prices: Adults (£10), Over-60s (£7), Ages 12-16 (£5), Ages 8-11 (£2), u-8s (Free!). These prices relate to all areas of the ground, seated & standing.
Travel: Chorley is well-served by rail, with hourly trains from Blackpool North, Manchester Victoria and Newcastle calling here. By car, the ground is close to the A6/Bolton Road and B5251/Pall Mall. The ground offers car parking for the decent sum of £3. There is some parking in the town, though much of the town centre is pedestrianised.