A couple of nights ago, I was enjoying a late meal in a Spanish restaurant when I punched the air. Fortunately it was a quiet night in the Andalusian eatery, so not many people turned around and looked at me in bewilderment.
The reason for the air punch? Stockport County had scored a late winner against Grimsby.
For most people, including Premiership club fans whose season starts this weekend, this minor achievement in the highest tier of the non-league may not seem like much.
But anyone who supports a ‘small’ club will understand.
It’s the little things, the less frequent things, even victories in the Blue Square Premiership, that are the sweetest.
We are all filled with hope, following the Olympics, football will be influenced by what was a magnificent exhibition of sporting excellence, endeavour and spirit.
Yet the fear is that, once we’ve had a month of John Terry, Carlos Tevez and Luis Suarez making the headlines, not to mention the activities of the various owners of clubs in the top flight, the magnificence of London 2012 will soon be forgotten.
Perhaps it will, by those following Premiership sides; but those of us who have spent a lifetime watching football at a lower level, one where you can hear the players shouting at each other and where you can actually have a conversation with an opposition fan that does not involve an offensive chant about your opponent’s manager, hope that a truer spirit of football will come through.
Of course, these are rose-tinted glasses through which I view the lower echelons of the football league and the higher reaches of the non-league.
In common with many other real football supporters, there is part of me that is quite glad that my team is not a world beater.
Approach any Stockport fan and say ‘Friday night is County night’ and you will get a warm smile, possibly a glassy look in the eye, and possibly a whiff of meat and potato pie as they belch their appreciation that you understand what it’s all about.
But my first admission is my debut Stockport County game was a Saturday afternoon. If memory serves correctly (and, given we are talking more than 30 years ago, it may not), it was an FA Cup match at Edgeley Park in which the Hatters took on Sheffield United.
We lost. Dave Armstrong, famous for being a bald eagle long before Atilo Lombardi, scored a header right in front of me as I stood on the terrace at the Railway End and some old guy moaned about Stockport County being the dirtiest side he’d ever seen.
They might have been. They might have lost. It didn’t matter. I’d been to see a real football match. I was only about eight years old. My dad took me, along with my two brothers. It was unbelievably exciting.
My father, who has the misfortune to be a Londoner, grew up on Crystal Palace and Dulwich Hamlet, yet often takes the time to tease about Stockport County.
He has never worn the scarf (and those of you who are Stockport fans will understand the significance of that), but he took me to my first ever County game. So I have a lot to thank him for.
Some might say blame would be a better choice of word, particularly those who support ‘big’clubs. But they will never get the true, personal joy you get when the small team you have followed all your life does something good.
For me, the names Oshor Williams and Tommy Sword evoke great memories of being taken to Edgeley on a Friday night by my eldest brother and the constant decision making process of whether to sit through until the end of injury time or whether to have an easier run to catch the 385 back to Bredbury.
My first Stockport scarf, as it turns out, was actually knitted by my mother. I thought it was brilliant.
There have been many more scarves since then and people are sick of me saying ‘ex-Stockport’ when there’s a former County player on the television. The sad thing was that this week, the goalkeeper who came on for England in the second half of the game against Italy was ‘ex-Stockport’ (John Ruddy – promotion hero). Sadly, there was no one other than my wife to tell. She already knew.
It’s hard to explain that feeling of pride, though. To put it into context, there was a time when the biggest ‘ex-Stockport’ name was Micky Quinn (who I once saw score a hat-trick against Torquay, by the way), so we’ve travelled a long road.
I remember a friend’s girlfriend, whose sister was dating Lee Todd, managing to secure tickets for the League Cup game against West Ham – the one with Iain Dowie’s own goal – and I also remember the disaster when, following quarter final triumph against West Ham, I couldn’t, from my new home in the Isle of Man, secure tickets for the semi against Middlesbrough.
I also remember three days before my wedding I was pacing a balcony in a hotel in Gibraltar while my future wife checked final score on a very bad television reception. It was the last day of the season in which Jim Gannon saved us from going out of the league by the narrowest of margins. My brother was flying in that day and I’d told him if I was in the bar in my Stockport shirt, drinking champagne, we’d done it.
He still didn’t believe me when that’s how he found me. An experienced County fan, obviously.
Since then, of course, we’ve had our travails, both financial and in terms of league status. But no one can take away the special moments given to us under managers like Danny Bergara, Dave Jones, Gary Megson (if we’re allowed to mention him) and even, for me, Carlton Palmer.
Living in the Isle of Man, it’s not easy to get to Edgeley as often as I like, but I always follow.
The last but one time I watched Stockport County live was at Wembley. Under the leadership of the god-like Jim Gannon, we beat Rochdale and won promotion. I travelled from the island and, in London, met my brother, who travelled from Ireland.
It took two days for my voice to come back after that game and I was stunned to discover that colleagues at work had watched the game live on Sky and cheered for Stockport too. I also discovered at least one of those colleagues used to check the Stockport scores every Saturday so that she would know what mood I would be in on a Monday.
My son is three years old. I used to sing constantly the County Anthem when giving him his bath. One time, I was distracted after starting ‘It’s…’. He finished the whole song. It’s hard to describe how proud I was (and how I had to make a mental note to watch whatever I said in front of him from then on).
Most of my in-laws are Manchester United fans, but they seem to have accepted that, until he’s old enough to choose for himself, my son will be a Stockport fan. I hope his first ever game will be at Edgeley Park.
He’s been to a match in utero, but I’m not counting that. I want that special moment where I take him up the steps and he sets eyes on the turf for the first time.
Because every time I go back there and I sit in the Cheadle Stand, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
When the crowd starts singing The Scarf My Father Wore, there’s a lump in my throat. It really is forever beautiful.
Stockport County represents my childhood and my heritage.
We don’t win many big matches – or many others – but I’ve still got the video of the time we beat Manchester City 3-1 in the Championship. I haven’t had a video player for years.
I’ve never taken off the wrapper of the DVD of that Wembley triumph, because I can remember it all. But the DVD is there and one there I’ll show my son.
By that time, I hope we’re back in the league.
But, as the Premiership season kicks off, and we begin to hear all the usual nonsense from overpaid and under-performing stars, I shall content myself with the fact that we’ve won our first two games and, with the return of Jim Gannon, we’ve got hope.
If you support a lower league/non-league side, you’ll know that’s all that matters.