IT started with a text message.
At a loss for something to do on Saturday afternoon after Oldham had called off their recent match against MK Dons (yes, we do have three internationals) I thought I’d ask the manager, Lee Johnson, which game he thought would be a good one to go and watch given that he was responsible for my predicament.
I was half-joking so you can imagine my surprise when the reply came back: “You can do some scouting for us if you want.”
After enquiring as to whether he was serious I was told that I would be sent to a nearby non-league game along with a member of club staff to watch a player he had been monitoring.
In true, Football Manager-style, I would be given a list of things to look out for and report back on. I won’t disclose the formula here but let’s just say it was a lot to take in.
What followed was one of the best football experiences I have had in a very long time.
Imagine if the Phoenix Club, in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, had it’s own team and you’ll get the idea.
The ground itself was worthy of its own story. Nestled behind stone cottages and a pub amid a gloomy backdrop of Pennine hills it featured one turnstile, a covered stand for about 100 and it’s own social pub (Wales v Argentina on the telly – no Sky).
The perimeter boards advertised local takeaways and taxi firms rather than McDonald’s and Emirates and a tiny kitchen dispensed steaming trays of pie and peas while plenty of the couple of hundred who had gathered clutched pints of cask ale in full view of the pitch.
As if that wasn’t enough to make a Premier League safety officer drop his (or her) clipboard an old dear with a foldaway Zimmer Frame sparked up a fag shortly before kick-off and chain-smoked their way through the next 90 minutes.
Nobody said a word.
In keeping with the Phoenix Nights theme the star of the show was the home side’s very own Brian Potter-alike number one fan. An outstanding gentleman who pulled up his electric wheelchair at the front of the stand and then held court with a hilariously scathing running commentary.
His acerbic wit knew no bounds. A visiting striker, unfortunate enough to take a legitimate tumble in front of our man, got the brunt of it. “Tom Daley you,” he roared, before referring to him as the teen diver for the rest of the game.
The man in the middle also copped his fair share. His first questionable decision was greeted with “Minus five for you, ref”. By the time the match had ended it was up to minus 120.
International weekend had bolstered the gate to double its normal size and at half-time I was told I would have to wait for my pie because they had run out. I took a stroll around to the tiny terrace (there were no fences blocking my path) to behind the goal where youth team players stood abusing the substitutes as they pinged shots desperately wide.
I caught snippets of conversations. One lad was describing in gleeful detail what he had got up to with a girl he had met at the pub the night before. Another group were talking about a scrap they’d seen. Without a barking police dog or a jobsworth steward in sight It was about as far removed from the sanitised, stale Premier League experience as you can get.
The highlight though, came in the second-half when Tom Daley went down again. Quick as a flash Potter, who moved his joystick to ensure his chair kept up with play, screeched: “It’s Strictly Come Diving this.” Five point nine for you, sir.
As for the target he faded after a bright start. Worth another look, I wrote, for fear my novice judgement might come back to bite me on the backside.
But if truth be told the real shining lights, on a faith-restoring afternoon, were those who who sat in the ramshackle stand and and stood on the crumbling terrace.
Their self-deprecating humour and willingness not to take anything too seriously showed me a side of football that refuses to die in this country – and that alone is as worthy of more credit than any pampered Prima Donna.