West 1 Rio Ferdinand 0: making sense of the strangest pre-season ever

When West fans filed out of Brookburn Road following the defeat to then-champions-elect Vauxhall Motors on 14th March, few would have imagined that it would be another five months before we could see our beloved team in the flesh again.

Without wishing to play down the impact of the pandemic, lockdown has had a lot in common with the average close season. The opening period was a refreshing change of pace, but as days, weeks and months began to bleed into one another the wait for normality became ever more interminable. Months without football can do strange things to people – witness the fervour surrounding West’s run in the NWCFL Twitter Cup, which ended in a controversial final defeat to Charnock Richard following heroic displays against Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand’s Stockport Town, a Prestwich Heys side backed by the entire world of darts and Daisy Hill featuring Bolton Wanderers.

Things didn’t get any less surreal as the wheels finally creaked into motion and matches returned behind closed doors. Home games against Winsford United and Trafford seemed to take place in a different reality, existing only as Twitter updates and scraps from fans passing through Hardy Farm on Saturday afternoons. Pictures of an empty Shed End were heartbreaking but West returning as a football-playing entity at all gave us something to cling to.

Finally, we had a date and a venue – Saturday 26th August, Bower Fold, Stalybridge. The coronavirus-related restrictions meant the vibe was a little different from our FA Cup visit there 12 months prior, but losing ourselves for 90 minutes again and reconnecting (metaphorically) with people we hadn’t seen since March was a balm. On the pitch, though, it was a chastening experience – West looked a work in progress and Stalybridge were much improved from a year earlier as they eased to a 4-0 win.

As we got back into the rhythm of things, the team did likewise. The first half against Glossop North End saw Sam Heathcote, already a favourite thanks to his committed displays last term, add to his legend from his new attacking position with two classic centre-forward’s goals. Injuries and substitutions meant things were a little more ragged after the break and Glossop hit back to claim a draw, but we’d seen enough to be optimistic.

A classic ingredient of non-league football, an ill-timed downpour, scuppered a home friendly against 1874 Northwich but we finally returned to Brookburn Road with promising wins against Atherton LR and Altrincham Reserves. The Shed and the Turley aren’t quite full yet but the people and the songs are the same and the ball hitting the net has the same thrill. There’s a real connection between the supporters and the players, too, something that isn’t always the case with the transient nature of non-league.

And so, 189 days after that match against Vauxhall Motors, we descend on Brookburn Road again for a competitive game. It’s been far too long without meaningful football, although this does feel like something of a free hit – Bury AFC losing their first competitive match isn’t in any sort of script. Still, supporting West is anything but predictable, so who’s to say we won’t be toasting a famous win come 5pm on Saturday?

Come on West!

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