The most nervous I’ve ever been before a football match was at Notts County in May 2006 as Bury went into the final game of the season knowing that they were one of six sides who could mathematically end up in the Conference by the end of the afternoon. It had been a wretched season that had offered precious little hope and these 90 minutes were to be the psyche-shredding conclusion to it, not least because our hosts were also one of the sides who could have been relegated. It was, to all intents and purposes, a case of winner stays up.
I’d been out in Manchester the night before with my mate Jonathan, who was up from London, and other northern-based mates. As was customary at the time, we hit Mojo on Back King Street hard before decamping back to Stockport, where I was living at the time, in the small hours. Jonathan wanted to come to Meadow Lane with me, I’d like to think to share the pain if Bury were to be relegated rather than to voyeuristically gawp at the macabre spectacle.
So it was, stinking hungover, that we caught a train from Stockport station that had already been crammed with Bury fans at the preceding station Manchester Piccadilly. There was no jovial atmosphere on the train as it sped across the Peak District; just a tense unease that was being diluted by strong gulps at cans of Fosters.
Nottingham played a strange role in my life in the first few months of 2006, to the point that I was all ready to move there in March. The plans had fallen through (as so often they do) but here I was again, on the same train station platform as I was only weeks previously, waiting at the same tram stops. I remember the wave of Bury fans getting off the train not being any trouble in the slightest, but the police looking hopelessly underprepared for such a large crowd.
The away end at Meadow Lane is colossal and we’d never really have a hope of filling it, but we gave it a good go that afternoon. It felt like one of those games where you know everyone, simply because you’re all on the ultimate same side.
It was unsurprisingly a nervy affair, but we incredibly made it to the break in front after Dwayne Mattis put us ahead just before the half time whistle. The tunnels under the stand reverberated with “Staying up, staying up, staying up” as more beer was deliriously consumed at the halfway point of a horrible mission.
Early in the second half, Bury made it two as Tom Youngs took one step towards making himself one of the most important Bury players of the millennium in my eyes as he coolly slotted home to give Bury a vital two goal cushion. He took the second step a year later at Walsall as, with Bury down amongst the dead men for the second consecutive season, he scored the only goal to cement our safety, just in case you were wondering.
But being a Bury fan, you learn never to relax. With the game ebbing away from them, Notts grabbed what should have been a consolation. As their striker snatched the ball and raced back to the halfway line with it, I started to feel faint. Six minutes later, they got a penalty which they scored from. The other three sides of the ground were equally as full and erupted. A pitch invasion burst into life at the far end and I felt sicker to my stomach than football had ever made me feel.
As it was, we both had nothing to worry about as Leyton Orient won at Oxford, promoting them and relegating their hosts in one fell swoop. The invasion that was shooed back into stands after their second goal streamed onto the pitch towards us at the end of the game, but there wasn’t a trace of hostility as their lot sang “Up with the Bury, we’re staying up with the Bury” at us. The sheer relief that they felt was matched on my train home as we sang Bury songs from years ago. I was honoured to have started the rendition of “Someone scored a goal, Mark Carter” and, after still having his number in my phone from interviewing him for the programme and being a few pints to the good, I rang him to revel in the joyous afternoon. He sounded perplexed but, I’d like to think, appreciative that he was still remembered fondly.
It’s this nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the setting for today’s game that means I’m not awfully keen on going back, because it could never reach such heights. Instead, I’m off to the artisan market in Wilmslow with Janet, who’s got me to herself for an entire weekend for the first time in weeks.A quick glance at Twitter before we leave Rose Cottage suggests that David Worrall has done something spectacular that has me itching for the Football League Show a good twelve hours before it’s due to be broadcast and I bounce into the Golden Triangle with a little bit more of a spring in my step.
After looking at the posh sausages that the breakfast tables of SK9 will be creaking under the weight of tomorrow morning, I turn to Twitter again and am amazed to see we’ve won 4-2. Spooling back, I learn that Mike Grella has continued his fine form with a couple more goals, Giles Coke has somehow contrived to score an own goal and Mark Carrington has grabbed one at the death. After spending much of my downtime during the week watching and being influenced by my Still Game DVDs, I emit a gentle “Git it up yaes!” next to the foccacia and sun-blushed tomato stall.
So we’re definitely safe and we’re even perched in the top half of the table. This never would have seemed likely in the last few weeks, so I toddle off to find Janet, devour my peri-peri chicken and squeeze her hand tightly before our evening’s entertainment at an Irish night, on the weekend before St George’s Day.