My only memory of the bright Spring Sunday afternoon when Bury faced Elton Welsby’s favourites in the play-off first leg was that Gary Kelly’s lurid green goalkeepers top became a blur as it was being flung by its wearer across the face of the goal on numerous occasions. Our keeper played a blinder but thanks to Granada’s archive football programme The Rock ‘N’ Goal Years, made in 1995, I learned that his opposite number Eric Nixon did too. A brief clip in the programme devoted to 1989/90 not only shows the Stone Roses doing Waterfall on The Other Side of Midnight, it shows a low cross whipped in by Mark Patterson which Tony Cunningham stoops to dive and head goalwards. Nixon’s reflexes are sharp and he acrobatically tips the ball over as the occupants of a crowded, still-terraced Manchester Road End collectively throw back their heads and “Oooooh!” at the missed chance.
The second leg and the Liam Robinson/Kenny Clements fiasco has been erased from my memory banks. I can’t remember if I cried when my dad told me we wouldn’t be going to watch Bury at Wembley but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were tears.
Five years later, after Bury had slipped into the basement and Tranmere had strengthened their position in the second tier, the two met again in the FA Cup third round. Bury were very much underdogs on that first weekend of the New Year but raced into a two goal lead. The second goal was probably the greatest goal Roger Stanislaus ever scored as he jogged down the left before wrong-footing Nixon – that man again – with a beautifully pitched side-footed lob. On the club video, commentator Paul Greenlees sounds a terrifying combination of elated and angry as he screams his celebration through gritted teeth. All we had to do was hold on for an hour and we were not so much ‘giantkillers’ as ‘surprise package of the round’ which would surely be enough to irritate our mate Elton.
It wasn’t to be. Tranmere threw everything at us as the nucleus of the first side who destroyed me set about doing the same. Even now, I still curse the names of Eric Nixon, Eddie Bishop, Johnny Morrissey... and Ian Muir. The diminutive striker got what I was praying would be a consolation on 82. On 88, as Bury’s players were flagging and after they failed to deal with a tame cross, he was left with a simple tap-in to draw the game level. My friend Alan has told me in the past he was in a bad mood for a week after Tranmere got out of jail that cold afternoon and I can well understand why. We lost the replay 3-0.
I’m feeling oddly hopeful as I make my way from Janet’s to Bury, though I’ve no idea why as this winless run is still stretching back to January. I have a leisurely pint in the Hare and Hounds after trying and failing to step over the threshold into Oi Polloi and have a look around before getting on a tram to Bury.
An elderly lady gets on at Victoria and sits next to me. She takes a word puzzle on good old-fashioned newspaper out of her pocket and starts to play. This really tickles me for some reason and I start taking longer and longer glances at it, trying to work it out, and smiling to myself. She clocks me and asks for my help; together, we’re victorious and it feels like watching Countdown with my grandma on sick days from school all over again. It’s a lovely moment
With plenty of time before kick-off still to kill in Whitefield, I go to a pub I’ve not been to before, the Cross Keys, and have another. It’s as I’m walking away from there, towards the 135 bus stop, that I decide to conduct a little experiment. Lie Dream of a Casino Soul pops onto my iPod so I select it so it plays everything I own by the Fall as well as this number. Bury pts 1 & 3 sounds great thanks to the two pint wooziness and I’m now certain that we should play this before games as a rabble rouser, if only for the “I’m from Bury” refrain. We have two of the most celebrated bands in the British music press from our metropolitan borough in the form of Elbow and the Fall, yet we’re content to abandon any attempt at engaging this culture and stick with the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey across the Gigg Lane PA. Let’s be proud of where we’re from, eh?
My dad’s waiting for me with a letter as I walk into the social club. I’d recently taken out a claim against the Halifax for mis-selling me PPI insurance on my credit card and he thinks that this letter, which has been sent as a result of my solitary minute on the Which? website personalising their claim template letter, is a direct consequence of that. It is, and on the day we can order our season tickets for next season, I receive a nice little fillip that could pay for mine if I so decide.
There’s a good following from Tranmere in the stand which housed the vociferous hoime support in that 1990 play-off game. They have a banner that reads ‘RONNIE MOORE’S SEX PARTY’ which is less a statement of support and more the name of a horse in the 3.20 at Marple that Alan Partridge should be commentating on on The Day Today. I think the visitors may be less noisy today after looking at our team sheet; Trevor Carson starts his last game before his loan expires, while the man he usurped is all smiles in the bar, and Steven Schumacher starts too. There are few names I recognise in the visitors’ lineup, barring David Buchanan who makes his return to Bury after he tried – and failed miserably – to hold the club to ransom in the 2010 close season.
My pre-match optimism isn’t justified in the way Bury go about the first half. It’s not that we’re bad – we’re not, we’re really not – but we seem to lack that killer instinct. After coming out for the second half with the score still goalless, I just hope that more of the same means we can grab a precious point.
Cometh the moment, cometh the man, twenty minutes into the second period. Steven Schumacher’s free kick is floated into the box and Efe Sodje leaps, twists, and lazily, loopingly heads the ball home. It takes an age to go in and I’m perched in that curious half-crouch-half-sit position as I’m dying to celebrate but reluctant to until the net bulges. When it does it’s joyous.
Five minutes later, Andy Bishop hits a wonderful ball directly into the path of the rejuvenated Giles Coke who only needs one touch to control before smashing the ball past the Tranmere keeper. I canter down the aisle to Rowland and hug him tight again like I did after Ashley Eastham’s equaliser against Huddersfield; it was a glorious goal and it may just have cemented that win that, at certain points of the last 13 games, has felt bitterly implausible.
It really should be three as sub Lateef Elford-Alliyu takes far too long to deal with a gilt-edged opportunity before squaring the ball for Bishop who hits the post but it’s the 90th minute, we’re 2-0 up and there’s no way this will be a repeat of the 1995 FA Cup third round.
We’ve won, by jiminy we’ve won, and suddenly the bipolarity of my life as a Bury fan is at the top end of the see-saw. We’re staying up.