“I’VE not seen that for years, people queuing. They’re normally queuing to get out.”
The comment from one Droylsden FC supporter to another as he saw the lines of people stretching in both directions from the gates of the Butchers Arms along Market Street told you this was something special.
And after the announcement that kick off against Stretford Paddock had been delayed by 15 minutes, secretary Nigel Barlow said: “I can’t remember one being delayed for crowd congestion – not even when we were in the Conference or FA Cup games.”
After three years of not having action on the pitch, this was the moment many had been waiting for – and the people made it memorable.
In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold with the restrictions and lockdowns it brought, owner Dave Pace decided to effectively mothball the club, resigning from the Norther Premier League knowing that continuing would have seen it go under.
There were times when people wondered of the Bloods would ever take to the field again – now the wait is over.
Queues from the bar went out of the door of the social club, which sold out of all its stock as 1,088 fans, officially, packed into a ground that had three years of inaction, grime and marks left behind gleefully by pigeons scrubbed away.
“Seeing people come through the turnstiles was absolutely a big thing for the club,” added Nigel. “It had been a long time since I saw people queuing to get in.
“It was lovely to see them streaming in. I couldn’t believe the queues. We’d had a lot of interest from social media but I didn’t know what to expect.
“People on the committee and some of our older fans came in to say, ‘I haven’t been around for a bit.’ There were quite a few of them.
“People were looking around going, ‘I remember this.’ One thing they’ll notice is the ground is certainly a lot cleaner.
“What did I have to organise? Where do you want me to start? Firstly, we had to get the ground ready. Them we had to make sure officials were sorted with things like refreshments for them and the visiting team. We had new kit turn up too.
“This was very much a trial, so we could see what needed tweaking, what worked and what didn’t.
“Basically, three years ago, the decision was taken that without the social club, there couldn’t be a football club.
“We revamped it and got a new brewery. We’re going to really focus on that side of things too.
“And one thing we found we had to deal with in getting the ground ready? Pigeons.
“They were in the rafters of the William Pace Stand and had had three years to settle down. We put metal spikes in there to make sure they didn’t roost.
“And guano was everywhere. That needed cleaning away.”
Droylsden FC’s owner, Dave Pace, had missed shouting instructions to his players for three years. He was back in the dugout alongside co-manager Phill Cooper and assistant Aeon Lattie.
This was essentially a team of trialists after 140 turned up for an open session. A chance for players to earn deals with the North West Counties League Division One South new boys.
It also meant unfamiliarity, not least when the Bloods emerged for the second half with 12 players. “What’s he called?” asked Pace as he took the extra man off.
The fans got what they wanted when Lewis Barlow grabbed Droylsden’s first goal since 2020. A smokebomb was let off behind one goal and cheers of “Droylsden are back,” were heard.
The bench talked of seeing ‘good signs’ – defender Harrison Cunningham looked very impressive.
It did not take long for Pace to fall back into manager mode, at one point turning to his vast array of substitutes and telling them the importance of playing quicker.
He also told his side, which featured some players that were half the age of others, to ‘dictate’ and ‘let them worry about you.’
Eventually, a penalty shootout was won by Stretford – who took the lead through 45-year-old former Bloods striker Gavin Salmon – as they lifted the Tony Downes Memorial Cup, which was presented by the fallen serviceman’s parents, Sheryl and Ronnie.
But game one gave something to build from. Something that had been painfully missing for three years.
“Shouting from a football touchline felt a bit different,” said Pace. “I had to loosen my voice.
“There were 140 of us here three weeks ago, we had to sort a team out from that and I thought they did tremendously, playing a bit of football.
“It was bound to happen that I didn’t know the names I was shouting half the time.
“Just having a Droylsden team back out on the pitch again was brilliant, there was great support. I didn’t really know what to expect but I’d heard there would be a big crowd from the word on the street.
“I’m pleased, though. Very pleased. All we’d had before the game was three training sessions with 140 people. So I’m quite happy with what we did.
“Of course I missed doing this, you always miss football, but it was the right decision to make. What happened happened. I’m not a multi-millionaire.”