The forgotten story of … the Pie and Pints match | Rob Smyth | Sport

On 8 November 1986, Northwich Victoria drew 1-1 with Maidstone in the GM Vauxhall Conference. That bald information does not suggest an urgent need for an anniversary article, but there was a little more to the story. Northwich were so short of players that their XI included three supporters, rounded up desperately in the hour before kick-off. One of them had already engaged in a different kind of warm-up: he’d been in the pub.

This was not a bit of a laugh during a pre-season friendly, as when Harry Redknapp famously brought on a West Ham supporter at Oxford. It was a match against the league leaders. “It was a tremendous thing but it was a serious thing,” said Derek Nuttall, the chairman of Northwich in 1986. “The club would have been censured if we hadn’t put out a full team.”

In the week before the game, the Northwich manager, Stuart Pearson, the former Manchester United and England forward, tried to get the game postponed because of injury and flu. “As it happened, the chairman of the league was Jim Thompson, and he was the chairman of Maidstone, so it would have been a bit of an embarrassment to him if the game had been called off,” said Nuttall. “That made it more complicated. They wouldn’t call it off.” Pearson tried again on the Friday night, calling the league secretary. “I think,” said Nuttall, “it was a fiery conversation.”

Whether in a fit of pique or as a more considered protest, Pearson planned to start the game with eight players. Nuttall did not find this out until 2pm, an hour before kick-off. “That would have been a disaster,” he said. “So I went into the social club, into the lounge area where they were all having a drink and a pie and so on, and said: ‘Would anybody like a game of football?’ They all looked at me like I was mad.”

Nuttall explained that he was serious, and soon had three takers. “One of them had to go home for his boots. One had them in the boot of his car. And the other man was the boy who normally did the Tannoy. He fancied himself as a centre-forward, so he played up front.”

The Drill Field, the former home of Northwich Victoria

The Drill Field, the former home of Northwich Victoria Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The secretary, Ian Merrell, urgently faxed off the necessary paperwork – in those days you could register a player up to half an hour before kick-off – and the match went ahead. The three were Steve Garnett, Mark Fogg and Rick Parkin. One of them had already enjoyed two pints and a pork pie, the worst preparation for a professional match since Tony Cascarino was seduced by the smells of Gillingham Wimpy.

“The team played tremendously,” said Nuttall. “We had Gordon Hill, the former Manchester United winger, playing for us. The instructions to the three new lads were: ‘When you get the ball, give it to Gordon Hill.’ He controlled the game. He was at the end of his career but he was a brilliant player, and a tremendous character – he used to do an excellent impression of Bruce Forsyth.”

Garnett, Fogg and Parkin did a decent impression of professional footballers. “They played OK,” said Nuttall. “You wouldn’t really have known that they weren’t professionals. A couple of them had played amateur football. They were so happy to be playing for the team they support and they raised their game.”

Viv Anderson and Gordon Hill

The former Manchester United and Derby winger Gordon Hill, sliding here to try to dispossess Viv Anderson, played for Northwich in the Pie and Pints match. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex Shutterstock

The match ended 1-1, and nobody was in any doubt who claimed the moral victory. “It was very embarrassing for Maidstone, and we were called before the league and had to explain the situation,” said Nuttall. “It was called the Pie and Pints match. We had interest from all over the world, even New Zealand. It was so funny – funny but serious.” It was even reported in the Los Angeles Times.

The Guardian spoke to Derek Nuttall on Tuesday 18 October. The following day, he died suddenly. He was 89 and had been involved with Northwich for 81 years – first as a fan, then board member, chairman and secretary. Mike Talbot-Butler, the former sports editor of the Northwich Guardian, described Nuttall’s death as an “incalculable loss … If ever there was a one-club man it was he and I dread to think what might have happened to The Vics without his foresight, leadership and example.”

Nuttall had been fighting to save Northwich, who have had all kinds of problems in recent years: they have no ground and have suffered forced relegations, their former owner Jim Rushe was sent to prison this year for conspiring to supply cocaine, and in 2012 members of their supporters’ trust broke away to form 1874 Northwich. “Whatever the problems in 1986-87, they are nothing to what confronts them today,” says Talbot-Butler. “There may be no NVFC in a year’s time and they have been operating without a break since 1874. We veered off in separate directions a couple of seasons ago with the breakaway of 1874 Northwich FC, because it was felt the old club was being taken down the wrong path by successive owners. Yet Derek remained loyal to the end and never wavered in his belief that to keep NVFC going was paramount. I was proud that 1874 Northwich remembered Derek with a well-observed two minutes’ silence before their FA Vase game against Billingham Synthonia.”

Until he died, Nuttall was working to secure the club’s future. “The best tribute to him would be the club’s survival, which he had fought for over many years,” said Chris Nuttall, Derek’s son, in the Northwich Guardian. “I hope the town of Northwich, and Vics fans everywhere, can show a level of support to keep them going. That could be as simple as going to a game and cheering them on when Saturday comes.”

Ideally with a pie in one hand and a pint in the other.

With thanks to John Buckley, Steve Garnett, Andrew Simpson, Mike Talbot-Butler and Stephen Yoxall

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