““Lacrosse is many things but Stockport is an essential part of the past and the future of the game.””
The fact that a team of Caughnawaga Indians managed to travel from Canada for a series of demonstration games was one thing; the chance that their practice was seen by members of Stockport rugby club on a train stuck at signals was something else.
Lacrosse would have taken root at some stage but the collision of those two events was the reason Stockport has been the epicentre of the game for 125 years.
Those were steam-driven days where communication was leisurely but the rugby players were captivated by the all-action sport and soon started their own club – Stockport Lacrosse Club: Founded 1876.
Cheadle and Heaton Mersey followed a few years later then Cambridge University and Hampstead as the game took its fledgling steps but Stockport was the first and remains the oldest club in the country.
It is an honour that is woven through the DNA of the club, “History has been a massive part of the making and inspiring of our club and it has helped make us like a family at Stockport,” says Ravi ‘Baggie’ Sitlani, former 1st team and England goalkeeper and now a club coach.
“There have been a lot of successful teams and players over the years and one thing that we definitely try to keep alive is the respect for those that have played before us and achieved so much and brought the club to where it is.
“We try to teach the younger players about the tradition and honour to play for Stockport and we definitely take a lot of pride in our history.”
The heritage hits you between the eyes when you arrive at Cale Green, just a few miles south of Stockport town centre, with the original Flags Final Challenge Flags on proud display in the clubhouse.
Stockport was awarded permanent possession after winning it eight years on the run from 1896 to 1903 while also picking up the league and Iroquois Cup trophies six times during the same golden era.
The club has won the Iroquois Cup a record 24 times, been league champions 25 times and has a string of honours from the 1st team, across a successful women’s section to the juniors.
The current squad has 13 players with England honours and five participated in last summers World Championships.
The secret to the club’s enduring success can be found in its professional attitude, glorious heritage and that family approach – the legendary Masons and Johnsons supplied nine of the all-conquering side from the turn of the 20th century.
Keith Gosnay, former England international and now head coach, believes the family element at Stockport is crucial. The lacrosse line runs from his father Ken, through his four brothers and to his son Thomas, a current England international. Other families have also contributed generations of players
“I grew up ¼ mile from the club and it was an important part of life for a lot of us,” he says. “We played lacrosse, football and cricket down there and it was a part of us growing up.
“There were a few of us who came through the ranks at the same time and that helped the club grow on and off the field. I was 15 when I got onto the first team and we were struggling back then.”
It’s hard to imagine Stockport being anything other than imperious but their fortunes have ebbed and flowed like all clubs.
Its wilderness years came in the 1960s when Stockport County Football Club commandeered the hallowed Cale Green turf for a training ground, forcing lacrosse into Woodbank Park, about three miles from the current home in Beech Road.
“We used to change in the hall and walk ¼ mile to the pitch,” says Dave Noden, a player for 25 years and club chairman for six. “We had no clubhouse and I used to run round to a local bakers to get two dozen meat and potato pies – magnificent, they were – after the game and we served them before the opposition headed off.
“They were tough times but we had no thought of giving up. We were Stockport.”
The post World War 2 years were also a challenge as many clubs fought to reform after losing players in the conflict. Stockport Sunday School, whose combative nature slightly betrayed its name, disbanded and other clubs were lost.
But in the dark days, a shining light illuminated the way forward. Schoolteacher Les Grainger – Mr Grainger - established a junior section in 1949 and one of the most influential characters in lacrosse laid the foundation for the game’s survival and progress.
“Les started the juniors with Pete Wilkinson and others and we grew from one junior side that used to get punished every week to having teams at all ages,” adds Noden, an 11-year-old when he arrived at Stockport Lacrosse Club in 1950.
“Les had a way with him and just got on with it. He was the one who dragged Stockport from near extinction to the top of the tree again.”
The club was revitalised and when Noden and senior officials negotiated a return to Cale Green, Stockport could build a future.
The engine room – a production line of high-class juniors – was controlled by “Mr G”, who showed incredible foresight by establishing the Stockport Metros, an umbrella team for local juniors that toured the States.
Keith Gosnay, now 53, was part of the u13 squad that made the first of the now legendary exchange trips to Maryland, which have taken more than 600 players to the States.
“Mr Grainger was the first grown-up I met when I arrived at the club as a ten-year-old,” he says. “Massive is probably not a big enough word to describe his influence. He would get up at the crack of dawn to do his rounds to pick players up for games. He also subsidised equipment so we could play.”
Les Grainger’s influence was a constant through 50 years and his funeral, in January 2011, attracted more than 300 mourners to Stockport Crematorium.
“Les had a huge impact on the game and he kicked off the Metros that benefitted so many players,” says Derek Howe, a former club chairman, who joined Stockport as a nine-year-old in the year the junior section was born and went on to play for Cheshire.
“Les was held in high regard in the US as well as the UK. He had all sorts of commendations and honours from governors for his lacrosse work and he also did a lot of work for the community.”
Howe, Noden and other stalwarts have monthly get-togethers at the Blossoms Hotel, where the club used to meet and hold meetings when they were exiled from Cale Green, and the invaluable role of Les Grainger is never far from their reminisces.
A tribute on the Metros website sums it up: “He was an inspiration to coaches, players and parents alike, changing hundreds of lives for the better. He will be greatly missed, but remembered with much fondness by all that knew him.”
For a club with such a heavy past, the club has been remarkable in pushing the game forwards. Stockport has continued to grow and its current success is a tribute to the key figures – who exist at all clubs – who devote their spare time to schooling juniors into the game and coaching senior players at all levels.
A thriving women’s section with junior girls teams completes the picture of a vibrant club. The Stockport 8s, the traditional Easter tournament, remains a healthy destination event and the model for other tournaments.
“Stockport has had it struggles but its survival through hard times brought other clubs along with it and Les’s junior set up was a template for others. It is about more than success for Stockport ,” says Noden, a 73-year-old retired electrical contractor. “Being the oldest club in the country is important because it provides a thread through the history of lacrosse.
“Lacrosse is many things but Stockport is an essential part of the past and the future of the game.”