I love the qualifying and early rounds of the FA Cup. I don't support a club; I support a competition. If you're disillusioned with the Premiership and all that then this is the place to come to rediscover what I call real football. OK, so the standard of play is inferior but that's to miss the point. The attraction of these little games is the atmosphere, the people, the sense of occasion and community, and the feeling that you're really part of it. Following the early rounds of the Cup is like tracing the source of a great river. It's extraordinary to think that what begins with a trickle in grounds not much more notable than public parks can end in the torrent of the FA Cup Final at Wembley. By that stage, of course, the millionnaires and TV moguls have long since entered the fray - and taken my ball away. I leave them to it.
One final thing. I seldom describe the actual match in detail; you'll find better reports elsewhere. This blog is all about the spectating experience, the 'what it was like to be there' of the occasion.
An ad from Football League Review 1970-71 which sums up what we've lost - and what we've gained. Click on pic for full size version
Saturday, 25 September 2010
Norton & Stockton Ancients 2 Leigh Genesis 1
FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round
Sometimes deciding which cup tie to go to is a bit like choosing a winner for the Grand National. Just pick a good name or two - which is partly how I came to head for this encounter. In addition, the Ancients were already further than they’d ever gone in the Cup. They rarely make it through the preliminary rounds. In fact, these are heady days all round for the lads. They achieved their first promotion from the Northern League second division two seasons ago and, last season, made the quarter-final of the FA Vase.
For a man permanently infected by cup fever, though, Norton (on Teesside) felt like entering a quarantine zone. There was certainly no throng guiding me to the ground. First I turned into the cricket club and then into a car park which had signs for tennis, squash and bowls. “Is this the right place for the Ancients?” I asked a fella. “Dunno,” he said. “Come here for the rugby”. Then, 50 yards away, I spotted a small sign for the football club. For reference, head towards the garden shed (the entrance) below the tree. Parking was free and admission for the two kids and I (who contributed 2½% of the crowd) plus a programme cost a tenner. You’d barely get a couple of rounds of prawn sandwiches for that in the foreign millionnaire’s league.
The ground is diddy to say the least. It consists simply of one small grandstand and one equally trim, modern shelter around an immaculate pitch. The toilets are outside the gate while the new clubhouse - which currently looks like a modern art installation - is under construction. Houses surround the pitch and one even has a garden with arched gate that leads to the pitchside. A season ticket comes with the property, in effect. Bedrooms could easily double-up as boxes if the need arises in later rounds. I soon spotted some familiar faces from the previous round: Father Christmas among the spectators and a lino.
I hadn’t been to such a small venue since Knaresborough Town and hadn’t encountered such a muted cup mood since Newcastle Benfield. When the players trotted out I clapped but stopped after three claps feeling a bit embarrassed as I was the only one applauding. The atmosphere reminded me of playing than watching – and playing was what a group of boys was doing behind the dug-outs. Always a nice feature of the early rounds, that. Next to them was a microphone and ISDN kit of the BBC Radio Tees reporter plugged into a transmitter attached to a floodlight as far as I could tell.
There was little for him to report – or to take our minds off the hat and gloves weather – in the first half-hour but as half-time approached it all flared up. The Ancients were awarded a penalty but it was saved. Moments afterwards there was a mass brawl. I think it was all handbags (love that football cliché) but it resulted in the dismissal of a player from each side.
Leigh – who play one level higher than Norton – looked the more solid team but the Ancients gradually grew in confidence and had most chances even if they kept fluffing them. Finally, on 67 mins, they went ahead with a thumping header by Bishop from a corner. Two mins later Leigh struck back when Gleave burst through and the keeper deflected but couldn’t keep out his shot. The home side was crest-fallen but, to their credit kept at it, and were rewarded four mins from time when a cross from the right was headed in by Clarke. He stripped his shirt off but thankfully and sensibly didn’t get booked.
That was about the only exuberance of the afternoon. At the final whistle the crowd clapped for literally five seconds (I participated, gingerly) and swiftly cleared off. Perhaps they’re saving themselves for the next round: FC United of Manchester at home. I arrived a round too early.
Pre-match entertainment: I highly recommend Hardwick Park near Sedgefield. It’s a recently restored Georgian pleasure park with lots of follies. We loved it.
Sing when you’re winning: If the Ancients need a chant in a later round then what better than the refrain from Justified and Ancient by The KLF? “Alll-llll bound for Wember-ley, Wember-ley”?
Programme notes: Leigh’s no 4 was Kieran Molyneux. With a name like that shouldn’t he have been playing in the gold and black (of the Ancients). Some good pen pictures of the Ancients. David Alderson: “By his own admission is the thickest man at the club”. Richard Gaston: “Cuts his own hair to save money”. Nathan Mulligan: “Has a great engine and is a set piece expert”.
West Auckland postscript: Auckland proudly announced that they were to travel to today’s tie at Workington “in style” … on the Darlington team coach. To rekindle the spirit of their world cup wins a hundred years ago perhaps they should’ve gone in a charabanc. Sadly, they lost 2-1. Mossley are still hanging on in there, though.