Here’s a short review and a smattering of snapshots of my journey attending 2015/16 FA Cup matches across the Non-League community. This season I set up this blog and @FACupFactfile on Twitter to promote positive achievements from all clubs in the competition from August to May.
It all began at Hoddesdon Town on Friday 14th August, 2015, a full nine months and thirteen rounds before the FA Cup final itself. The Lilywhites won the match 4-0 against their Essex Senior League opponents, and went on to add the scalps of Romford, Ashford Town and Sittingbourne before succumbing to Step Three opposition in the shape of Brentwood Town in the Third Qualifying Round. It turned out to be the clubs best FA Cup run for 46 years.
Next up it was a 400+ mile round trip to visit Nelson of the North West Counties Premier League. This visit had specific significance to me as it not only co-incided with ticking off my 100th different football ground, but it was also the first occasion that one of my FA Cup blogs was incorporated into a match-day programme. In fact two articles actually made it into this programme and in to many other Extra Preliminary Round match programmes that day, too.
A very memorable day for me unfortunately did not turn out to be as memorable for my hosts as Northern League Division One side Newton Aycliffe produced a second successive 4-0 result for me, a result that acted as a springboard for The Newts who went on their way to setting a new club record by reaching the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup for the first time. The day didn’t end for me at the final whistle, though, as I was contacted on my way back by BBC Five Live’s The Non-League Show with a request to be interviewed for that evening’s show, to be aired the next morning. I made it back home in time for the interview, thanks to seasoned groundhopper Laurence Reade’s excellent driving, and enjoyed discussing my FA Cup Factfile with Liam Bradford who was standing in for Caroline Barker.
My experience of Friday night FA Cup football in the Preliminary Round almost didn’t happen as major accidents on both the M4 and the A34 on that Bank Holiday weekend meant my expected 40 minute journey to Sholing took nearly three times as long to get there, and the away side, Swindon Supermarine, were in danger of not making it all. Thankfully everyone had allowed enough time to ensure the match went ahead. The first person I met on arrival, though, was not a football supporter but a pigeon fancier attending a meeting at the Vosper Thorneycroft Pigeon Club, sited in the grounds of the sports complex, complete with pigeons in tow.
A very entertaining game ended with six goals and Supermarine winning 4-2, although this wasn’t to be a platform for a great Cup run as The Marines came undone in the very next round losing 4-0 at home to Winchester. However, all the folks at Sholing made it a fabulous experience for me, including inviting me into the board-room for pre-match and half-time drinks.
The next day was my wedding anniversary, but that didn’t stop me from attending an FA Cup match. My wife and I spent the morning in Liphook looking at potential racehorses, one of which we would be ‘owners for one day’ as a birthday gift. Scouring the Preliminary Round fixtures I determined that this half day experience could be fitted in with a trip to Farnham Town on our return, who were hosting Highworth Town. My better half is not keen on attending football matches, but Farnham was also a favourite town from her youth, so she just about accepted the idea of us doing something different for part of our anniversary day.
Farnham town centre proved not to have enough to keep her occupied for the full two hours I was at the ground, so she did make a rare, very exceptional visit to join me pitch-side for the last 20 minutes of the Cup tie won 4-2 by the home side. I’m not sure she enjoyed it as much as I did, but now I can no longer say that she hasn’t ever spent time with me on my hobby. A second successive six-goal thriller meant that I had witnessed 20 goals in my four FA Cup matches so far. I might not have always been able to bring luck to my hosts, but I definitely could bring entertainment to my fellow supporters.
A week or so before the First Qualifying Round I was invited to attend the Bedfont and Feltham versus AFC Rushden and Diamonds tie by the secretary, match programme editor and Twitter Account manager of the Bedfont club. It was a fantastic gesture and one which I agreed to readily, although I did have one specific caveat: access to their Wi-Fi so I could submit results that I collate for the North Berks Football League to BBC Radio Oxford for their transmission before six o’clock. This turned out to require me to be stationed in an ante-room next to the club’s board-room, a room used by the club treasurer for counting the revenue from the gate who hadn’t been informed I’d be there.
In the match itself The Diamonds made the two league difference between the two teams count and won a tight encounter 2-1, going on from here to reach the Fourth Qualifying Round for the first time ever in their history. As for Bedfont and Feltham, they provided an excellent post-match bar-be-cue and drinks reception which I ruefully had to leave before enjoying to the full.
My goals-per-game average had been reduced slightly, but that was quickly addressed when I attended a replay involving the team closest to my home that partake in the FA Cup, Didcot Town. The Railwaymen had come back from three down with 20 minutes to go in the previous round to defeat Wantage Town and had held Isthmian League Premier side VCD Athletic to a one-one draw in the first match of this round. This time the club again had to come back after initially being behind, but eventually won this ding-dong tie 4-3 with yet another late winner. This result not only became part of an amazing run for the South Oxfordshire side all the way to the First Round Proper for the first time in their history (scoring 19 goals in the process), but also re-established my goals-per-game average back up to five.
For the Second Qualifying Round I decided to visit Hook Norton FC, a club who had only ever appeared in the Extra Preliminary Round of the competition some five years previously, and were now being pitted against a National League South side in the shape of Weston-super-Mare. And how glad I was that I did. It’s fair to say that the welcome I received from all clubs I visited this season in the FA Cup was as friendly and as warm as it possibly could be, but if I had to single out one club for the way they embraced me (a complete stranger) then it has to be Hook Norton. The club is sited in a beautiful north Oxfordshire village and it appeared that the whole village had turned out to watch the match.
I spent time before the game getting to know those involved in running the club and couldn’t help but be in awe of the commitment and enthusiasm there was for the club, and for making sure their big day went off as best as possible. From a cricket hut acting as a beer cellar to the chairman posing for a photo with the tem-sheet on a small white-board, there was something particularly quirky about this Step Six club. In the end, despite matching their higher league opponents for most of the match, the club went down 2-1, although they scored the best goal I saw live this season when equalising late on in the game.
Long-standing family commitments meant that I was unable to attend a Third Qualifying Round match, and so my next trip was for the following Fourth Qualifying tie between Chesham United and Enfield Town. The visitors were celebrating setting a new milestone in their own FA Cup history whilst the Generals were looking to make it to the First Round Proper for the first time in 21 years.
In the end it wasn’t a spectacular match, although the right team won 2-1 on the day, and it was played in a great spirit watched by two sets of fans happy to be involved. It’s testament to the friendly nature of many clubs in the non-league pyramid that when clubs elect to change ends after the coin-toss, both sets of fans can walk around to the opposite end of the pitch, cross each other’s paths, completely without incident. The Enfield Town Ultras were very vocal, but the atmosphere was always one of joviality and jocularity.
For my First Round Proper match I wanted to watch a club that was experiencing this far into the competition for the first time in their history. I was able to see Salford City courtesy of the BBC so I opted to attend Barwell versus Welling United instead. I’d heard the club made the best tasting burgers in non-league football so that was a nice extra incentive to visit them. Despite a difficult trip, I made it to the ground in plenty of time where a parking space had been reserved for me, and headed straight for a burger. It did not disappoint (a point I made on an American internet radio show the following week). It was definitely the best non-league burger I had tasted, but (and this is a big but) Barwell was only the 85th non-league ground I’d visited and there are at least 6,000 others I’ve yet to experience.
As for the game, it wasn’t to be for the home side, commendably bowing out just 2-0 to the National League side, and all the players and officials can be proud of setting a new benchmark in FA Cup glory for the club.
There was only one tie to attend in the Second Round, the all non-league encounter between Stourbridge and Eastleigh. Not only was this the only Second Round tie between two non-league clubs, but whichever side won would be reaching the Third Round for the first time in their history. Despite it being the biggest game Stourbridge had ever put on, and despite having to accommodate BBC coverage at noon before the game kicked off, the club still found time to greet me upon arrival and invite me into the inner echelons of their club house, which had been taken over for the day by the media and priority club sponsors. Another non-league club full of generous spirit.
Because of demand for tickets I was in with the Spitfires fans, but this didn’t spoil my experience, and in a way because they won the match 2-0 I managed to get the best of all worlds at the match. By winning the game, Eastleigh became the only non-league side to progress to the Third Round Proper, the first time this has happened since 1969, and will host Championship side Bolton Wanderers. Hopes will be high that they can overcome this financially struggling club, and I’m sure the majority of non-league fan, clubs and officials will be willing them to do just that.