I have spent this weekend in the company of complete strangers, but have been treated by everyone that I met for the first time as if I was a member of their family.
How many football fans going to a game in the Premier League or in the abysmally named English Football League ever receive any kind of welcome from the club, never mind one as warm and friendly as I received from clubs I’d never visited before, being given an invite into their boardrooms to meet the Chairman, the club volunteers and the oppositions’ management delegation?
I had organised a Twitter vote to decide which Friday night FA Cup match I should attend, and whilst 400+ votes is minuscule in the grand scheme of things, there was definitely a passion from the four clubs to have the FA Cup expert at their match and be the focal point of my weekend’s Twitter feed. The winner of that hotly contest vote was Thame United who were entertaining FA Cup debutantes Abbey Rangers. Jake from the club tweeted me to look out for a small, ageing chubby guy when I arrive. It was only when I arrived at the gate and met Ruth, in charge of the entrance, did I learn Jake was the Chairman of the club and could be found in the boardroom.
After taking a couple of photos of the impressive empty ground (I was an hour early), I headed for the boardroom and tentatively knocked on the glass door and was welcomed inside. Sitting with his back to me was a person matching the description I’d been given of the Chairman, so I introduced myself with the line ‘Hello, You must be Jake’. He wasn’t Jake, he was a member if the Abbey Rangers contingent. Jake was at the back of the room, slightly embarrassed now because of how he’d described himself and the conclusion I had come to. But no harm done (I trust).
It was great chewing the fat with representatives of both clubs, some of whom I’d interacted with on Twitter, and hospitality at the club was second to none. Ahead of the game I learned of another Twitter comrade attending the match, @OxonFootball, and we exchanged tweets to try to meet up, which we duly did. Great to finally put a face to a name, but for anonymity purposes we both had to wear full balaclavas. I think I’d recognise him again. Then Geordie John from Thame United directed me to the press seating area from where I could more comfortably watch the game and Tweet at the same time.
The match was one of five making FA Cup history with 5th August being the earliest in the season any FA Cup matches had ever been played, and when Lynton Goss opened the scoring for Thame United more history was made as that has the title of the earliest in the season an FA Cup goal has ever been scored.
Aside from a goal written off for a debatable off-side, Abbey Rangers didn’t really make any in-roads towards the Thame goal, and before half-time the hosts had doubled their lead.
Jake sat beside me for the start of the second half during which time Thame were awarded a penalty. Jake turned to me and stated that the club had a terrible record from the spot and to prove the point the Thame forward blasted the ball miles wide of the left hand upright. Abbey Rangers almost scored within a minute which would have given them the impetus, but that was the last threat they made. Jake was replaced by Geordie John who regaled me with stories of football in the North East. I’ve always had a fascination with clubs from that part of the world, so I really must haul myself up there soon.
Then, a schoolboy error. No, not on the pitch, but fir me. I was about to run out of charge on my Tablet with 20 minutes or more of the game to go. No more Twitter updates till I got home (a collective cheer went around the Twitterverse) so I couldn’t update that Lynton Goss had grabbed his second to seal the game for Thame. The home fans were delighted, all my hosts were delighted, but the Abbey contingent knew their team had not performed to their best.
The following day I had Fairford Town versus CB Hounslow United to go to watch. I had made contact with Aleck from Fairford on Twitter and agreed to meet him at their opening League game at Abingdon United to discuss the two of us following the winners of their Cup match all the way through to Wembley. It was great to meet Aleck, but neither of us could really commit to the Cup agenda, so I settled on agreeing to go to watch his club’s FA Cup match.
In the morning I got a Tweet from a guy called Chris using the Fairford Town Twitter account saying that he was stuck in Singapore airport, of all places, and that I should ask for Stuart when I arrive at the club and he will show me around. Again I arrived an hour before kick-off and met a couple of guys at the gate, including one called Bill, who then escorted me via the bar to the boardroom where I met Stuart, the Chairman. Stuart was prepping the room for their opposition’s visitors and I caught him in the midst of washing up.
Again, a good hour was spent chewing the fat about local football and the club, although only with Fairford folks, and then I left the boardroom to settle in a good location pitch-side so I could watch the game and keep my eye on the 150 or so FA Cup matches that were being played at the same time all around the country. CB Hounslow United had just been promoted to Step 5 and so were the senior of the two sides, and it was they that took the game to their hosts. However, two clear cut one-on-one chances were squandered, as the reserve team Fairford keeper stood up well and the striker fluffed his lines, and Fairford were awarded and scored a penalty, all of which looked as if it was going to be their day.
But it was a false dawn. More internet connectivity problems for me, this time because I strayed to far from the hub, and by the time I got re-connected, the visitors had scored twice and were leading 2-1 through two well taken goals. That’s how it remained until half-time when I ventured back to the boardroom to join in the banter with representatives of both clubs. After the break I decided to remain in the boardroom to watch the match alongside Stuart. The room is on the first floor of the club house just a few feet from the pitch, so provided a different perspective on the game.
Fairford hit the post for a second time just after the kick-off which seemed to indicate the tide of fortune had turned, and their visitors grew in confidence as the game progressed scoring three times without reply to record a victory probably in keeping with how the game had played out. A home tie against Petersfield awaits the FA Cup new boys whilst a concentration on the League is what Fairford have to focus on.
I was intending to use the Fairford facilities to collate that day’s FA Cup action, but the mood in the boardroom was understandably downbeat so I expressed my thanks and exited stage left.
A terrific couple of days. My thanks go to Jake, John and Ruth, and to Bill and Stuart and everyone at both Thame United and Fairford Town who made me very welcome, showed me fantastic hospitality and made my visit to their grounds very memorable. I couldn’t recommend the experience any higher.