FA Cup Floweth Over – My EP Round Journey

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Friday 6th August – Heanor Town 0 – 1 Aylestone Park

This tie was selected as the Friday night match to watch as it was more or less on the way to where I was to be based over this FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round weekend. Being a Friday during the school holiday season, and with 120 miles to travel, I departed South Oxfordshire at 3.15pm, a full four and a half hours before kick-off to ensure safe arrival on time. And thank goodness I did as over an hour later I was still in Oxfordshire stuck on the M40 with a million others.

Cutting cross country to the M1 seemed to be the idea everyone else had and so with two hours to go before kick-off I now found myself stuck on the M1 in the roadworks for what was oxymoronically called smart motorway improvements with still 60+ miles to go. Despite the many hindrances on the way I did manage to get to the ground in plenty of time for kick-off where I met Amanda and the rest of the Heanor Town volunteers who had kindly offered to be my hosts for the night.

I was quite surprised by the openness of the Town Ground. I’d expected a tightly compacted old-fashioned northern town centre ground, and hadn’t realised the Town Ground accommodated both cricket and football, and that that was the reason for the Friday night fixture. The social club by the cricket ground was heaving both inside and out, basking in what was an unexpectedly warm evening sun, whilst I meandered around the ground taking photos and getting to know those involved in running the club.

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My intention also was to keep up to date with all the other Friday night matches and share those updates with those who follow @FACupFactfile, but past experience told me to ensure my tablet was fully charged in order to last the whole match. So I plugged it into a socket in the prefab boardroom and then heard a loud crack. The plug was kaput. I’d have to hope the power would last the match. It wouldn’t.

The two teams came out slightly later than expected, a delay that would have an impact on an FA Cup record set later in the evening. There was a nice touch from the Aylestone Park captain Kieran Neat who led his team out cuddling his recently born child and participated in the respect handshake before handing the baby back to its mother.

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The match kicked-off five minutes late, and the higher league home side pressed early on and maybe should have capitalised on that short period of dominance. As is often the case in football, though, the visitors broke away from one period of resolute defending and struck a blow by scoring on the counter-attack, with Ryan Foster netting from close range in the fifth minute.

Having switched off my tablet to conserve power, I quickly had to re-boot it so as to announce the goal and declare it as ‘the earliest in a season a goal had ever been scored in the FA Cup’ – 4th August 7.55pm. However, there had already been an announcement on Twitter of another goal being scored, a sixth minute strike by Liam Tack (pictured) for Flackwell Heath.

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I’d built up the anticipation of this ‘earliest ever goal in FA Cup’ record and Twitter was awash with congratulations to Liam Tack until my Tweet announcing the earlier Aylestone Park goal. However, upon confirmation with Flackwell Heath, their opening goal was timed at 7.51pm and so therefore beat the goal by Ryan Foster by four minutes. Whatever the reason for the delay in kick-off at Heanor, it had robbed the Aylestone Park player a place in the history books, that place being taken by Liam Tack.

Instead of invigorating the home side that early strike seemed to knock the wind out of their sails and the rest of the half proved to be pretty nondescript. I spent most of the time conversing with Groundhoppers one, a friend who is match secretary for the local Central Midland Football League Chris Berezai, and others whom I recognised from attending the Groundhops at my own local league, the North Berks League.

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Half time came and I joined the club officials in their boardroom for half time snacks and a cuppa where I met both home and away officials and members of the North West Counties League committee. I spent the 15 minutes trying to catch up on all the half time scores from the five FA Cup matches being played that night and share what was going on at the Town ground.

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The second half of the match echoed the last 40 minutes of the first half and the lower league East Midlands Counties League side held on to their lead to register their first ever FA Cup win in what is their second campaign. The more FA Cup seasoned hosts were out with barely a whimper and I rushed to the bar where the only internet connection was based to update Twitter and find out the rest of the scores.

Chris Berezai kindly showed me directions to get to the M6 via Derby and Stoke and I set off to Southport where I would be staying with my mother as a base from which to visit North West clubs competing in the FA Cup. First I would have to take a trip to PC World to get a replacement lead to my powerpack, fraught as I was with the though ‘how could I be @FACupFactfile if I couldn’t update Twitter during the massive amount of FA Cup games to take place on the Saturday’.

I should have arrived in Southport by midnight, but the road system contrived to prevent me from doing so. First, the A50 was closed just outside Stoke, but as luck would have it, the diversion took me north and towards Junction 16 of the M6 which is what I needed. My celebrations of a small bit of fortune proved to be very short-lived because Junction 16 is the start of the M6 smart motorway improvements. Traffic was heavy but moving, but that didn’t last long as the carriageway was reduced to one lane and we all came to a standstill. Half-past eleven at night and I was stuck in non-moving traffic. Unbelievable!

I finally arrived in Southport closer to 1.0am than midnight and was inspired to go into the 24 hour Tesco near my mother’s house to see if they had the part I needed to power my tablet. The store may well be 24 hours, but the electronic department is 8.0am to 8.0pm and so not a soul was in sight. I’d never been in a supermarket at 1.0am before and I probably never will again. To her credit, my mother was still up to greet me, and I asked her with little expectation if she had a connecting lead like the one I needed. Bless her, despite being an Octogenarian on her next birthday, she scoured through all her cupboards and drawers and produced the lead I needed. I would get a fret-free sleep after all as my tablet re-charged overnight.

Saturday 5th August – Litherland REMYCA 2 – 0 AFC Liverpool

Luck was on my side when this tie was selected for me as the Saturday FA Cup match to attend via a Twitter poll between this tie, the Northwich derby and Padiham versus City of Liverpool, as the BBC had announced they were to expand their coverage of the FA Cup by showing one match per Qualifying Round live via the Internet. The luck element was because of FA rules the match could not kick off at 3.0pm and was brought forward to 12.30pm instead, meaning I could be safely ensconced back in Southport to report on the plethora of FA Cup matches taking place that afternoon.

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Heanor Town had exhibited a very high level of hospitality towards me and Litherland REMYCA took it to the next level. The club was participating and hosting an FA Cup tie for the first ever time, had had the match brought forward two and a half hours and had to accommodated a BBC cameraman and his colleague, but still found time to treat me as if I had been a founding member of the club back in 1959.

The real club founder Ken Edwards, founding the club along with his brother Billy, was my host pre-match, making me cups of tea and regaling me with stories of how the club was created and how it has risen through the Non-League pyramid to its current level of North West Counties League Division One. Ken is a true football man, full of passion for his club coupled with a vision that has been embraced by like-minded individuals.

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Sitting in the ‘boardroom’ ahead of the game gave me plenty of opportunity to meet many Litherland REMYCA board members and volunteers as well as officials from AFC Liverpool, the referee and his assistants, and more members of the North West Counties League committee. However, the pitch at REMYCA is a long way from the boardroom and the community centre wi-fi didn’t stretch that far. I could have watched the game from the boardroom and tweeted updates, but decided to go pitch-side to watch the game and provide updates at half time and the end of game.

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I bumped into a couple of Groundhoppers, including one from the previous evening, and settled down by a corner flag nearest the clubhouse. The first half of the match proved to be a great advert for football at this level as witnessed by a global audience via the internet. AFC Liverpool started the brighter, but the hosts soon came into their own, and the AFC Liverpool keeper made a series of close range saves, seemingly with every part of his body but his hands, to keep REMYCA at bay. The joke amongst those watching on the Internet was that with a performance like that he wouldn’t be at AFC Liverpool by next week.

Despite the good play from both sides the game remained goal-less at half-time. I quickly scurried back to the boardroom for wi-fi connectivity and reported as much jokingly commenting that everyone would probably know that anyway thanks to the BBC coverage. Conor McNamara re-tweeted my updated to the masses! Half time also gave me the opportunity to speak to more of the REMYCA volunteers.

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The second half of the match kept up the standard exhibited in the first half, with one major difference: it was all REMYCA, who came close on several occasions to opening the scoring thwarted by a combination of keeper, defenders on the line and woodwork. Eventually, though, the breakthrough came, appropriately via another goal-line clearance, but this time Colin McDonald (pictured) was on hand to steer the ball home. He went charging towards the fans behind the goal, a distance almost equivalent to sprinting to the half-way line, to celebrate finally taking the lead. The goal will forever go down in history as the first goal scored whilst being broadcast live by the BBC for Internet viewers.

Colin McDonald

REMYCA continued to be on top for the rest of the game and added a wonderful second goal to go on and produce the first Cupset of this year’s competition. I rushed back to the boardroom to tell everyone who hadn’t been watching the game remotely only to find wi-fi connectivity wasn’t forthcoming. It was only a minor hindrance on what had been a very special FA Cup occasion and I set off back to Southport for the whirling dervish experience of trying to keep on top of 150 or so FA Cup ties simultaneously.

Sunday 6th August – Widnes 0 – 5 Handsworth Parramore

My tablet performed normally for the next 12 hours allowing me to provide reviews on all Saturday’s FA Cup matches and start the process of collating data to preview the known preliminary rounds. Just as I completed the task I was notified that battery life had just 6% left, a strange notification given that it was plugged in to the mains. I went to adjust the connection only to end up burning my fingers as the wire had come loose and was heating up the plastic casing. I yanked the wire out just in time as it was on the verge of catching fire.

I had time to get a replacement but none of PC World, Argos, Tesco or local firm Maplins had what I needed in stock. The only option was next day delivery from Amazon which meant no tablet for the Widnes versus Handsworth Parramore game and so no updates on Twitter. Plus I had to borrow my mother’s digital camera. Twice in just over 24 hours my elderly parent came to my rescue with modern day technology!

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I arrived at the Select Security Stadium in a blaze of sunlight and was met by club ambassador Paul Pennington who proceeded to take me through the maze of the stadium up to the corporate box from where I would view the match. This was a different experience from all other non-league FA Cup ties I’d attended, but one thing was definitely the same: the commitment and dedication of a band of volunteers who keep the club running like Chairman Ian Ross, club development officer Bill Morley and media office Callum Chadwick to name just three.

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Watching a non-league game from the gods of a corporate box is definitely a different experience to the norm, but it did afford a great view of what was happening on the artificial 3G pitch. With the danger of sounding derogatory to both sides, as I definitely do not mean it to be read like that, but on the pitch it was Widnes playing the football and Handsworth Parramore scoring the goals.

A 5-0 drubbing in their first FA Cup match was not the kind of luck I was hoping to bring the home side, particularly as like Heanor and REMYCA before them, they had treated me as if  was a lifelong member of the club. Ian Ross asked me to draw the 50/50 winning ticket and even that was won by the wife of the Chairman of the visitors. If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have brought Widnes any luck at all.

In a bad case of karma, technology got its own back on me. One of the attendees in the corporate box was Ben Tollit, a former Widnes player now plying his trade with Tranmere Rovers but currently injured. I jokingly asked for an autograph and a photo so I had something to sell on EBay in 2022 when Ben is famously playing for a Premier League club. Ian Ross kindly offered to take the photo, but once done so the camera decided to pack in. To rub salt in the wound the heavens had opened and I got soaked getting back to my car.

Me amd Ben Tollit (Tranmere Rovers)

Of course no tablet also meant no updates from @FACupFactfile but that would be remedied when the new powerpack arrived on Monday morning. True to their word Amazon delivered it exactly on the time stated in their email and I eagerly set about getting on with my updates. Or that’s what I’d hoped to be doing, but somehow the new powerpack was interfering with my mouse control making it impossible to use whilst plugged in. Remote usage of the tablet was fine, but the machine needed charging so I frustratingly had to wait the three or so hours for that to happen before I could do anything.

I decided to Google how to fix the problem only to find on Microsoft’s website that there was a product recall notice for the original powerpack for the Surface model I was using and a free replacement could be ordered. Well it would only be a few days of having to alternate between using my tablet and charging it, and as annoying as that was, it was bearable for a short time.

Tuesday 8th August – 1874 Northwich 2 – 0 Northwich Victoria

With careful planning and coordination I was able to ensure my tablet would be fully charged whilst attending the Northwich derby FA Cup replay (in Winsford). I would avoid the M6 smart motorway roadworks and get to a McDonalds two minutes from Winsford United’s ground to re-charge what power had been lost from the journey. And then I’d be able to report from the Barton Stadium and keep on top of all the other FA Cup replays happening that night. Best laid plans and all!

The back roads to Winsford proved to be as troublesome as taking the Motorway. I didn’t know that there were major roadworks around the Mersey Crossing to Runcorn and I didn’t know that the diversion signs were for local knowledge use only. I’d allowed plenty of time and thank goodness I did as the rush hour traffic was horrendous at the roadworks and I took a wrong turning. I eventually made it to the McDonalds an hour or so before kick-off but it didn’t give me much time to re-charge the battery for the tablet before going to the stadium.

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I like to arrive early on FA Cup days so I can get to meet those who are responsible for helping to run the club and who have kindly agreed to show me around. For tonight’s match that was to be Vicki, the 1874 Northwich club secretary. As with all club secretaries, pre-kick-off on match-day is one of the busiest times of the day, so after a wonderful initial greeting, I was left to my own devices with an access-all-areas pass.

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The Barton Stadium is a beautiful venue. The pristine pitch is surrounded by banked oval open ends and two old fashioned, distinctly unique stands and covered terracing. The vote for which match I attended on the Saturday put this original tie in second place so I was glad of the opportunity to attend the replay. From an outsiders point of view there was an expectation of an acrimonious air between the two clubs, and whilst there is intense rivalry that you would expect between two such close neighbours, there is also camaraderie, as witness when 1874’s Vicki gave Victoria’s joint owner Ian a massive welcoming hug when he arrived.

My immediate concern was to ensure I had a programme (thanks Brian) and internet access (thanks for your efforts Emma). A new and unexpected spanner was to be placed in the works to thwart my efforts to interact with the outside world. The club had installed a new wi-fi kit with Vodafone. My tablet connected to it perfectly and all seemed well. However, for some reason it wouldn’t access Twitter and my BT Anywhere option that I pay good money for was nowhere to be seen. Emma did everything she could to resolve my issue, but it seemed that the Vodafone wi-fi was not set up to access Twitter (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either).

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As for the match itself, there was only ever going to be one winner. 1874 Northwich took the game to their opponents and could have taken the lead several times before they actually did, eventually running out 2-0 the victors. That defeat for Victoria is the first time the club has ever gone out of the FA Cup at the Extra Preliminary Round stage in 109 seasons of participating in the competition. To be fair to them ,though, it was only the second time they had actually had to play in this round.

I’d decided to return back to South Oxfordshire as I was already a third of the way home. I was in no rush but a clear run was expected. Yet again the UK motorway system decided that this was not to be the case. Joining the M6 in the middle of the smart motorway improvement roadworks meant I started at a crawl, but that was not unexpected. What was unexpected, though, was that the motorway was closed between Junctions 15 and 14 and we would all be diverted down the speed camera laden A34. It probably added an hour to my journey, but at least I got back safely. Who knows if I have one or more speeding tickets, mind!

So four FA Cup matches in five days. A veritable treat of terrific football capped off by the most wonderful of warm welcomes from all the volunteers and board members at each and every one of the clubs I visited. These people are the reasons why I am so passionate about the FA Cup at this stage of the competition, and why I am happy to endure the awful UK road system to attend them. I want to thank everyone of the clubs for their hospitality particularly my hosts for each game: Amanda (Heanor), Ken (REMYCA), Ian (Widnes) and Vicki (1874).

Final result of my four FA Cup matches – Technology 4 @FACupFactile 0

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Postscript: My replacement powerpack arrived on Thursday morning, or rather it didn’t. What arrived was a replacement plug and lead to go into the powerpack. On initial use it appeared to resolve the mouse interference problem and I cursed that I could have just replaced that part on Sunday. However, it was a false dawn and the interference problems have continued. I’m now ordering another replacement powerpack unit!

As for my problems with Internet access I’m finally going to have to bite the bullet and join the 21st century by getting a 4G smart phone, although my experiences with anything to do with ‘smart’ this weekend has left me doubtful the future will be any brighter on that score.

 

 

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