Salford City FC vs Nantwich Town
FA Cup First Qualifying Round
Saturday 13th September 2014
Moor Lane, Salford
And so it begins. Sort of. In truth, some teams are here having already gone through a Preliminary Round, and even an Extra Preliminary Round. For more than 200 semi-professional teams, though, the road to Wembley starts today.
A glance down the fixture list throws up some interesting match-ups: Cray Wanderers vs Tooting and Mitcham United; Bishop’s Cleeve FC vs Banbury United; AFC Sudbury vs FC Romania. These are all genuine fixtures.
My personal favourite is South Park FC vs Metropolitan Police. Images of a terrace full of officers cheering on the boys in blue (surely they play in blue?) fill my mind. 3pm on a Saturday must be a particularly good time to commit crime in the London area.
Famous names can be found at this stage too: Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, face Shepshed Dynamo. Glossop North End vs Northwich Victoria pits two sides who once reached the quarter finals against each other, some nine stages earlier than their much-cherished former glories.
There’s even a sprinkling of the Wembley magic in my chosen match. Salford City FC was recently bought by a consortium who are no strangers to the national stadium. When Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, invested in Salford earlier this year, they made the bold claim that the Club would be Championship-level by 2030; a lofty ambition for a side in England’s eighth tier.
Their new investment has made a thrilling start in the FA Cup, recovering from 3-1 down in a Preliminary Round Replay to beat Congleton Town 6-3 after extra time and book a First Qualifying Round tie with Nantwich Town.
I check the odds to get a gauge of the difference in quality. Salford sit a division below Nantwich in the Evostick First Division. A strong start to the season, with five wins and a draw, puts them top of the league and already living up to early expectations.
Nantwich sit midtable in the Evostick Premier League, with three wins and five defeats before this afternoon. It’s the perfect recipe for an FA Cup shock and the bookies, perhaps influenced slightly by the modest media circus forming around Moor Lane, make Salford marginal favourites. What a way to start a blog about underdogs…
I’m going to the game with one of my oldest friends, Kev. We’ve known each other since pre-school and were probably in attendance at each other’s 5th birthday parties in the Nessun Dorma soaked summer of Gazza’s tears. Now both approaching 30, we are perhaps the first generation of fans with little or no memory of football before the Premier League, and the famous Class of ’92.
I arrive at his house an hour before kick-off and we briefly catch-up. As a Manchester United fan, living in Salford, he jokes that this could be his first win of the season. We reflect on the busy 12 months at Old Trafford since we last saw each other, but there’ll be no more talk of that today. We’re off to watch a very different team in red.
We arrive at the ground and park on the road immediately outside. You know those Ford sponsorship trails that precede televised matches where a bunch of happy fans park up in a Focus within spitting distance of the Emirates? Where they pretend parking is available for less £20? Well, it’s a bit like that.
We pay £8.50 each for a ticket and a programme and push through the old turnstile and into the ground. The entrance point is raised, so we get a good look across the ground, immediately commenting on several large gantries made of scaffolding which house several cameramen. More media presence is apparent as we make our way around the pitch, past the bouncy castle and burger van. As we reach the main stand, Phil Neville is being interviewed.
We peer in at the busy clubhouse, before making our way into the stand to take a seat. We’re soon joined on the row in front by several Nantwich players in tracksuits, some of whom appear to be carrying injuries. On the row behind us, two middle-aged men with green and white ties sit down after greeting the injury-stricken party. We take an educated guess that these must be the Nantwich owners or directors. We’re pretty sharp, Kev and I.
The matchday programme brilliantly details the away side’s recent rise through non-league, and underlines the impact of a cup run. Nantwich won the 2006 FA Vase and, subsequently, saw gates almost double to more than 500. The Club gained new investment and a £4m stadium that helped propel them from the ninth tier to the seventh, where they remain today.
As the players walk out to the cheers of the home crowd, we notice the ‘away end’; a gathering of around fifteen fans in a small, sheltered area at the other side of the pitch. They bang a drum enthusiastically and make an impressive noise for their small number.
The highlight is an alternative version of the theme tune to ‘Heartbeat’, complete with building ‘der der da der ders’ before replacing the show’s title with the word Nantwich. They get top marks for creativity, particularly given that the fictional village of Aidensfield is supposed to be some 100-miles plus away from East Cheshire.
The game kicks off, and we check our programme to work out who’s who. The most instantly recognisable player is Danny Webber. A former England youth player and United academy product in the glory days of Scholes and co at their pomp, Webber’s career at the very top didn’t quite materialise.
A respectable C.V taking in Sheffield United, Watford and Accrington Stanley saw him score 49 goals in over 200 appearances. Still only 32, he’s the first big name recruit to join the Salford crusade. While suggestions that he’s being paid £1,000 a week have been denied, it’s clear he’s been brought in to make a difference.
His opening fifteen minutes are quiet, with limited touches. He appears to be playing wide right, possibly in an interchangeable front three, and we’re both keen to see the difference those professional appearances make. Instead, it’s another striker who catches our eye in the early stages.
Gareth Seddon appears to be Salford’s main danger man. With good physical presence and a neat touch, he’s at the centre of Salford’s limited early forays forward as they play with patient build-up that seems to break down in the final third. Nantwich appear to have more possession, but their only real chance forces an acrobatic save to the right of former Accrington ‘keeper Jay Lynch.
Salford’s first real chance comes midway through the first half, with Seddon taking the ball neatly on his chest and volleying on the turn. It’s Van Persie-esque in all but the final execution, as the ball goes high and wide, posing more threat to the camera man high up on the scaffolding.
Nantwich’s danger man is a tricky winger with slicked back hair and a small ponytail on his head. He looks dangerous every time he gets the ball, although an early fall does little to win the appreciation of the home fans behind us.
“Do you want a freekick for having stupid hair? Stop whinging, this in non-league!” shouts a man behind us.
Salford’s own tricky winger, Sam Madeley, had the game’s first clear cut chance. Showing impressive bursts of pace, his final touch had let him down on a couple of occasions so far. Not daunted, he burst into the box to meet a Seddon cross, only to tamely tap the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms from the six-yard line on the half hour mark.
He buries his head in his hands, jogging back into position with the support of the home fans ringing in his ears. Salford should be in front, but the signs are encouraging.
As we sit in the stands, fans behind us are interviewed on camera and asked their thoughts on the Club’s newfound celebrity status. They appear positive, and talk of the same nerves before each game as before. It’s always less nerve-wracking if you’re winning seems to be the sentiment.
A second ball enters the pitch just before half-time. The kids behind the goal have accidentally breached the three-foot concrete wall that surrounds the pitch, as the visiting goalkeeper angrily kicks it away. One youngster had looked more than confident about jogging on to collect it.
The half-time whistle blows and we opt for a pie and a new vantage point, stood near the touchline. I manage to order the last meat and potato, much to Kev’s disappointment. He ruefully claims his cheese and onion concoction is better.
We discuss the first half and consider asking PNev for a photo. The fans seem relaxed in his presence, suggesting he’s been a regular visitor in these early weeks of the season.
“We would like to remind all fans that alcohol can only be consumed inside the clubhouse. Please do not bring alcohol outside, as per the rules of the FA Cup”, declares the PA announcer.
“…sponsored by Budweiser”, we add.
The second half kicks off late, as the match officials appear from their quarters minutes after both sides have taken their positions on the field, much to the amusement of the home fans. “It’s nice to know you’re here” they sing, as the blushing men in black take their positions.
Our new position at pitch-level gives us a great view of the end Salford are attacking in the second half. Behind the goal, Neville watches on amongst a car park of large 4x4s and slightly more modest family motors.
“Next goal’s the winner here” says the bloke next to us, none too optimistically given we’re only in the 47th minute.
Danny Webber appears to have moved to a more central position and a smart turn and strike sails over the bar and into the car park. “What a waste of money” sing the fifteen-strong travelling Dabbers army. It’s an amusing thought as, whatever the rumours, it’s hard to tally against the reported £320k a week being pocketed by Falcao just up the road.
There are a noticeable number of children around the pitch, more so than other games I’ve watched at this level. The family feel of the place extends to the investors, too, as Phil greets his own children. The brilliantly monikered Neville Neville also appears to be in attendance, we think.
Nantwich bring on their first substitute, a giant of a lad who looks more like a basketballer than a footballer. “Salford reject” chant the fans, slightly confusingly given that he’s effectively moved up a division. His 6’7’’-ish frame is impossible to miss for the rest of the game as he shows several clichéd good touches for a big man.
The pressure has been building for Salford, with Nantwich barely registering a chance in the second half, and that dominance was to pay off in the 76th minute.
A superb inswinging corner from Nicky Platt looked to be troubling the goalkeeper as it curled towards the top corner. Instead, with players almost queuing up to get on the end of, it was powerfully met by the head of Seddon, who guided the ball past Smith for his seventh of the season.
Having represented England at Amateur level, as well as scoring eighteen goals for Bury in a professional career curtailed by arthritis, Seddon has looked Salford’s best player. A prolific goalscorer at this level, he looks every inch the man to fire the Ammies to promotion.
Nantwich look shellshocked, but it’s no less than Salford deserve. A disputed throw-in near us in Salford’s favour sparks an angry reaction from one of their defenders, who makes his frustrations perfectly clear to the assistant, earning him a firm talking to from the referee.
“Not the lino’s fault, full back” says the man by us, sagely. “Don’t shout at him”. His tolerance, and the decision going Salford’s way, is coincidence, of course.
Salford wrapped up the game in injury time. Webber showed great fitness around tired legs to burst into the right side of the box and, resisting the calls to cross, beat his man and fired the ball past the ‘keeper with a rising shot. His celebration seemed to display his confidence at disproving any suggestion that he’s here for the pay cheque and, with that being his fifth of the season, it’s hard to argue.
It’s clear there’s a winning habit developing to match shirt sponsors Champion Insurance; seemingly just another gentle echo towards Old Trafford. In the final minutes we spot two children running to greet another smartly dressed supporter, armed with designer shopping bags. Uncle Gary’s arrived just in time to see his side book their place in the second qualifying round.
As the whistle blows, Phil rushes to his car and makes an exit. We reckon he must be racing to beat that famous post-match Salford traffic.
There’s no mention of the FA Cup in the radio match reports as we drive home. There’s little doubt, though, that on a warm autumn afternoon, the world’s oldest cup competition is back in full swing. It’s off to a familiar start.
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 1 W 1 D 0 L 0 F 2 A 0 GD +2
Salford City FC 2-0 Nantwich Town
Seddon (76), Webber (90+2)
Salford City: Lynch, Edgehill, Moss, Platt, Lynch (c), Linwood, Dunn, Rother, Webber, Seddon, Madeley
Subs: Walters, Wiles, Browne (on for Madeley), Kirby (on for Seddon), Chadwick, Smith (GK)
Nantwich Town: Ashley, Lycett, White, M.Jones (c), A.Jones, Dowling, Clayton, Blake, Burns, Harrop, Meaney.
Subs: Flynn (on for Lycett), Johnson, Callaghan, Bramell, Mukendi (on for Meaney), Scott, Wright (GK)