2015. The Year of the Underdog. It was for me at least.
Last September, I decided to go to a game in every round of the FA Cup from First Qualifying to the Sixth Round. The only rule I set myself was to support the underdog, no matter what. I had a lot of fun along the way.
It started well at Salford City. Owned by a significant portion of the Class of ’92, I watched on as Phil Neville fulfilled his pre-match media duties ahead of a 2-0 win over Nantwich Town from the division above. As Phil celebrated and Gary arrived with shopping bags to catch the late second goal, it already felt like a sprinkling of Wembley magic was present. Only ten more wins to the Final.
Second Qualifying went well too. A trip to the mining town of Ilkeston where reformed Ilkeston FC would get the better of Solihull Moors left me wondering if I was becoming a lucky charm. Warrington’s win over Colwyn Bay and Chelmsford City’s gutsy draw against Conference pacesetters Barnet further fuelled my auspicious start. I’d reached the First Round draw without seeing ‘my’ team concede a goal.
I discovered that Ilkeston’s mascot, a hairy looking Robin, was bought by the chairman on holiday in France, and that Warrington Town are a little stingy with toilet roll in the opposition changing rooms, as discovered by a displeased Frank Sinclair during a floodlight failure at Cantilever Park.
“Oi! Stack! Didn’t you used to be half decent on Football Manager?” shouts one from the Kop end. “Once upon a time” he replies, while swigging a bottle of water. “What happened?”, he retorts. He signals quite a bit more drinking from a bottle and gets a round of applause for his sporting reaction. Incidentally, those 300 fans behind the goal instinctively swapped ends with the Barnet supporters at half-time. Brilliant.
I felt like an FA Cup veteran by the time First Round weekend arrived. A strange pride washed over me as Warrington beat Exeter City live on BBC One that Friday night. I’d seen what it had meant to Shaun Reid and his side two rounds ago in front of a few hundred people; now they were being watched by millions, just after Eastenders.
The lucky run had to end at some point, and so it did with a bump. More than 2,000 packed into a small corner of Staffordshire to see Norton United face Gateshead on Remembrance Sunday. The home side’s first visit to the First Round would also be their last, with a dispute over the ground forcing them to fold before the season was out. A John Oster-inspired Heed Army would march on towards a Third Round drubbing at West Brom.
There were a few notable cup runs I missed out on this season. Blyth Spartans were the standout giantkillers, as they evoked memories of glory runs past with a televised win at Hartlepool United on their way to running Championship Birmingham City close. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as BBC pundit Trevor Sinclair would probably agree on realising he was pitchside in County Durham dressed as Jamiroquai.
Had I seen Blyth’s victory, though, I might have missed out on one of the highlights of the run. Chester FC, another phoenix club rising back through the leagues, took more than 2,000 fans to Oakwell in November and I was one of them.
It felt a little odd really. My dad’s from Barnsley and my gran’s bungalow overlooks the ground. They’re a side I’ve always had a soft spot for and are responsible for a couple of pretty special FA Cup moments over the years too.
With the ground a little over a quarter full on a chilly Sunday afternoon, the Chester fans drowned out the jeers of the home fans to cheer their side on to a heroic performance and a richly deserved replay. From conception to the Third Round draw in five years; grab your FA Cup cliché bingo card, it was pretty magical.
The latter rounds were fun, if a little light on underdog glory. As Bradford beat Chelsea and Middlesbrough knocked out Manchester City, I saw Tranmere and Rochdale take pastings against Premier League opposition.
Prenton Park was a miserable place on that Third Round Saturday. In the week Steven Gerrard announced he was leaving Merseyside, Tranmere Rovers were slipping out of the FA Cup and towards the football league trapdoor. After a couple of decent cup runs of their own, they’d been on the edge of the Premiership play-offs when he began his career. So quickly the footballing pendulum can swing, as that afternoon’s free scoring visitors Swansea City could testify.
The underdogs got bigger as Wembley loomed large. The polite surroundings of Craven Cottage, complete with half-time haute cuisine by football’s standards, were a lot of fun. A visit to The Hawthorns evoked a new experience for my six-year-old son (“That was so exciting, I just farted!” – his reaction to West Brom’s second goal) in the Fifth Round as we applauded the life and memory of the great Jeff Astle on nine minutes. A bonafide FA Cup hero, and much more besides.
Finally, it was a visit to Valley Parade. Their incredible run to the quarter finals was even more fitting given the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of one of football’s darkest days. Sometimes referred to as football’s forgotten tragedy, I hadn’t realised until now that I was born just a few days later. It left me with a strange feeling of guilt as I took in the sold-out stand adjacent to me from amongst the Reading fans.
In the end, neither of these two would make the Final. A meek Aston Villa would succumb to holders Arsenal at Wembley as Tim Sherwood’s win ratio endured another dent. Maybe it wasn’t the year of the underdog afterall.
It’s been a great season for the FA Cup, though, if perhaps just short of a vintage one. Some credit should go to the BBC’s coverage, adding much-needed gravitas to proceedings, providing you’ll forgive them for broadcasting Robbie Savage on Pointless in the traditional 3pm slot.
My only regret was missing August’s two preliminary rounds. I get married in late July and we’re currently looking at honeymoon destinations. You’d have been hard pressed to find more romance than Atherton Collieries 5-2 win at St Helen’s Town last August, I suggest. I’m not sure she’s convinced.