The Underdog Blog: An (updated) Introduction (2015/16)

12 months ago, I decided to go and watch an FA Cup Qualifying Round match at Salford City. It was the start of a brilliant adventure taking in some fantastic matches.

This season, I’m doing it all again. Ground-hopping appears to be an ever-frequent way of rebellion against the millionaires of the Premier League. There’s something pure and real about the early qualifying rounds and the refreshing sight of the big boys being humbled by lesser teams in the latter rounds (see Chelsea and Manchester City last season).

I’m hoping to meet more men and women who represent everything I fell in love with about the game; passion, excitement and the everlasting dream that success might just be around the corner. And, hopefully, I’ll witness a few good games and the occasional cup upset along the way.

You can follow me by following this blog; or there’s a Facebook page and Twitter feed if that’s easier. And if you think I should be watching your team, get in touch. That’s exactly how I ended up following Chester FC last season – my personal favourite of the whole campaign.

First up: Penistone Church FC vs Pontefract Collieries FC in the Extra Preliminary Round.

Noun: underdog

a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest

“we go into this game as the underdogs”

Synonyms: weaker party, victim, prey, loser

I love the FA Cup. From the muddy pitches and crowded terraces of the early rounds to the all-day extravaganza of Cup Final day, it fills me with a feeling of nostalgia unlike anything else. I find the romance of it all impossible to resist.

Tune in for the first round draw, late-night highlights of a drab fifth round replay or the finale itself, and you’ll be drip-fed the same images: Ronnie Radford’s thunderbolt for Hereford more than four decades ago. Ricky Villa, under the Wembley floodlights, winding his way through half of the Manchester City team. Award yourself double points for Guliano Grazioli.

As a nine-year-old boy, just beginning to watch the game for enjoyment, I’d get up early every Sunday and watch the same VHS, week in, week out. I’d impatiently move Back to the Future out of the way. No E.T or Indiana Jones for me; one battered old video with a bright orange label had everything I needed: Spurs vs Forest ’91 Cup Final.

Every weekend I’d watch Clough and Venables walk, hand in hand, onto the famous pitch. Princess Diana would greet each player and I’d urge Gazza to take deep breaths before feeling the same dismay as he left the stadium, and later Tottenham, in an ambulance.

Pearce’s stunning free-kick, Paul Stewart’s equaliser and Des Walker’s decisive extra-time own goal are still embedded in my mind, along with Gary Mabbutt lifting the Cup for a record eighth time; we haven’t been back to add to that tally since.

The white suits of the Spice Boys and a touch of magic from Eric Cantona are my only real memories of ’96. It was the following year when the competition would capture my imagination. Now watching football regularly, and still drunk with schoolboy excitement from Euro ’96, my humble hometown club, Chesterfield, embarked on a run that epitomised the magic of the FA Cup.

With Bury, Scarborough and Bristol City dispatched en route to the fourth round, a promising young striker called Kevin Davies scored a famous hat trick at the Reebok Stadium to set up another giant-killing at home to Premier League Nottingham Forest. Player-managed by Stuart Pearce, there would be no spectacular free-kicks this time. Tom Curtis’ penalty was enough to put Chesterfield into the last eight.

I remember watching highlights of that game on an icy Sunday morning in the same living room I’d watched the ’91 Final. I miss the moment in those extended Match of the Days where Des Lynam would shift in his seat after the dregs of the Premiership games were broadcast and introduce highlights of the FA Cup. My memory is hazy but I’m pretty sure Chesterfield were headline news that night.

The quarter finals saw the two remaining third tier sides face each other: Chesterfield against Wrexham. Tickets were like gold dust so I plumped for washing my dad’s car next to the radio. You could see Saltergate from our back garden as I kicked a ball against the fence nervously during half-time.

I stood on the same spot in disbelief as the full-time whistle blew. A Chris Beaumont goal and another 1-0 win meant Chesterfield were into the last four and just one step away from playing in an FA Cup Final on my 12th birthday.

It wasn’t to be. Surely one of the greatest semi-finals in the competition’s illustrious history saw the mighty Spireites denied a 3-1 win lead as Jon Howard’s shot off the underside of the bar, and over the line, wasn’t spotted by David Elleray. His name remains a swear word in North Derbyshire.

Jamie Hewitt’s 119th minute equaliser to force a replay still gives me goosebumps. Middlesbrough would eventually finish the job before going on to lose their second Wembley final in a season against Chelsea. I spent my 12th birthday at a wedding, trying to keep up with the score in the days before social media and dodgy streaming.

That magical run, played out in my own hometown, crystallised my love of the FA Cup. I became obsessed with every lopsided, David vs Goliath clash. Only now, writing this, I’ve realised many of these moments are captured on Youtube. If you remember Duane Darby scoring six for Hull City as they beat Whitby Town 8-4 after extra time then, seriously, we should probably go for a beer one day.

I could go on. Wycombe Wanderers and Lawrie Sanchez channelling the spirit of ’88 after Roy Essandoh’s (remember him? They signed him off Teletext. Remember that?) late winner in the quarter finals. Wigan beating their billionaire neighbours to lift the trophy in the same year they were relegated. Barnsley beating Liverpool and Chelsea on their way to the semi finals. No other competition writes stories like the FA Cup, and no competition offers the underdog a greater opportunity to triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.

So, like an X-Factor contestant with a dream and limited vocal range, I’m going to go on a journey in search of 2014/15’s underdogs. I’m going to attempt to be a part of their stories.

The premise is a fairly simple one: I’m going to go and support an underdog in every round of the FA Cup from the first qualifying round to the quarter finals (and maybe beyond?) as they face a side above them in the football league ladder. From the semi-professionals of the eighth tier, through to the millionaires of the Premier League, I hope to get just a taste of their hopes and dreams as the long road to Wembley unwinds. Here are the rules:

  1. I will watch one live game in every round of the FA Cup 2014/15 from the 1st Qualifying round through to the Sixth round.
  2. Where possible, I will attend the first meeting between the sides although replays will also count.
  3. I will always support the team in the lower division, and where possible, at their home ground. Being lower in the same division will also count (just) but only when no other options are available.

I’ll write about every match here. I hope you’ll join me by following this blog and maybe telling a mate or two about it. And if you’re supporting an underdog, maybe share that too.

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One thought on “The Underdog Blog: An (updated) Introduction (2015/16)

  1. Pingback: Welcome to The Underdog Blog | The Underdog Blog

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