Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hendon 0 Woking 5

FA Cup fourth qualifying round
Attendance: 528

And so my FA Cup trail finally leads me to Wembley. Not Wembley stadium, not even Wembley FC but to see a tie at their ground, Vale Farm, which the club shares with Hendon. The road to Wembley was torture – which wasn’t a reflection of my three previous ties but the horrendous traffic in the town. I had more than enough time to admire the window displays of Primark and the 99p Shop on the High Street. Fine emporiums. The 11-mile drive from where I was staying with family to the ground took 70 mins. My brother-in-law, nephew (pictured above) and I heard the whistle blow as we jogged from where we parked and got into the match just in time to see Woking take the lead which set the scene for the contest (more of which later).

As it turned out, there would’ve been no point in getting there much earlier to soak up the atmosphere. There was none. The crowd was the second lowest of the round. I guess in London that there’s less of the ‘town turning out to cheer on their lads’ and since Hendon weren’t even playing in their own borough the support was even less passionate. It felt like we were in the second qualifying round rather than just one win from the big time. Echoes of Newcastle Benfield Bay Plastics, in fact.

The ground is ramshackle. I suspect that the formidable head-to-toe turnstiles (perhaps the idea is to keep fans in) came from Wembley stadium or arena and the giant clock over the tunnel looks like it originated at one of the nearby stations. The dug-outs are literally just that – but the players sat on a little wall in front of them which rather defeated the purpose of the excavation. On the opposite side of the pitch you could see where the old dug-outs used to be, the empty holes gaping like cavities left by removed teeth. Most satisfyingly, you can see the Wembley stadium arch from pitchside. Vale Farm – where England trained before the 1966 World Cup – even has an arch of its own. Predating the more famous arch, it used to span the path leading up to the turnstiles but is now fixed to a board above them.

Next door is the Fantasy Island Play Centre. I could see various chaps watching the game from the top of a slide which stood proud of the perimeter wall. Somehow several ball pool balls had found their way behind a goal. They caused an incident – not quite of beach ball proportions – in the form of a one-man pitch invasion of sorts. A Woking fan called Jim, fag hanging from his smirking mouth, collected them all up during the second half – not to take home for his child as I’d expected but to feebly toss at the Hendon goalie. Hardly throwing darts at Schmeichel at the Den, is it?

Woking had the big boys swagger about them. Prior to last season’s relegation they had been in the Conference for 17 years and the gulf in class was immediately apparent. They were two up in 20 mins (see pic, below) and it was game over. I’d spent some time convincing my relatives of the unique appeal of the FA Cup qualifiers and I could see them wondering what I was on. The Cards – as in Cardinals – then went three nil up and suddenly I had renewed hope: were we about to witness a cricket score?

I rejoined the lads after my customary circuit of the pitch. I found them behind the Hendon goal, of course, as there was no doubt where the action was going to be. They even picked the right post to stand beside. The fourth goal was drilled in just inside it, the hapless keeper made some great saves in our direction, one shot zoomed overhead like a torpedo and a penalty also rattled the said woodwork. (Harry Arter and Giuseppe Sole, both on hat-tricks, had been debating who should take it). At the other end Hendon also hit the frame of the goal from the penalty spot (their only chance in the second half) and there were a couple of sending offs into the bargain. Five minutes from time Harry got his hat-trick.

No cricket score then but the biggest thrashing of the round and, in the end, a more than satisfactory first FA Cup qualifier for my companions. We equally enjoyed our afternoon under the arches.

Programme notes: Programmes have sold out at both of the last two ties I’ve been to. Come on, club secretaries: print a few more! I so miss my essential bedtime reading.

Click here for 10 mins of highlights. I love the way the commentators voice suddenly hushes when someone scores a goal. In the Cards’ next match Sole got both goals in a 2-0 win over Dover. Headline writer’s dream, or what?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Ilkeston Town 1 Eastwood Town 1

FA Cup third qualifying round
Attendance: 1,128

Ilkeston and Eastwood do things together. The towns are just five miles apart, separated by a railway line, the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border and the Erewash river and canal. They were both promoted from the Northern Premier League to Conference North last season and today found themselves up against one another in the cup. The Erewash derby, I suppose they call it.

The first – and only – thing you notice on entering the New Manor Ground is the new stand in the corner. It's immaculate: the finest piece of modern, non-league stadium architecture I've encountered. A short elevated, single-tiered stand leads to a double-faced clock tower, the clocks mounted on the sides of a sort of Checkpoint Charlie-type tower with open viewing area. On its tidy little roof is a weather vane with the silhouette of a 50s footballer and the initials ITFC above the NSEW. A lovely touch.

The match kicked off at noon kick-off to avoid a repeat of the crowd trouble at last Easter’s promotion clash but the early start didn't catch Ilkeston napping. They created – but missed – five good chances in the first 20 mins. Ricketts of Ilkeston was then sent off for raising an arm and dissent and, as we were all kind of expecting, Eastwood then took the lead with their first shot on goal from Ndwike. The match entered the doldrums until Robinson of Eastwood was sent off with 20 mins remaining for scything down Ilkeston's man-of-the-match, Morgan-Smith, as he was turning his way and that in the box. The penalty was duly converted (see clip below) and Ilkeston nearly took the lead with a shot minutes later.

At last the home crowd burst into life. This match didn't have the "electric" atmosphere predicted by Eastwood’s manager and the gate was half the size of the Easter match. The mood was almost cordial in a way that reminded me of the Harrogate derby three years ago. "You're not singing any more," sang Eastwood's Badger Boys when their team took the lead but the Robins fans hadn't even started at that point. Disappointingly, the Badgers didn’t boing either as they had done so gleefully in that vintage cup clash with Wycombe last season.

Full marks, though, to one Ilkeston fan who turned out with a fantastic home-made sort of FA Cup teddy. In fact, his upholstered trophy looked more like a floppy sausage with long loopy handles, a nipple at the top and a sort of tumour coming out of its bottom. I love the idea of this guy ritualistically dusting off his cup every September then putting it away for another season – or perhaps tucking it up in bed – as the evenings draw in. That’s what the FA Cup is really all about. A draw is never a satisfactory outcome for a cup-tie (and this was my first in 13 ties) but a further outing for the sausage was well warranted. The mothballs can wait until Tuesday at least.

Faces in the crowd: At half-time I spotted Ilkeston-born actor Robert 'Wolfie Smith' Lindsay. He posed for pics as he made his way over to the kiosk for chips. Ilkeston's coach is ex-Tottenham and Reading midfielder Darren Caskey. The third notable was actually a look-a-like: Eastwood's unused sub, Dion Chambers, has an afro that is surpassed only by Everton's Fellaini. Cushion-headers come naturally to this fella.