Saturday, 27 October 2007

Harrogate Railway Athletic 2 Harrogate Town 1

FA Cup, Fourth Qualifying Round
Attendance: 1,286

This was a home fixture in more ways than one. Home for me since I only live nine miles away, home for Town since their ground is a a mile away and most definitely home for Railway who hosted the occasion. In fact, it was all a bit too homely. The local paper tried to bull up the match as "The Battle of Harrogate" but it was more like a cordial meeting of two old friends at the famous Betty's Tea Rooms down the road. I've seen greater passion displayed by a Betty's diner complaining about the late arrival of a Fat Rascal. The fact was that most supporters of whichever team was to lose were going to be back to cheer on their vanquishers in the First Round proper in the event of a home draw. We're like that in Harrogate. This wasn't City v. United.

A few things had changed from my last visit to Station View. The ground has a couple of flags, a tiny new stand (easily mistaken for a large dugout, see pic above) and a "media centre" (that will be the cabin with the phone, then). Town have changed too. Their shirts now have names on their backs. "That Danwood is all over the place", said my nephew before we realised than Danwood was the sponsor. The Town fans also have a new identity, TITS, which stands for Town Independent Travelling Supporters. Ha, ha, ha. Standing in shredded Yellow Pages (handy tickertape substitute when your team ordinarily plays in yellow and black), they hung their banner over the advertising hoardings. At Premiership grounds these days the hoardings are electronic; at Station View some need another lick of paint just to make them visible.

The match started with Town hitting the bar and Railway narrowly heading over. Railway took the lead against the run of play with a header from a corner. Soon after Town replied with a goal from a free kick (see above). They had bossed the game (to use pundit speak) but had also played cultured football to the point of being arrogant and profligate, taking pot shots when they should have worked the ball closer to the target.

Just as we all thought it was back to our place (or was it 'their 'place?) for a replay a Town defender shinned in an own goal from a cross. The 10-men of Railway (someone had been sent off) were in front with minutes to go. Deep into injury time Town equalised only for it to be disallowed. And so it was that Railway knocked out the team 53 sides above them and became the lowest ranked side still in the competition.

The Railway lads clenched their fists and shook hands with the younger fans from the opened windows of their Portacabin changing room (not a scene you're likely to see at Old Trafford two rounds hence). Their delight will have been tempered by the draw made minutes later. Railway are at home ... to Droylesden. Should they and we cheer or not? It was a feeling that had persisted throughout the afternoon.

Men of the match: My nephews and ertswhile FA Cup Trail companions, Toby and Duncan Stirke. They came back from the game from the university in Aberystywyth and Oxford respectively. Commendable insanity, I call it. It was like old times: we were all together for the Bristol City match at Railway five years ago.

Two mentions in dispatches: Firstly, to the red nosed, holdall-carrying and Railway-baseball-cap-wearing old boy who I recognised from the Railway tie at Chester-le-Street in the First Qualifying. It wasn't difficult: there were only 1oo of us there. Secondly, to the lino who I recognised from the Dinnington tie in the previous round. I really felt among old friends at this one.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Dinnington Town 1 Bradford (Park Avenue) 7

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round
Attendance: 518

As I entered the ground I wondered if I'd entered a timewarp too and and was heading backwards on my FA Cup trail. Just a round after being among a bumper crowd at the splendid Stalybridge Celtic stadium I had arrived at diddy Dinnington Town in South Yorkshire. They're from the lowest division that affords entry to the competition and it showed. The modern ground was more of just a pitch enclosed by a concrete fence with three small corrugated iron sheds as stands. The only thing that made me think of Celtic were the green and white hoops of the opposition.

If, by some miracle Dinnington (let's call them The Dinners) were to win two more matches and reach the first round proper to play Leeds at home then the match would have to be switched. It's a miracle, in fact, that they were at the third qualifying round given their lowly status. Their FA Cup journey started a day before everyone else - at a Friday evening kick-off in the Extra Preliminary Round against Maltby Main. It was broadcast live on Sky partly because of the local rivalry but also, I presume, because it was the Dinners' first ever FA Cup tie. Now this was the biggest game in their short history.

Avenue, in contrast, have a rich heritage, their shorts proudly proclaiming their centenary. They were a League side until 1970 and peaked in the Cup with a quarter-final replay against Birmingham in 1946, reaching the later rounds many times in subsequent years. Current day riches stretch to a pair of liveried minibuses with "Mark 'em tighter!" on the side and "Ahhhh!" on the back.

Avenue are only two divisions higher than Dinnington but it seemed like much more. They soon exerted their superiority. "England are three up," said the girl next to me to her friend. "Same as here". With 10 mins until half-time I was starting to wish I was at home watching the international and the photographer from the Dinnington Times was already editing his pics on the laptop (see below).

The Dinners team half-time team talk didn't work. Straight from the kick-off the nippy Avenue No 7 curled in a corker to make it 0-5. Worse was to come when a second Dinner was sent off in a baffling Graham Poll-ian card trick. The home side got a deserved consolation before Avenue concluded with a seventh. "Bradford Park Sevenue!" was the headline in the Non League Paper.

So: 7-1. Not bad for an afternoon's entertainment, you might think. But, given the totally unremarkable ground, only the magic 10 or, better still, a single goal victory for the underdogs would've made this a vintage FA Cup experience.

One for the boys: What makes a moderately attractive young woman want to spend an afternoon jigging up and down, pony-tail swinging this way and that, in front of a bunch of wolf-whistling reprobates in a former mining village on a drizzly Saturday afternoon? A lino was a lady.

Programme note: The Avenue goalie "has been at Huddersfield". Probably just passed through there on the train.