Saturday, 29 November 2008

Eastwood Town 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0

FA Cup Second Round
Attendance: 1,955

At times this FA Cup trail feels like an expedition and I was certainly dressed for the part today. With temperatures hovering around freezing I togged up in a jacket, three shirts, a sensible jumper, wooly hat, scarf, pair of sausage-finger gloves bought for climbing Kilimanjaro and, over my trousers, a pair of salopettes last worn on a skiing holiday in the eighties. You could’ve rolled me to the turnstile. I love the way that the appeal and appearance of the Cup gradually changes with the seasons but today was all extremes.
The area behind the Eastwood goal was packed – and I wanted to cross it to reach the less populated terrace on the other side. “We’re gonna boing in a minute …” sung the lads as I pushed my way through. And, yes, in a minute I was involuntarily boinging. Then one of them pinched my hat and passed it around. I was dreading one of them turning it inside out and asking questions with hard-to-shorten answers about why it had a Reading badge. I burst out of the other side of the melee, practically gasping for breath. A near-birth experience, in fact. “That was like the bad old days!” said a fellow escapee. More like the good old days, if you ask me.

For a club that was an average league gate of 400, Eastwood had first rate support today. Right from the start they had lots to cheer about. Their team hit the bar from a header after a free-kick in the second minute and, soon after, Wycombe rattled the bar too. The exchange set the tone for a cracking ding-ding encounter.
Ten minutes from the break Eastwood took the lead with a well placed curling shot that went just inside the post from the edge of the box. The Badgers’ tails were well up (do Badger have tails?). Wycombe had their moments in the second half most notably in a spell in which a big bouncing shot was headed off the line, a penalty appeal turned down and the Eastwood goalie made one of several good saves. “One-nil to the Badger boys” the home fans sang as the fog blew across the tight little ground, the tension mounted and we began to fear an Inzaghi moment (not often Wycombe get compared to AC Milan).

At the other end Eastwood’s Meikle burst through for a one-on-one with the keeper. “Go on!” I bellowed, “History!” said the guy next to me … but Meikle blasted over the bar having had probably too much time. A similar chance came in the third minute of injury time. Todd charged down a Wycombe clearance and squared the ball inside to sub and prison officer Knox who rounded the goalie and clinched the tie with his first kick of the match in front of the home fans.
It doesn’t get much better than this (but then I thought that after a similar moment at the climax of the Curzon tie). To put things fully into perspective, Wycombe top the Fourth Division, are the only senior side in Britain not to have lost in the League this season and, until today, had only conceded two League goals away from home. The final whistle triggered the inevitable pitch invasion and yet more “boinging”, this time with the players. Eastwood, not Wycombe, should have had ‘Dreams’ on their shirts. I followed up the upset of the first round with the upset of the second. For £10 I couldn’t have had a more thrilling afternoon’s entertainment.

On the way out of the ground I bought a commemorative Eastwood/Wycombe scarf for a fiver. Well, it would’ve been churlish not to – and I’d only come with one scarf after all. My neck was lovely and warm on the long drive back up the M1.

Some geography: Where is Eastwood? Good question – almost as apposite as where is Curzon. It’s a town near Nottingham that’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of racey novelist D H Lawrence.

Programme note: Thanks to the programme editor who followed up the email I sent him and gave this blog a plug. If you logged on as a result I hope you enjoyed the read.

Not much opportunity for good pics this round, I’m afraid. It was very foggy, Coronation Park is unremarkable, I wanted to watch the game and, as you’ll have gathered, movement around the ground was limited. But I did get a mini-movie of the post-match celebrations (see below). This, for me, encapsulates what the Cup is all about. A point for each badger you spot (easy), three points if you can spot a lad running away with a replica of the Cup (one of two) and a bonus if you join in the song. For a few seconds of the actual pitch invasion click here (but I'm not expecting any Oscars for this one) and for match highlights click here.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Curzon Ashton 3 Exeter City 2

FA Cup First Round
Attendance: 1,259
“Fancy seeing you again” I thought as I arrived for what was to be a cup classic. I previously saw Curzon playing at Stocksbridge back in the no man’s land of the Second Qualifying Round. What a difference three rounds make. Then it was a beautiful late summer’s day and the outcome of the match wasn’t of any great consequence. Today we were into autumn and Curzon played the biggest match in their 43-year history. This is the first time they’ve ever reached the First Round Proper, they played League opposition and there was only one lower ranked club left in the competition. On top of that their ground was acclaimed as the best new non-league ground by the esteemed Groundtastic magazine in 2005. A tasty tie, or what? I simply had to be there.
If ever a team needed a Cup win to put it on the map this is it. Curzon play at the Tameside (which no-one’s heard of) Stadium; some home fans wear Man City hats; the stewards come courtesy of Oldham Athletic; and the local town is actually Ashton-under-Lyne. The map on the AA website confused me further. It sent me to the old ground and only after asking at a ten-pin bowling alley did I finally arrive. The ground is very smart and well appointed if rather characterless (inevitable being so new) but then I’d had plenty of scenery at the two previous venues in this season’s FA Cup trail.
Whatever you call it this corner of the industrial north it seems a long way from Exeter. ‘Lyme Regis Grecians’ it said on one banner. What a lovely place to be a football fan – and what a genteel bunch Exeter are. One chap drank out of a hip flask, their Michael Stipe look-a-like manager wore a cravat and two ladies in the grandstand wore headgear the like of which I last saw at Elm Park in the 70s (when I was probably wearing it).
So to the match – and what a match. Exeter hit the post before Curzon open the scoring. The home side extend their lead in the second half with a stunning goal from James Ogoo, a carbon copy of that Justin Fashanu finger-in-the-air volley. The boys collapse in a scrum of joy in front of the dugout. When Exeter hit the bar we kinda know it isn’t going to be their day even though they continue to plug away. Bursting with confidence and playing some great football, Curzon make it 3-0 when Norton finishes off a mazy run just as it looks like he’s held on to the ball too long. Full marks to the Curzon goalie, incidentally. He performed heroics throughout.

The final 10 mins are thrilling. Exeter get a goal back. (“Deserved consolation”, we all think) then have a player sent off. Deep into injury time Exeter leather in a second goal. (“Ooh-err”, we all think). The final whistle soon blows, there’s a pitch invasion (commendably ignored by the stewards) and Ogoo is chaired off. All that’s missing is a few Parka anoraks à la Hereford 1972. These are the things that dreams are made of. There will be dancing in the streets of Curzon tonight – in a “dancing in the streets of Raith” sort of way.

Programme notes:
Commentators could get tongue-tied if Curzon draw Arsenal in the Third Round. James Ogoo could be up against young Gunner Abu Ogogo. Remarkably, the programme listed an even more impressive name than James’s. On the bench for Exeter was was the jaw-dropping Emmanuel Ugochukwa Ezenwa Panther. Or Manny Panther to his friends (and ex-York City team-mates). He’s Scottish, of course. Great story about the origins of the club too. It’s forerunner was established in 1955 by lads from Hurst Wesley Sunday School. The now vice-chairman Ronnie Capstick and Chalky White of the groundstaff (both setting a club precedent for fine footballing names) together with co-founder Gordon Taylor (current PFA chief exec) raised money for the first kit by chopping up firewood and selling it door-to-door. (Cue Hovis music). The team changed its name to Curzon Road Methodists after the Sunday School was re-named and, when players left the school, became just Curzon Road. The club merged with Ashton Amateurs in 1963 to become … yes … Curzon Ashton. So now you know who they are and where they are.

Forever autumn:
It seems fitting that the first round of the FA Cup and Remembrance Sunday share the same weekend. Something, perhaps, to do with them both being about tradition, camaraderie, supporting “our” boys against the odds, and blood, sweat and tears. For once a minute’s silence before kick-off couldn’t have been more fitting. For me the second weekend in November is the essence of the English autumn and I absolutely love it.
See it for yourself:
Click here for 2½ mins of ITV highlights and here for my exclusive footage.