Saturday, 28 February 2009

Glossop North End 5 Marske United 2

FA Vase, quarter final
Attendance: 1,120
“No idea who they’re playing. Doesn’t really matter anyway.” That was the in-depth analysis of the opposition supplied by the chap in front of me at the car park ticket machine.

The FA Vase is, indeed, a curious competition. Even at the quarter-final stage the groundhopper usually needs to consult his road atlas. Pretty much any of the clubs that enter can make it this far given that that the highest ranked of them come from one of several regional leagues. No chance of Premiership-type domination in the national minnows knockout cup. The other odd thing about the Vase is that it has two winners. The truly once-in-a-lifetime experience (for these lads) of playing at Wembley is the real prize; lifting the trophy just makes for better pics to remember the day by. So we do care and we don’t care …

Exactly a century ago Glossop (near Manchester), competed in a quarter-final replay of the FA Cup, losing to Everton. With a then population of 17,000, Glossop became – and will, I guess, always remain – the smallest town ever to play in the the Football League first division (for a single season in 1899-1900). Remarkably, they played against Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea and, yes, even that other North End (after which they were named). They dropped out of the League after the First World War and, as you can guess, there was only one way they could go after that.

A piece in the Glossop Chronicle romantically recalls the days when supposedly “a heady mixture of cigarette smoke, steam from hot beef extract drinks and the aroma of embrocation filled the air”. The aroma today came from the barbecue and it certainly filled the air around the corner flag. So much so, in fact, I’m surprised it didn’t asphyxiate the players. I hadn’t seen so much smoke since those flares at European Cup finals in the eighties.

The ground is wonderfully delapidated in a Pontefract Collieries sort of way. The rickety main stand looks like it would blow down in a puff of wind and the perimeter is a seven-foot blue breeze block wall. The beer tent was absolutely heaving, something to do with the Vase being sponsored by Carlsberg, I suppose. The finest facility, though, was the gents which was a shipping container. This is the first signed kazi I’ve come across that you use not by entering (I did try) but going behind.

We were three matches but still a long, long way from Wembley. But where the Surrey Street ground can compete with the national stadium is in the structure that looms over it. A steel chimney extends like a giant drill bit from the shell of a ferrous alloys plant under demolition. If there is a taller and thinner structure beside any other ground I’d like to know about it. It’s eye-catching wherever you are in the town but, viewed from within a football ground and so close to it, the chimney inexplicably delights all the more.

The Marske fans gave the match another unlikely Wembley connection by being decked out in the Flag of St George to reflect their side’s strip. Their support contributed to a cracking atmosphere but was soon muted as the Hillmen (great old fashioned nickname, by the way) went 2-0 after 13 mins. Markse kept their tails up and the tie could’ve taken on a whole new complexion had their striker scored from a free header at 1-3 down with 5 mins to go before the break. Once Glossop got the fourth the contest was effectively over although Markse continued to plug away. It was real end-to-end stuff on a gluepot of a pitch and climaxed in a pitch invasion (my fourth on the trot). The presence of security men and their Alsatian seemed a bit heavy-handed in the circumstances. The only pitchside pooch necessary here was the Marske bulldog mascot. We all shuffled out through the only exit – a metre-wide gap in the wall. A Wembley way? Perhaps. Glossop’s never seen anything like it. Well, at least, not for a very long time.

Some more history: Glossop’s early success resulted from the efforts of benefactor Sir Samuel Hill-Wood. The son of a local cotton baron, he attracted the top players in an Abramovic sort of way. On one occasion Glossop fielded a forward line with an amateur international from each of the home countries plus the Republic of Ireland. Sir Sam later became chairman of Arsenal and his great grandson, Peter Hill-Wood, is the current incumbent. (The story of Glossop is fascinating. Read the relevant chapter in the highly recommended book by David Conn of The Guardian).

And finally: I love this old boy masquerading as a pundit alongside the High Peak radio commentator. Must be the Hillmen’s oldest fan. Are those headphones he's wearing or ear muffs? I look forward to seeing him on the MoTD couch soon.

For another blogger's view of the occasion click here.