Saturday, 7 January 2012

Sheffield United 3 Salisbury City 1

FA Cup, third round
Attendance: 10,488
Lowest ranked side still in the competition. First time ever in the third round. Drawn 200 miles or so away from home for the second round running. Salisbury deserved some extra support. “Oh,” said the chap at the club, bemused at my explanation for wanting tickets in the away end and explaining why, living in York, I wouldn’t be collecting them in person.

 You insert your ticket into the scanner at the turnstile; no pushing a grubby note towards an old man in a flat cap here. The only reason I bought tickets in advance was to avoid the potential queue at the two ticket selling points at the ground. Inevitably, this was far from a capacity match. In fact, the crowd was about half what Sheffield United attract ordinarily and the prices were £3 cheaper than the lowest graded league matches.
The away end was packed with 2,000 supporters who kept up the chanting right through the 90 mins. Above us was a curious cantilevered red fabric awning which is presumably there to catch anything thrown from the tier above (empty today). When it was illuminated from time to time by the scoreboard the drape looked like something you’d find inside the marquee at a wedding.
The stand to our right was full, the stand to our left was half-full and the stand behind the opposite goal was closed and occupied only by a single ball boy who sat (I suspect purposefully) at the bottom of the ‘U’ in the white ‘SUFC’ marked out in the seats. Like the Bolton/York tie 12 months previously you knew instantly where the party was and who, a little reluctantly, was laying on the spread.

Sheffield had eased through the first two rounds with simple home wins against Oxford and Torquay and immediately exerted their authority over further lower level opposition. Only some super saves from Salisbury goalie kept The Whites in the tie. (Duff nickname, by the way. Surely there must be better monickers linked to the city’s ancient heritage or even nearby Stonehenge). Porter opened the scoring for Sheffield when, unmarked, he slotted home inside the box. The Blades had sufficient chances to have put the tie to bed by half-time.
Salisbury – playing their sixth match in this season’s competition ­­­– came roaring out the blocks at the start of the second half. They were attacking toward us, an inflatable sheep was pinging around and the tie finally flickered into life. This is what we want! The purple patch came to an abrupt end when Sheffield got the second goal on 60 mins, a wicked deflection off a wayward shot (above). Further misfortune followed when Salisbury’s Webb (son of David Webb, who scored the winner in Chelsea’s FA Cup final replay in 1970) netted at his own end.
Showing great character, Salisbury rallied again towards the end with marauding Mackin capping a fine sub appearance by firing into the bottom left corner from the edge of the area (above). A deserved consolation but it was too little, too late, of course. By now the full moon, thinly veiled by clouds, hung high above the centre flagpole on the roof of the empty stand, maintaining its pristine symmetry. The sun had long set on Salisbury’s cup run – and mine, for that matter.
The experience of a professional football club made me hanker for a non-league ground and the sense of community and occasion that goes with it when the big matches crop up. My mind went back to the last time I was at the same match as Sheffield United manager, Danny Wilson – when he was in charge of Bristol City at Harrogate Railway in 2002. Ah, the memories. Perhaps I’m turning into an anorak but I think I’ll always prefer the third qualifying round to the third round proper. I left my heart in Barnoldswick. 
So. Salisbury plain? Well, not quite but – being the ultimate fair weather supporter, having no connection with the city other than a school trip there c 1974 and in the absence of an upset – the encounter was a little flat for me.

Happy hoppers: For another FA Cup blogger’s view of the match click here. This fella, like me, was at Barnoldswick and Staveley in the qualifiers and he’s yet to miss a round.

Programme notes: “I’ve just been out and bought a jockstrap so I’ll pad it all up and I should be OK to play.” Gillingham’s Chris Whelpdale declares himself fit despite suffering a split scrotum in a fixture against Crawley over the festive period. Um, do we really need to know this? The quote was included in the ‘Famous last words’ page.
The FA Cup problem: The perennial poser of how to reignite interest in the FA Cup is like family members deciding what to do with its elderly mother when she’s lost her marbles. We all love the old girl but she’s never going to be the same as she was and we can’t just leave her alone to die. So what could be done - other than arrange for legendary players to come out of retirement to score winning goals on their returns? The Guardian has some suggestions – and click on the thumbnail below for an amusing collection of third round TV commentary clich├ęs.