Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Road To Wembley (FC)

My day didn't start well. I had two clear options with regards to my journey to Wembley FC: either I could go by car or I could go by Tube. Both ways would take around 75 minutes to complete, and as I had no idea what sort of parking facilities were available when I got there, I thought it better and far more relaxing to go by Tube. I'd be able to take my seat, read my notes and generally build up the big match atmosphere on this first Saturday of the 2008/09 FA Cup competition. How stupid of me to think that.

Having left my house in a blind panic some fifteen minutes later than I intended to, I hurriedly dashed off to Becontree station to begin my journey. Within minutes, I was being ushered along the tracks at great speed, through the very heart of West Ham country. For those first few stops, many people got on in their claret and blue shirts, all of them on their way to Upton Park for the first game of the season at home to Wigan Athletic. Though I wished I could join them, I knew I had a special appointment to fulfil - to watch the match between Wembley FC and Royston Town.

Before long, Upton Park station was just a distant memory and I was heading for North Wembley... or so I thought. Someone at Chancery Lane station had ended up under a train rather than on it, thereby causing travel chaos for every Londoner, tourist and part-time football journalist. It severely delayed my journey, and by the time I walked through the turnstiles at Vale Farm, the teams were already out on the pitch having their photos taken alongside the beautiful silver FA Cup trophy.

Of all the faces I should see first as I hurriedly made my way in, I'd never have put Brian Barwick at the top of the list, but there he was. An imposing figure wearing casual jacket and trousers, it seemed somewhat surreal that he should be there, but then this was a big showpiece event to launch the one competition he must be most proud to be associated with as the FA's Chief Executive.

So there I was mingling with the 100 or so people that had made their way to witness this clash between Wembley and Royston Town. And here I must make my first admission - that this was the first time I'd ever been to see a non-league match of any kind. Though some of the performances I've seen my team produce at Upton Park have been staggeringly amateurish at times, I can honestly say I'd never seen a game between two amateur teams before. I pondered with some anticipation what it was that I was about to see.

Before that, though, I had the great good fortune to bump into a couple of ITV types who happened to be there covering the game for ITVLocal.com. I'd already noticed the reassuring presence of one or two cameramen located in different parts of the ground, so they obviously meant business when they said they wanted to cover as many games as possible from the early rounds of this year's FA Cup.

Very soon, I quickly found myself in the very pleasant company of Marc Webber (Head of Content for ITV.com), Gary Andrews (Web Editor, ITV) and Chris Nee (Writing Genius and All-Round Messiah at the popular football blogsite 'Two Footed Tackle'). We watched Royston Town dominate the early exchanges while swapping pleasantries about 'the magic of the FA Cup', what it was like to work for ITV, blogging and generally anything else that might make one or all of us laugh like the wizened old hacks we really were.

Mid-way through the first half, an extraordinary privilege suddenly came my way. Just as I thought my day was starting to look up, it got imperceivably better. Thanks to all the contacts Gary had with the various FA suits in attendance, he, Chris and I all had the honour and privilege of having our photos taken with the FA Cup trophy.

I mean can you imagine it - the real FA Cup trophy! I've only ever seen it on TV and even then it's always looked magical, but in real life... I was blinded by the sheer aura of the thing. It glistened with all the brightness of a million diamonds, and there I was standing next to it, devaluing the damn thing more than it's ever possible to do.

But I didn't care - this was an unforgettable moment, and one that would stay with me for a very long time. Shame I didn't get to pick it up and hoist it above my head in that we all do in our fantasies as a kid, but I guess that's a privilege saved for just one lucky player every May. One couldn't be too greedy at times like this.

Back at pitchside, Wembley were finally finding their foothold in the game, but it only served to neutralise any penetrative football that may have been due to arrive. Don't get me wrong though - this wasn't a boring match - far from it. Here were two teams that were very evenly matched and it was intriguing trying to work out who'd make the first breakthrough. In the end it came from Royston Town's Luke Robins in the 35th minute, scored from a free kick some twenty yards out to ensure the away side had a 1-0 lead at half time.

The mid-match break gave us all a chance to fill up on chips, hot dogs but no pies, curiously, before the second half began much as the first had ended. Royston, however, were in no position to savour their lead as Wembley scored an equaliser through Shane Sinclair after 53 minutes. It was a well-worked goal that would have graced any level of football and it was a signal for both teams to throw caution to the wind for a winning goal.

Some great play ensued as some neat passing and clever attacking came into its own from both sides, but in the end neither team could find that valuable winner, despite the sending off of Wembley's Andrew Walker for a second bookable offence mid-way through the second half. Both sets of fans seemed to accept the result with good grace and were, like us, very pleased with the match they'd just seen.

And that was about it, save for a quick pint in the club bar after the game. Despite the somewhat ominous start to the day, I'd had a really enjoyable time watching a match which did great credit to non-league football. Not only that but I'd done so in the company of three thoroughly decent blokes AND had my picture taken with that trophy.

What else could you possibly ask for (except for Brian Barwick's autograph)? Not much, say I - in fact if anyone now so much as suggests the FA Cup is a redundant dinosaur from a forgotten age of football, I for one will have to disagree in the strongest possible terms. What I saw yesterday thoroughly reawakened my love of football, and that, my friends, speaks for itself.

And if you want to see what the match was like for yourself, you can watch highlights of Wembley v Royston Town at ITV.com/Sport.

5 comments:

Chris Nee said...

Great day out. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say it's given my love of the Cup a real shot in the arm.

We all know it starts in August, but to actually get to a game - with Wembley in the background - where 'real' footballers are playing in the Cup? Brilliant.

Chris O said...

I couldn't agree more, Chris. It was a wonderful day and I can't wait to get out and see more non-league football at the earliest opportunity!

P Shaw said...

Well said Chris Nee. Lets hope that the championship clubs can do well again. Maybe even a winner for the first time since 1980. I don't need to ask Chris O whom that was!

The F.A Cup will (hopefully) never get redundant as it is still the best trophy of the lot. Its the only one where you get Chelsea and Liverpool getting taught a lesson by Barnsley and teams like Oldham beating teams like Everton at Everton's ground. Brilliant.

P.S: Chris O were you ever tempted at one point to try and run off with the trophy? Also I for one would not be interested by Barwick's autograph but thats just me!

John Stoneman said...

Hi there,

Here is a report on the replay

http://roadfromwembley.typepad.com/the_road_from_wembley/2008/08/190808---eprr-r.html

Chris O said...

Thanks John. A 4-0 win for Royston, eh? Well we felt they were the better side and that kinda proves it. Commiserations to Wembley and congrats to Royston!

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