[follows on from last week]
So, we’d done the hard part. Or at least the part which might have been hard, but we didn’t really expect it to be so, and it wasn’t. Therefore we could happily do the bit we’d really been looking forward to. Experiencing the draw. Eyes up, look in.
Now, over the years I have experienced the FA Cup 1st Round draw in a number of different ways. The years that we weren’t in it? Well, I mean, who cares about them. They, after all, don’t count. If you want to know which years the FA Cup genuinely lost its sparkle, well, just pick a year we didn’t make the ‘propers’. *Cough*whenwegotknockedoutbylowerdivisionteams*Cough* When football lost its way.
Let’s gloss over the wilderness years though. The first time we (as in Havant & Waterlooville, the latter half of that union having got to the first round four times in their bachelorhood, playing Kettering in 1968, Wycombe in 1976, Aylesbury in 1988 and also, most notably, taking Northampton Town to two replays in 1983) made it, in the 2000/2001 campaign, I can’t really remember where I was, as our 4th qualifying round home game against Gloucester City had been postponed, but the impertinent FA went ahead and emptied their sack into the tombola anyhow. Southport at home awaiting the winners. Disappointing.
The second time (2002/03) our 4th qualie home tie went ahead as planned, and victory comfortably achieved over Billericay Town. However, as I was promoting a gig that evening, I was unable to stick around to watch the draw. This time: Dagenham & Redbridge away. Another Conference side. Once again our Christmas stocking contained nothing but a waxy Granny Smith and a bag of chocolate coins the dog had clearly had a good gnaw on during the night.
Last season we had to overcome a tricky away tie at Brackley, but needing to catch a train from Banbury back to Liverpool, I spent the duration of the first round draw trying to get a Radio Five signal on a bus. A moot effort considering they didn’t actually broadcast it. Instead, I had to rely on a text sent through from Brackley’s clubhouse. Millwall it read. Finally, a league side, but my excitement was tempered somewhat by a neutral experience of being in a New Den away crowd, more specifically the raining glass bottles experience of the walk back to the station. Never good enough for your curmudgeonly Skiffoid eh, always grumbling into his warm milk over in the corner. Prick.
Mind you, it all turned out well in the end, albeit a touch expensively, but if I can’t even start shrieking like a teenager in a Beatles front row when we get drawn at home to a recent finalist fer chrissakes, what will it take to rev me up; to get me so excited you could hang a painting off me?
Well, certainly being amongst your brethren helps, and finally this weekend I could watch the draw the way its meant to be watched - in your club’s social on a mute telly over a table full of away supporters drowning their sorrows in beer and a jingoistic song-sheet. Well, perhaps not those last bits, but that was our lot this time - peering at Sir Trev over a tattooed round of ‘Ten German Bombers’. No sense of occasion some people, that's John Hollins and Paul Parker up there in them celebrity squares pulling out the numbers you bastards, where’s the respectful hush?
So, we weren’t quite able to drown them out, but excitable chatter began as soon as Ray Stubbs mimed the hand-over to FA HQ. “Leeds away!” “Bradford at home!” “What would you rather, Torquay or Morecambe?” “Not Dagenham & Redbridge again!” Of course those last two highlight a key point. When you make it to the first round, you ideally want a league club, but what if it is a brand new league club like the Daggers or Morecambe? Does that have more or less prestige than a long-time league club recently relegated for the first time to the nons, like an Oxford or Torquay?
As the velvet bag expels its bingo night paraphernalia, and they quickly whirr around the giant goldfish blender, a nervousness strikes, the same kind of nervousness that hit me on the night of the Millwall game. What if it’s a team from our league? What if it IS Nottingham Forest and they hit us for double figures? Basically everything that can go wrong flashing before the eyes like a death-bed pain n' regret showreel. Perhaps that’s just my anxiety, but excitement balances on that same tight rope, fear and joy balanced on each others shoulders, together on a unicycle.
As the names of the home teams come out, it is a teetering between different forms of prayer. First, the forming of a sphincteral ‘o’ with the lips in facial genuflection to a tasty option, such as when Darlington come out first, then Bradford and Mansfield a little later. Alternatively, there is the other prayer, where you give it shaky jazz hands around your midriff and repeat a breathy, panicky “no, no” over and over, such as when Farsley Celtic or Barrow, Gainsborough Trinity and Team Bath come out. Even league sides such as Barnet and Oldham are poo-pooed. We visited the former, when they too were non-league, four years ago in a fourth qualifying round replay. The latter? Not a nice enough place. We’ve become quite choosy you know, even Peterborough gets a dismissive sniff.
Now let me lead you through the thought process of actually seeing our pre-assigned number get picked out. 80. There 'tis. What was the one before? 60? Sorry, wasn’t paying attention. Who was that? York City? Get in! Hang on, they’re not a league club anymore are they? Oh.
I guess with all the talk of Leeds and Bradford, we neglected to consider the other Yorkshire city available to us. It certainly isn’t the money-spinner the club would want (York having only attracted 1,630 to their fourth qualifier against Rushall Olympic), but screw it, they’ve still got more league cache than yer Johnny-come-lately’s like Cheltenham, having been a part of it for 75 years up to 2004. On top of that they’ve got a proper old ground and, best of all, they’re far far away.
Our previous Southern league days took us as far as Lincolnshire, but the creation of Conference’s North and South means our travelling radius has been reduced. Previously our furthest jaunt took us to Colwyn Bay in the FA Trophy, but this will establish a new record, and that’s the crux of it. No cash cow for our club to milk perhaps, but it’s winnable (actually, can I be cautious after this past weekend's 3-0 home defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough and say 'drawable') and, perhaps even more importantly to those of us starting to weary of yet another trip to Welling, we’re in beano country up to our ferklippin’ ears.
It may be the grim north, but its cocktails-on-a-Thai-beach exotic to a club rooted to the south coast that’s not yet played in a national league. Had we made it through those play-offs last season, this would have been bread-and-butter, but for now its a wild mushroom and buffalo mozzarella panini, at the very least. Not the biggest feast perhaps, but pretty tasty nonetheless.
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Whitechapel Art Gallery. 26oct07.