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Bring on the clichés
First published in The Pink on November 7, 2009
ONE by one, Saints fans are ticking off the boxes of a lower division football supporter.
Carlisle away. Tick.
Unsatisfying home results against teams you think you should easily beat. Tick.
Opponents containing hardly any players you’ve ever heard of. Tick.
Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie.
FA Cup first round. Tick.
Hartlepool away. In midweek. In November. Tick, tick, tick (well, in a few weeks’ time, anyway).
Of all those, the FA Cup is by far the most glamorous.
Football is stuffed full of clichés, and a lot of them belong to the world’s best club knockout competition.
The magic of the Cup. David v Goliath. Form books being hurled out of windows. 11 against 11 on the day. Pitch is a great leveller.
Hallowed turf. Etc, etc.
Close your eyes and the images still burn fiercely.
Ronnie Radford scoring from 35 yards, Charlie George falling down after hitting a final winner, Ricky Villa’s solo dribble, the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club ... and, how could we forget, dear old Bobby Stokes, RIP.
So, in amongst all that, I was hoping Saints would get a non league minnow in the first round.
Not that I was wishing them to be on the end of an upset in some God forsaken town in the north of England.
It’s just that if you’re a fan of a league club in the first round, the real romance, the real memories, are to be found in facing clubs you’ve hardly ever heard of and, in some cases, never heard of.
The luck of the draw can pair you with a club with whom you may never meet again, but who you will never forget.
And, in the true spirit of life in the lower divisions, you have to have suffered, really suffered, in order to appreciate the glory days when they come along.
One of the worst memories I have of following Exeter was our defeat at Bognor Regis in 1988.
We’d lost to non league clubs before and we’ve lost to them since, but that one stands out in the memory bank.
It’s just the name.
Losing to Enfield, Yeovil or Maidstone – proper non league clubs back in the 1980s with a good FA Cup tradition – wouldn’t have been so bad.
But Bognor! Bognor Regis!
Every year it seemed fate delivered us a banana skin tie.
When Alan Ball was our manager we were drawn away at Farnborough, then playing in the Beazer Homes League.
Amusingly, Boro had produced limited edition t-shirts to ‘celebrate’ Exeter’s appearance at Cherrywood Road.
I wish I still had mine. It would fetch at least 23p on eBay.
Unsurprisingly it lashed it down with rain (‘pitch is a great leveller’) and, almost inevitably, we were a goal down at half-time.
It seemed the day had everything needed for an upset – I’m sure a milkman or a carpet fitter scored their goal – but we recovered to win 3-1 and Bally’s reputation was intact.
A few months later he was off back to the Dell and never had to worry about these sort of games.
A few years later I was off to the less than salubrious surroundings of Tamworth’s The Lamb ground for another first round tie swathed in upset potential.
This wasn’t just a banana skin, more a plantation.
The Lamb sounds an idyllic sort of ground, but it was anything but.
It seemed every local hooligan had come off their s t r e e t corners to t h r o w abuse at the Big T i m e Charlies from the Football League.
T h e r e was very little segregation and hardly any police either.
We equalised deep in injury time – this against a team who weren’t even in the Conference – and left Tamworth thankful to have avoided defeat on the field and with our car windows intact off it.
Those are the days, as a lower division football fan, you get used to. You hate them and love them in equal measure.
The opposition might change, but the feeling of entering somewhere alien – knowing there is a large chance of leaving the same place two hours later red faced with embarrassment – is always there.
Dagenham & Redbridge, during their non league days, away on a Monday night in a first round replay (yep, we’d failed to beat them at home!) still exists in a far corner of my mind.
It was live on Sky but still I decided to travel from Bristol, where I worked, to Essex.
Dagenham’s top scorer, Mark Stein – the ex-Chelsea striker – went off injured after a few minutes and so it was obviously going to be our night.
The non league jokers with their rundown ground, paltry crowds and delusions of grandeur would no doubt be put firmly in their place.
You know what’s coming ...
We were 3-0 down at half-time and Dagenham were added to a lengthy list of non leaguers who had claimed our scalp.
We’ve lost to non leaguers you’ve heard of and some you haven’t.
In the 70s we lost at home to Alvechurch – no, I don’t know where it is either – and only last season we somehow conspired to lose at Curzon Ashton, who play at the same level as Totton">AFC Totton, VT and Gosport in the Southern League Division 1 South & West.
I’d heard of Curzon Ashton before, but only because ex-Saints boss Steve Wigley was born there.
In terms of league positions, that was probably the worst FA Cup loss of them all.
This weekend we were playing away at Nuneaton, who are below Bashley in the Southern League Premier. If we get a replay I’ll be delighted.
The fact the Curzon Ashton debacle came just a few seasons after our most remarkable result in the competition, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford during our non league days in front of almost 70,000, just further emphasised what a truly amazing tournament the FA Cup is.
Ok, we didn’t play United’s first choice XI but all the stars – Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Ferdinand – started in the replay at St James Park.
Living in Hampshire at the time, it was impossible to get a ticket for the home game.
In the end, I was left with just one hope – Lawrie McMenemy.
He was my Obi Wan Kenobi.
And in the same way he made Saints fans’ FA Cup dream come true 29 years earlier, so Lawrie McMenemy delivered for me too.
He knew Steve Perryman – our director of football – and as a result I was in.
For a week or two, we were big news, national newspaper news.
I hadn’t known that feeling for years and it was strange.
We know our place in the footballing hierarchy, and it wasn’t big features in the red tops.
We had the Exe Factor (groan) but, more than that, we had gate receipts from the two ties of around £1m.
And that helped keep the club going, creating foundations for our return to the League in 2008.
That’s what a little bit of FA Cup fairy dust can do for you.
The biggest moment in our recent history wasn’t necessarily winning at Wembley to get back in the League. It was when Tony Cascarino picked a ball out of a hat in central London in December 2004 after someone else had picked out Manchester United’s.
That kickstarted a surreal few weeks.
If anyone ever asked me why I love football, I would take them back to January 2005.
Seven days after drawing at Old Trafford, the same Exeter side were 2-0 down at Billericay in the FA Trophy, before scoring twice in two minutes to rescue a draw.
Then the same side fought for their lives to lose 2-0 to a team stuffed full of star names.
That’s the magic of cup football.
You get cup shocks in other sports, but never on the scale of the FA Cup.
How could we draw at Manchester United but lose at Curzon Ashton?
If I knew the answer I’d be richer than Markus Liebherr.
But what I do know is this – I could appreciate Old Trafford more for the glorious achievement it was because I could still remember Bognor all those years earlier.
In fact, I will always remember Bognor Regis.
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