My Sister who is not au fait with the qualifying round dates of the FA Cup, had decided to get married on Saturday, whipping it out of contention, and leaving Sunday as our only option. We have found since starting our blog, almost a year ago now, that non-league games on a Sunday are few and far between, so the chance of missing a round, except for a bit of luck if a replay worked out in our favour, was too disastrous to contemplate.
Grays Athletic FC (GA) are a team we perhaps know more intimately than any other, with perhaps one exception. Last season we were given a very special opportunity to spend the day of the Ryman League Cup final against Hendon FC with them.
Unfortunately for GA they lost that day, but standing in the changing room at full time, racked with an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness and guilt, perhaps gave us the biggest insight we will have into the high’s and low’s of being a footballer, and for that we will be eternally grateful.
GA like all good teams, picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and moved on, and the beginning of the 2015/16 season got off to a flyer, however they been tailing off a little in recent weeks. The home of Aveley FC, Mill Field is the current sofa GA are borrowing, for five years now, until they can move back closer to Grays itself and find a replacement for the “New Recreation Ground” which was their home for over 100 years.
Due to a fixture clash, Aveley FC are playing at home on Saturday, the date of the game has been the subject of much deliberation. After a few tense moments, a slightly premature announcement by some fans with the game confirmed for Sunday before it was, the green light was finally given, we were on, and it’s why I'm sitting on a District line train, making my way to the London/Essex borders, with a banging headache, thankful to the Second World War British Government for the change of clocks, the reclaimed hour, meaning I don't feel totally fucking disastrous.
Tom waves at me from the opposite end of the platform, as I drag myself along it, glad that the previous days weather has disappeared, and it's a glorious hazy Autumn afternoon. The change of position amuses Tom, usually it's the opposite way round post Saturday night. Standing at the bus stop outside the station, I do wonder if I am still drunk, as a priest in a short sleeve black shirt, dog collar and a large silver cross around his neck, like one from the front of a Black Sabbath record, chats to a couple of believers.
A winding tour of the Essex countryside, takes in a power station, lots of streets with the word “Mungo” in and Tom pointing out a humongous drive through KFC, we finally disembark on a bus stop/grass verge. The bus has dropped us off only a minute away from Mill Field, and a sign points us down a gravelly uneven road. It’s doing a much better job than it’s predecessor, an old wooden one hanging by a single nail from a post, it’s very faint blue writing is barely visible, but we can just make out “Aveley FC”.
Although the blue and white turnstile is the first thing you see, your eyes are instantly drawn to the stand behind them. Its shape is what you might call “iconic”, it looks like a proper football stand, not some modern metal creation. Its sloping corrugated roof, and the large flat back wall with “Aveley Football Club” painted across it in red and blue letters, just screams of football from a bygone age.
The turnstiles are not yet open, so we head towards the players entrance at the bottom of the main stand, in search of David, one of the GA coaches, this is when we receive the first of many warm welcomes. The GA keeper is talking to two other players through the window of a parked car, looks up and says “hello”, we ask him how he thinks they will do today, and he replies quickly “think we will nick it”.
Beyond the open players entrance, people move between rooms, and when we ask for David, we are told he is on the pitch setting things up for the warm up. A quick walk back the way we came, though a big metal blue door, we spot David on the far side of the pitch, and a quick holler from our escort, makes him him look up, wave, and make his way over to us.
Now inside Mill Field, it’s apparent the main stand in on a slight hill, overlooking the pitch. We have to step down the large concrete steps, that stretch the whole length of one side of the pitch.
David embodies the passion that is still alive and well for the FA Cup. It was him who I asked about the opinion of the competition in the lower leagues, and it was him who convinced me it still holds a special place for so many people. The next 10 minutes or so are a Scouse sermon on all things football from the FA Cup to being a referee in Scotland, and everything in between, we both stand quietly enjoying his effortless storytelling.
“We believe we are here to win” he says in his constantly positive manner “not here to make up the numbers, we are reasonably confident”.
The weather really has been a pleasant surprise, and seems to have only improved what you would think is a unimprovable mood “This weather, it’s October!!”, “I refereed a game two weeks ago and got sunburnt!”
“Testing one two, testing” the public address system crackles into life, and sounds dreadful, whoever was testing it, gives up.
David confesses to have never been happier since leaving the top flight, and coaching non league, his last job was at Kilmarnock FC. He tells us about the unenviable task he had while working at one club “I had the fun Job at Spurs letting people (youth players) go”.
Soon David realises he has more important things to do, but still has the time to walk us up the white caged tunnel, that leads from the pitch, to the changing rooms. “This is where it all happens” announces David as he takes us through the double doors leading to a wide corridor with various rooms off it. David is not wrong when he describes it as a “hive of activity” as people come out one door, and go in another, like a Scooby Doo chase scene, just waiting for a ghost to pop out.
“Take some pics before it gets serious” says David, so Tom sets down his bag, and off he goes, and I wait for him by two knackered looking bits of gym equipment, David gestures towards a small room opposite with a kettle in, and says I can make myself a cup of tea. The physio room is busy next door, one player is sitting on the table, and two others sit waiting for treatment.
I leave Tom to it, and have a nose around the main stand, which up close is even better. Blue and white wooden seats stretch all the way to the top, at the back is a small cabin, where the club announcer is fiddling around with wires. At the front two older ladies, with their GA scarves on, are tucking into something wrapped up in tin foil.
As a GA player walks by, one asks “you playing?” he replies sheepishly “think so”.
“You should” and she continues with her lunch, and the players face breaks into a smile.
I notice player/manager Mark “Benno” Bentley and his assistant, ex-premier league player Glen Little sitting in one of the perspex dugouts deep in conversation, as I wait for Tom in my blue wooden seat, desperately in need of the restorative powers of a warm drink in a white polystyrene cup.
Getting to the bar requires us to go back out the big blue door, and the person manning it is concerned he won't remember us on our return “knowing my memory, I might forget who you are”.
People are sitting around large round tables, and standing around the edge of a wooden dance floor, a must have in any good clubhouse. It’s busy, and only gets busier, one man at the bar with a flat cap on, clutching a large folded up flag, is asked by someone “is that the famous flag? been all over the TV?”
Tom has a bright idea, to have a pint and not a cup of tea, and I let him convince me some “hair of the dog” will sort me out. The first sip of the pale yellow larger, tells me instantly that it was an error, as it hits my empty, slightly churning stomach, and the only thing that can remedy it, is joining Tom for my first non-league burger.
His previous scouting mission came back with some interesting news “they do a breakfast burger”, and when he notices the queue has gone down, he rushes off, this time is no dress rehearsal.
On his return clutching two objects wrapped in white tissue, he sits and places one down in front of me, and I unwrap it cautiously. The pale seeded bun, holds a single brown pattie, a slice of square yellow cheese and onions, he informs me “no ketchup”, but I soldier on. I lift it to my mouth, try and avoid the the tissue as I take a Henry VIII size bite out of it, and the soft texture of the burger, cheese and bun is comforting, but is occasionally ruined by the sharp, eye watering raw onions inside. I start to feel the after effect of the free bar melting away, while my brain tells me I should not be enjoying this so much.
“Hot Dogs look good, half time snack” says Tom, interrupting my culinary experience, and he has not even finished his, but is already thinking about later. He also informs me of the less than appetising options for vegetarians, an “onion burger”, which is comprised of a bun, cheese, and raw white onion. Perhaps the non-league world is taking a little longer to catch up with the notion of Quorn and veggie burgers, or perhaps the person ordering it doesn't have a date tonight, or is a masochist.
On our way back outside, the dark wood panels, and umpteenth old photographs of the boardroom, incite us to pop our noses in and have a look. Along with two men in blazers chatting, there is a woman drying a mug. We ask if we can take some photos, and as Tom brings his camera to his eye she tells us it's “all Aveley, nothing Grays”. “Don't they allow you a little corner?” I ask, she laughs “nope”, this is my corner, pointing to the kettle and microwave, still with the mug and tea towel in hand.
Kick off is not far off now, I have gone some way towards being the man I was before, so we head past the queue that has formed at the turnstile, thankfully are allowed back in by the forgetful man on the gate, to be greeted by the previously empty steps, that are now full with people. David's hopes for over 300 in attendance, seems to be becoming a reality
“Last two programs” and “don't forget your 50/50 tickets” shout the man and woman, standing behind the white patio table with a sign for the “Grays Athletic Supporters Trust” on it.
Glen Little takes the players through the last moments of the warm up, “get those drinks on, get ready to go”. Someone hands us a team sheet, which is good, because when the public address system coughs and sputters to life again, the voice apologises for the sound quality, starts to read out the starting 11’s and then gives up, once again.
“What you going to do when you find the Beautiful Game?” says the smiling club photographer Peter, as he walks over to us, and we can add another friendly welcome to the list. In a hi vis jacket, GA baseball cap, GA scarf and his camera around his neck, we get chatting about the team's chances.
“You confident?” I ask
“They should really see us off, but we might give them a surprise”
“Them” are Welling United FC (WU) of the National League, from two divisions higher than GA, whose fans have turned up in good numbers. Easy to pick out in their bright red scarfs, and one of the more interesting club badges we have seen, a white winged horse.
He also comments on the facilities and snug conditions at the stadium “You went into the dressing room? You will need a close up lense” he chuckles to himself, “I thought I had a small bathroom”.
Before he goes Peter gives us a warning “If we lose today, people will start calling you a jinx”.
“Benno” is walking off the field and shouts “first 11”, and they follow, leaving the subs taking pot shots at the reserve keeper. We make our way past the considerable crowd on the steps, and what looks like an almost full stand. Tom takes up position on the edge of the pitch, not before he expresses a bit of lense envy, towards the howitzers of a camera lense a photographer has to manhandle with two hands. I make my way to hover outside the double doors leading inside, to a now much calmer area under the seated public.
The now familiar noise of the buzzing electric bell, signals the beginning of the game. WU turn ‘Wonderwall’, by Oasis up to 11, and even then I can still hear shouts of “come on lads”. It seems the bell is pretty much ignored, and as usual requires the banging of a fist and a shout through the door “come on, let's go!”, to get people moving.
GA’s captain is the first person out, and strikes a lonely figure, fiddling with the drawstring on his shorts,
and studying a Premiership fixture poster, on a wall in the tunnel. Even when he is joined by other team members, and then finally WU, once they have been checked by the referees assistant “thank you, thank you, thank, you”, he keeps his steely look of concentration.
It is very quiet in the small area immediately outside the changing rooms, it's only when the players are led down the steps by the referee, and the crowd see the teams, that Mill Field erupts.
“COME ON GRAYS”
David is one of the last out, carrying the the water bottles. One space in his carrier is missing a bottle, and has been replaced by a freshly made cup of tea. He is accompanied by “Rhino” the club kit man, who carried out the subs boards in a Morrisons bag for life.
Standing on the top of the steps the lady from the boardroom asks someone to “let her know when it’s half past, I’ve got some soup on”.
The post coin toss shuffle takes place, now the fans know where to stand. The majority of the WU fan's take up position behind the goal, the GA support are more spread out, but a small and noisy band take over the small stand behind the goal, and the flag from the bar is unfurled.
On the whistle the crowd noise level goes up again, mostly from the group next to the flag.
“COME ON GRAYS”
Although there is a good contingent of traveling fans, they are making very little noise, on the other hand the GA fans are banging the stand, and it’s one song, after another “Oh when the Grays, go marching in”. When the home fans have a dig at the opposition “can you hear the Welling sing?” it draws a song from them, but it quickly dies out.
It’s a cagey start for both teams, one is being cautious because they are the underdog, one wanting to make sure they don't make any mistakes and let the lower “underdogs” get a toehold in the game. The first shot on target of the game comes after about 25 minutes, by GA. The referee though has been the main focus of attention, particularly when it takes an age for him to wave on an injured GA player, leaving the home team down to 10 men, forcing the GA fans to try and get his attention, so their player can rejoin the match, “REF, REF, REF!”.
“Come on Welling, come on Welling” is what the away fans muster when they do sing, except for one female fan who continuously, in a pitch that could shatter glass screams “COME ON WELLING” over and over.
The game flits back and forth between each side, but without either really getting a grip on it. WU apply the first real pressure, which forces GA into four very hurried clearances, but WU are unable to keep it up, and Tom says “it's getting scrappy again”.
I think it's fair to say the referee has an relaxed outlook on his job, and continues to get an ear full. When he gives WU a through in, that was clearly GA’s the whole crowd turn into an audience from a panto “boo, boo, boo”. Glen Little on the sideline is overflowing with rage, exasperated at his decision.
GA forge the best chance of the half, when a through ball is met by the big number 9, who chips his shot over the keeper, the ground holds it’s collective breath, and then exhale in unison “oooohhhhhhhhhhhhh” when it hits the base of the post and goes out. If GA had been slightly out of the game until now, they are now well and truly back in it, and spend the remaining 10 minutes or so on top.
It’s the WU fans turn to give the referee some stick after a strange call following a clash of heads, which
has people a little confused “you are making it up as you go along”, “you are a fucking idiot” declares one supporter.
There are plenty of good chances in the final moments, a cross finds the GA 9 in the box, but his header is straight at the keeper. Two free kicks in a good position to shoot, are wasted, and end up in or over the stand behind. One of them is won after the GA manager goes on a winding run from midfield, and gets chopped down, but his efforts are appreciated by the crowd “well done Benno”.
GA should be ahead, finish the half in control, and probably rueing those missed chances.
The crowd next to the steps turn and applaud the players leaving the pitch, “come on Grays”, one the them is @robdseaman81, he tells us he is “happy with that so far”, but when we reminisce about the missed chance, his head drops into his hands “that could of gone in”, his face overcome with anguish.
We also meet a group of Austrian tourists, who are here as part of a week look holiday, watching football in England. It also explains the man wearing the purple SV Austria Salzburg scarf in the bar.
With all the chatting, by the time we get to the tea bar, I can’t be bothered to wait, also the players have started coming out, and we like the fans have swapped ends, and are looking forward to the second half.
GA come out at a million miles an hour, whatever was said in the tiny dressing room did the trick, as they dominate, reducing WU to spectators.
“Benno” is really putting a shift in the midfield, at one point on hearing a crunching tackle, the crowd gasp, I look up from my notebook, expecting blood and guts, only for him to dust himself off and carry on.
Ten minutes into the half GA come flooding forward, and out number WU 3 to 1 at the back. A crude tackle sends out shouts from the crowd “PENALTY”, only for the referee to blow his whistle and point about one inch outside the box. Considering their other free kicks, a high and wide shot seems the only outcome, only this time it’s quite the opposite. The shot is fierce and on target, and the keeper can't hold on to it, pushes it out into the path of the on rushing “Benno”, but the bounce takes it away from him, and he ends up in the goal, grasping at the nets, baffled at how he did not score.
Two things are consistent in the second half, the referee continues to aggravate everyone, and GA are outshining a team from two leagues above. They have numerous chances to score, a corner almost goes in directly, “Benno” passes his marker on the edge of the box, and instead of shooting, takes one touch too many, and the ball gets away from him. All the while their fans continue to back them “come on blues”, “come on Grays Athletic, come on”.
When WU do get a chance, their only one of the half so far, it is a sitter, and they miss. A pacey attack down the left, sends the ball across the box, to a man unmarked on the back post, who pokes wide. Once the fans realise they have not gone behind, they jeer the WU player, all mixed in with a heavy helping of relief, it would have been absolute daylight robbery if they had gone ahead.
If a goal was ever going to come, it was in some part going to be down to the number 9, who has worked tirelessly all game, and on about 33 minutes this pays off. A short burst of pace from a second half sub, finds the 9 with his back to goal, just inside the box and eager to receive the ball. He receives it, holds it for a fraction of a second and then perfectly rolls in back into the path of the same player who passed it to him, teeing him up for a blockbuster of a shot, low and fizzing past the WU keeper.
A huge bundle of players, subs and staff form on the side of the pitch, and it's not like the fans need any reason to sing, but they are off again, banging the fence behind them, “we are, we are, we are the Grays”, the goal is much deserved, and really was a beauty, it unfolded right in front of Tom and I, who both turn to each other, mouths open.
“Don't just boot it” shouts a fan near us, because since the goal GA have lost a little bit of composure, and it's all got a bit hoofy.
GA’s 9 almost seal’s the deal, after some great running down the left, the player somehow manages to keep the ball in, when it look destined to go out, and squares it to the goal hungry forward in the box, who unfortunately crashes his shot off the crossbar.
“Who needs a drum, when you have a fence” says Tom, as it continues to get a battering from the joyous fans. Tom however is a little concerned “it might come down”, considering how vigorously they are banging it.
All the missed chances can only mean one thing, WU go up the other end, and with their first shot on target of the half, curl the ball past the keeper and score. Also for the first time of the half the WU fans make some noise, “Welling, Welling, Welling, Welling”. The goal results in a mini onslaught in the last minutes, only a fine fingertip save from the GA keeper, keeps them in the tie.
“Three minutes lads, do not fucking stop” says “Benno”, as the assistant holds up the board between the once sunny dugouts, that now sit in the shade of the main stand, to signify how much extra time there is to play.
One last chance, one last opportunity for a giant killing falls to who else, GA’s number 9. A long ball over the top, finds him on the move, making his way into the box, with only the WU keeper to beat, but his effort his high, and the game is going to a replay. David and Glen Little on the touch line, turn and smile, then mime the motion the striker should have adopted to score the goal.
Despite the results, as I go to say goodbye to David, he is smiling as ever. I say I thought the game was a “cracker” and it was, the second half was extremely entertaining, and he agrees “yeah it was, once again the best team didn't win”.
WU players with a look of relief on everyone of their faces, trudge off the field, only to be stopped and reminded to applaud their supporters. It’s a bit of a half arsed effort if I'm honest, perhaps not the noisiest of fans, but they have traveled nonetheless and deserve the acknowledgement.
No raffle win! Due to the broken public address system, someone tells us we have to check with the ticket sellers, for the winning numbers. The flash of the green tickets, the same as ours, make me for a moment think today, is the day, only for the numbers not to match, and my dreams are dashed again.
Interestingly the guys from @AcrossParkBlog, give us a little bit of non-league ITK (in the know) transfer gossip. The word is Bournemouth FC are interested in GA’s number 9, and after spotting the
Bournemouth assistant, it adds some weight to the rumour, he could not have done his reputation any harm with today's performance.
Well that’s the end of the preliminary and qualifying rounds of the FA Cup, and I can't tell you how much we have enjoyed every match. As the first round proper approaches, that brings the league clubs, the non-league teams will sadly start to become few and far between, and I fear those things that made it so special, the warm welcome, the spirit and enthusiasm, may start to waver. We will however endeavor to follow the “minnows” or “underdogs” for as long as they are still in the hunt for the Cup.
Each game we have gone to, just reinforces how much affection for the FA Cup there is from the fans and the clubs, even though they know in their heart of hearts they won't make it to the final, people have come out in force to watch their teams compete.
We have seen moments of history, we have seen fans support their team quite unlike we have seen fans support their teams before, and it’s all because of this big eared silver cup, which is known the world over.
Both of us would like to extend a massive thank-you to everyone at GA, your wonderful welcome blew us away, but we are not surprised considering how well you treated two practical strangers last season, when we turned up to gate crash your Cup Final.
GA played a blinder today, and their fans were just as fantastic. All involved with Grays Athletic FC, should be very proud.