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Kingstonian’s recent FA Cup record, a dictionary definition of ‘dismal’, has instigated a little ritual in the Non-League Paper offices where I work on Saturday evenings as a sub-editor. “Could you do an FA Cup page, Mark?” my boss will ask. And if it is any time after the second qualifying round, I will feign some sort of visual or audible surprise that the competition “is still going.” It was not always this way. While Ks and the second qualifying round are increasingly distant cousins, there was a time, not so long ago, when the second round proper was a regular, genuine prospect. And we actually made it twice, in 1994 and 2000.
For non-league teams’ fans, the second round draw presents mixed emotions. Once their team has made the competition proper, most fans would probably want a home draw against a top Division One side, or an away trip to a slightly fallen giant in a Premier League ground (e.g.: Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United). In the second round, though, a home tie against fellow non-leaguers is a way more enticing prospect, coming as it does with a real opportunity to reach the third round, be paired with a Premier League team’s second string and make a shedload of cash from the 40% share of the gate… er… I mean, sample the true “magic of the FA Cup.”
Yet despite believing this myself, then and now, I was a little disappointed in 1994 when we were drawn at home to fellow Isthmian Leaguers Aylesbury United, having despatched Liam Brady’s Brighton in the club’s first-ever victory in the first round proper. Ks garnered above-average media attention from the Brighton game for a number of reasons. Firstly, our early opening goal was a genuinely spectacular overhead kick, genuinely from the edge of the penalty area by perma-smiling striker Jamie Ndah. Secondly, Liam Brady… jeez… Liam Brady…Celtic manager only a year previously, albeit a Celtic at a chronically low-ebb on and off the field. And, thirdly, our manager was Micky Droy… jeez… Micky Droy. Chelsea fans would surely never have envisaged Droy in a managerial hotseat as another Stamford Bridge clearance made the third-tier. And, in truth, he wasn’t a very good one. There were some dire league performances every other week and he was dismissed before the third round was played with Ks in the bottom three.
But every other other week there were some fine FA Cup performances, including a fourth qualifying round win at Dover which wasn’t much less of a shock than the Brighton triumph. On our FA Cup form, you’d have fancied Ks against Aylesbury. On our league form, you’d more likely have fancied Micky Droy. For 15 minutes, we showed our FA Cup form. But the wind was almost audibly taken out of our sails when Ndah fired narrowly wide after a slick passing move which was way beyond our league capabilities. It wasn’t a glaring miss. But you knew…you just knew. After that, Aylesbury remembered what they’d read in the form book, winning 4-1. And if the game is remembered at all, it is for Aylesbury’s “duckwalk” celebration after their first goal, with more than half the team lining up to waddle along on their knees for what seemed like a month. Chuck Berry, it was not (hell, it wasn’t even Angus Young). But it was shown on telly for the month until they lost 4-0 at Premier League QPR in the third round.
A year later, Ks won 2-0 AT Aylesbury and our goalscorer Phil Wingfield replicated the duckwalk after he scored our second goal. It was an individual effort and my memory tells me that he ended up nose first in the pitch after not many yards. But it was the thought that counted. When the second round beckoned again, in 2000, circumstances were hugely, though not entirely, different. Kingstonian were now in non-league’s top-flight and were thereby spared most of that qualifying rounds nonsense. In both 1998 and 1999, Ks won their final qualifier only to fall to strong league opposition in, respectively, fourth-tier Leyton Orient (after a replay) and third-tier Luton Town (4-2 away, having been 2-1 up). But in November 2000, third-tier Brentford were as well beaten at Griffin Park as the 3-1 final scoreline suggested – signalling the end of the team management career of one Ron Noades.
The second round draw that evening sent us to fellow Conference side Southport. And with FA Cup managerial expert Geoff Chapple in the Ks hot seat, the third round was again a realistic prospect. As in 1994, however, Ks in the league and Ks in the FA Cup were two different animals. On our Cup form, you’d have fancied us against Southport. On our league form, you’d more likely have fancied Geoff Chapple. Again, as in 1994, Ks’ manager lost his job with the team in the bottom three. But as this happened in May, the similarities with 1994, when Ks recovered to mid-table respectability, ended there. Ks were relegated, and went into administration in October 2001, after a more-traditional FA Cup second round defeat – a qualifying round upset at Wessex League Brockenhurst.
In such circumstances, Ks second round proper match at Southport was even more remarkable than it seemed at the time. And from where I was sat in December 2000, things were very remarkable indeed. For a couple of games in 2000, I filled in as a BBC Southern Counties Radio analyst. And my debut at Yeovil had its moments. Well, one in particular. Ks had been chasing Somerset shadows for much of the first half but had kept the game scoreless. And this looked odds-on to be the way of things as I praised Ks work rate in my first-half summary, even while Ks centre-back Derek Allan set himself for a speculative 35-yarder. My summary, and I suspected my radio career, ended something like “Ks will probably have to work just as hard in the second half to hold onto this point and… oh… they’ve scored.”
Ks eventually lost. But, somehow, I was invited back, five weeks later, to “analyse” the Southport game. And if I thought concentrating on microphone duties would in any way deaden the combination of nerves and panic I was sure to feel if the game was close, I was gut-wrenchingly disabused of that notion. Backed by more wind than Mark Lawrenson on Football Focus, Ks blew into a two-nil lead in the first half, the second a Geoff Pitcher 30-yarder which had full support from the elements. But Southport pulled a goal back before half-time and would have been doing all the fancying of chances during that break.
The Sandgrounders didn’t lack for motivation, having lost their previous two games against Ks in circumstances of varying frustration; to a late goal in a home quarter-final replay in an FA Trophy Ks were to win (retain!) and 3-1 in a league game which Southport were winning until a controversial sending-off. Ks, meanwhile, had a debutant in goal, Tottenham youngster Gavin Kelly. Indeed, Ks fielded different custodians in each of their three FA Cup games to that point, as they went through net-minders like Spinal Tap went through drummers. Pat Jennings’ son, imaginatively called Pat, played in the final qualifying round. First choice Steve Farrelly donned the gloves at Brentford. While at Yeovil, a skinny Wolves youngster called Matt Murray took on the role, injuring himself after 20 minutes.
Kelly, though, had a better time of it. Which was just as well as the second half quickly settled into the predictable pattern. The BBC website reported the second 45 minutes as “something of an anti-climax after the early excitement” (and that the referee that day was one Mark Clattenburg, which had never registered with me). But one part of the BBC that day thought rather differently. With ten minutes, plus an inevitable week of stoppage-time, left, my commentator colleague handed me the microphone during a brief break in play to ask for my considered opinion. He might as well have asked for the moon. I had to be honest – the shaking in my voice was telling the tale anyway. I said that “considered anything” was pretty much beyond me from then until the final whistle and added: “Any Kingstonian fan listening, if you have a God to pray to, pray to them now.” Yes, really.
Whatever prayers were said, they worked. Southport had a couple of openings. But there was nothing like the shot they had late in the Trophy tie which hit the post and rolled across the goalline for some seconds before being scrambled clear. At least not as far as I remember. Southport’s entire midfield could have played the final ten minutes semi-naked…and not topless either…and I’d have been too wracked with nerves to notice. I summoned up something about “history” at the final whistle because Ks had made some, not having reached the third round proper before. But I was too wired for coherence and perspective. Ks cup story went further that season… further than Manchester United’s in fact. And Clattenburg was not the last controversial top-flight referee to cross our paths – although Clattenburg was yet to be either in 2000. But I’ll save that tale for the sequel to this article. For now, I just wish all the non-league sides well over the weekend, particularly Dover Athletic for some reason. And if Macclesfield or Brackley Town fans felt a little underwhelmed at their second round draw, just think of the opportunity it now presents for New Year glory (and gate money) against Everton reserves – the magic of the FA Cup, 2014-style.
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