The FA Cup First Round: Macclesfield Town vs Kingstonian
Hardly surprising, really. The first round is a big deal for seventh-tier clubs in English club football’s pyramid (do pyramids have tiers?). And Ks’ Cup record has been execrable for enough years to make it a bigger deal still. We reached it from 1998-to-2000 when Conference status gave us a bye to the last qualifying round. FA Amateur Cup prowess got us there twice in the 1930s. But we even failed in 1960, when losing the Amateur Cup final gave us ‘automatic’ qualification. That automation had to be applied for. So… we posted the form a day late. Yes, we did.
Which made it VERY weird for a first-round tie, at a Football League (EFL) club, to be about the easiest game of Ks’ six-game Cup-run this year, less-difficult even than our 3-0 second qualifying round win over Eastern Counties League March Town United. And many Ks fans hadn’t even heard of them before they ‘became’ our opponents, after Isthmian League Grays Athletic were expelled from the Cup for ludicrously jobsworth reasons, as covered in these pages.
Sunday’s game resembled a pre-season friendly against a league club’s ‘XI’ because that’s largely what it was. Except the pitch was not, let’s say, of July quality and the crowd was bigger. Just. Both outward signs of Macclesfield fraying at the edges in a financial crisis, which was, of course, the bigger picture for football. Macclesfield players were paid late four times last season, a fortnight late in September and still await their October salaries, the specific issue which triggered the first-team squad’s and other staff members’ strike action last Wednesday.
Since 2003, the 145-year-old club has been majority-owned by Kurdish brothers Amar and Bashar Alkadhi, telecoms ‘entrepreneurs’ whose family moved to the UK from Iraq in the late 1970s. On New Year’s Day 2009, the Guardian newspaper’s James Montague felt able to call them “a rare phenomenon: lower-league owners beloved by their fans,” as the Silkmen prepared to host Everton in the FA Cup third round (“important as promotion is, the FA Cup is a godsend,” Montague continued, words to which current events have added irony).
Montague interviewed Bashar, who now owns only 10% of Macclesfield while Amar owns 80%, hence Amar being the target of current Macc fan protests. But while Montague said it was “thought” that the brothers had “invested up to £4m,” Bashar would not “mention any figures.” And financial life remained uneasy for a club in the Manchester City catchment area (and United’s outside London).
After 13 years in English football’s fourth tier they were relegated to non-league’s top-tier in 2013. But Amar claimed in June 2014 that the brothers had “put in enough monte for the club to be stable now and for the next two years” after a two-month delay in salary and tax payments and the failure of a takeover bid led by club vice-chairman and former player Andy Scott. But financial struggles were already intensifying when Macclesfield returned to the EFL in 2018.
Bodies ranging from HMRC to Egerton Youth Club petitioned the High Court to wind-up the club. And this April, after three consecutive late salary payments (detecting a pattern yet?), the players’ patience snapped. High-profile and surely costly manager Sol Campbell also reported two months unpaid. Relegation loomed. But they considered boycotting their final league game, at home to Cambridge United, before deciding that it’s “nature and importance” left them duty-bound “to the loyal supporters” who “continued to support us through good and bad since the first game of the season.”
Their 1-1 draw with Cambridge and Notts County’s last-day loss kept them up. But the ”angry” players wondered aloud “how we will be paid throughout the off-season,” as a winding-up petition from HMRC for £73,000 unpaid tax was adjourned until 26th June, a petition to which six of them added their names. This petition has since been adjourned again and again. The last, “for a few weeks,” was granted on 23rd October, with club lawyers claiming that there was “some impact” on the arrival of “international payments” by… Brexit, the all-encompassing explanation for “impact” of our times.
The EFL has been in chocolate teapot mode, their apparent default position when member clubs are financially imperilled. On 3rd October, as noted in these pages, players and staff “pleaded” with them to help the club avoid Bury’s fate, a well-crafted plea to force any responsible governing body into effective action. Criteria which clearly excludes the EFL, who “requested the club’s observations,” whilst, in an unspecified manner, “assisting all parties in reaching an amicable and appropriate resolution (ASAP),” a curious emphasis on amity over contractual duties to employees.
So, the strike remains entirely justified… and well-strategised. Even with Isthmian League opposition, the Cup gave the game the highest profile of any Macc match this season to date, which brought the issues to national attention. And while the first team would have been warm favourites to win the game and its £36,000 prize money, the players rightly judged that league status is a bigger key to the club’s survival.
Fans’ protests have been on-going for months. On 5th April, Amar published an open letter blaming March’s “payment delay to players and staff wages” (sic) on “several factors,” specifying the postponement of a home game with Exeter City which “clearly had a profound effect,” itself indicating dangerously precarious finances. And he accepted blame for the club not being “prepared for such an occurrence.” But, of course, it still isn’t. And his apology would have seemed more sincere if he hadn’t admitted that “I didn’t do my job properly for the club” after salary delays in January… 2018.
However, the March 2019 delay was tucked away below concerns that “over the past few weeks” there were “a growing number of complaints regarding anti-social behaviour by a minority” of fans, which ‘co-incided’ with increasing levels of fan-protest. And Amar claimed ejecting them was not in the club’s “best interests” because it would mean a “hefty” police bill and “would unquestionably generate an unsavoury incident” behind the dugouts. In other words, the club couldn’t pay the police bill and ejections would focus attention on the protests.
Sunday’s protests were small. Even allowing for FA Cup crowds at league clubs being lower than league crowds, the 996 official attendance suggested that most Macc fans were protesting by staying away. But the protesters outside the away end were vociferous. And Ks fans happily joined those protests, from Moss Rose’s away fans’ seating area (the ‘Big Brand Ideas’ stand), the low roof of which amplified the sound to an effects-mic-catching degree for any broadcaster wishing to broadcast it. We have, after all, ‘been there.’ Within 11 months of our last first round tie, a 3-1 win at third-tier Brentford in November 2000, Ks were in administration, despite that Cup run generating over £300,000.
There was time for a couple of cheeky, self-interested choruses of “we want our gate receipts“ before “we want Amar out” was being sung with gusto. Some of the younger kids could be forgiven for singing along because it was fun, without necessarily knowing who Amar was or why he was wanted out. But left-wing, right-wing and apolitical Ks fans were refreshingly united by a sense of injustice. I never shy from criticising elements of Ks support. But hat-tips to all on Sunday. And I urge future visiting fans (Mansfield and Crewe, I’m looking at you) to offer similar support, while hoping, of course, that it won’t be needed.
Sunday was problematic for Ks too, albeit for far less-fraught reasons. The Sunday lunchtime start was driven by BBC highlights programming. And Ks rightly took the £12,500 for this (Saturday highlights money was £6,750). The magic of the FA Cup is glory AND money at our level. But the FA clearly cared FA for travelling fans. The switch to Sunday necessitated pre-dawn starts for the car-less, given the paucity of early-Sunday public transport. And the limited advance booking time available inflated train-ticket prices. Imagine if Manchester United were at home too, with Cockney Reds packing the two trains to guarantee timeous arrival in Mac…ah…
This also exposed the FA’s brain-freeze decision to fix the Cup’s non-regional first round and the FA Trophy’s semi-regional second qualifying round for the same weekend, when they could have known, if they gave a toss, that teams qualify for both every year. Ks were 24 minutes from round trips to Cheshire and Cornwall within three days when Blackfield and Langley scored at Truro City to earn a replay they won. But even a trip south of Southampton would drain the physical resource of any semi-professional player with a job. And, as ever, fans could go hang.
Very much despite that, the game itself was a tonic. The final score was eye-catching. But it needed to be. Even those who didn’t know the tie’s back story were informed of it soon enough, even during the game. Ks’ first goal was announced on BBC Final Score by match reporter Naz Premji as “a shock but not a shock.” When they went live to Moss Rose and caught Ks’ third goal, Premji stressed that the score was “only half the story.” And, though we’d like to think otherwise, it was.
“You only won because you were playing our B team,” said one of a group of young Macc fans, as they shook our hands in, fair play to them, genuine congratulation. And the he was probably right. Carlisle dismantled Dulwich Hamlet on Friday night. And they are four league places below Macclesfield, while Dulwich are one tier above us and were at home (although 4-1 was harsh on Hamlet). The media fixates on the number of places between the teams in such games for a reason. And the 71-place gap between Macclesfield and Ks backed the Macc lad’s assertion. However, as many Ks fan noted at three o’clock on Sunday, you can only beat what’s in front of you.
And it had been hard to gauge beforehand whether, as the BBC’s Manish Bhasin exclaimed on Sunday evening, the strike made Ks favourites. Was the ‘youth team’ under-18, 19 or 21? How good were the four teams the under-19s beat in-a-row last month? Macclesfield also fielded five league club loanees. But how good were they if their parent clubs were happy for them to be cup-tied, especially in such farcical circumstances?
It was clear from the early exchanges, though, that the lads and loanees had the tactical nous of a team that had just met. Because, literally, they had. And however talented the lads were, they lacked the physicality to show it. Ks often played out from the back under no pressure. And when a press was applied, Ks defenders and midfielders, literally, played through it.
However, Ks fully utilised their advantages, a complacent pre-interval 15 minutes aside. And four-nil was the right result. Silkmen youth team (Silkboys?) boss Paul Maguire un-necessarily raised fears of a “cricket score.” But Ks had four times as many shots, with four times as many on-target. And Silkmen keeper Owen Evans, a Wigan Athletic loanee, made two outstanding saves, including a “Gordon-Banks-from Pele” re-enactment from a Louie Theophanus header.
I was pondering aloud whether veteran Ks keeper Rob Tolfrey’s seventh-minute collection of an over-hit pass was his first touch. Before we could be sure, ‘Tolfs’ drilled a ball downfield, onto which Dan Hector latched before advancing unhindered on goal and firing his left-foot shot through Evans. Four minutes later, Ks scored another suspiciously easy goal, Hector turning provider with a cross which sailed over a suddenly diminutive-looking centre-back Connor Seymour for Theophanus to chest-control and slightly-mishit a volley past a discombobulated Evans.
Ks centre-backs were proverbially smoking cigars in the first half. And the rest of the team joined them as half-time approached, leaving this congenitally uneasy Ks fan craving a third goal. My unease lasted three second-half minutes. Kenny Beaney’s corner caused penalty-box panic before a deflected Theophanus shot hit the post and Dan Bennett won a three-man race to net the rebound. And on 67 minutes, Theophanus controlled Reece Hall’s clever chip and, without breaking stride, glided past Evans and netted from a fast-tightening angle. Pure class, whatever the opposition.
Ks then declared, surely unaware that another goal would have broken two FA Cup records, the biggest away win by a non-league side over a league side (Brighton 0 Walton and Hersham 4, 1973) and Ks own biggest first-round win (Ks 5 Wisbech Town 1, 1995). Had they known, Ks would probably have scored again. But that did nothing to dampen players’ and fans’ celebrations, manager Hayden Bird getting the bumps as chaotic red-and-white hooped joy engulfed the stands.
The bigger picture soon re-emerged, though, as the Macclesfield protesters almost formed a guard of honour for departing Ks fans. Genuine best wishes were swapped with protesters, whose magnanimity and goodwill made the pre-match police presence even more unnecessary than it seemed at the time.
Ks emerged with competition total prize money of £77,250 and a second-round home tie with AFC Fylde, currently 20th in the National League. And although league position doesn’t necessarily mean much (Ks are 16th in the Isthmian Premier without a home league win this season), this gives Ks genuine hope of a Third Round spot.
Meanwhile, Macclesfield’s striking players have been advised not to play or train because they aren’t insured. And the EFL have, finally, opened formal investigations into the club, revealing that they “secured” July and September salaries via “solidarity and basic award payments“ and giving the club until 4pm tomorrow (Wednesday) to respond to their “request for information.” And the Silkboys may get another first-team outing in Wednesday’s Leasing.com Trophy tie with Shrewsbury.
But there is hope there too, albeit from a source requiring scrutiny. Businessman Joe Sealey, son of the late ex-Luton keeper and Man Yoo FA Cup winner Les Sealey, is interested in buying the club. The ex-football agent is the founder and CEO of Neon, which runs various health food and fitness-related businesses in Cheshire’s affluent “Golden Triangle.” And in August, he was “100% interested” in Bury, before baulking at owner Steve Dale’s demands which, the Daily Mail newspaper understated, “did not tally” with Bury’s “financial situation.” Hopefully, Sealey will get more realism from Alkadhi.
Still, I hope Macc fans, and my editor, will forgive me a little self-indulgence. Half the story though they were, Kingstonian did themselves justice, on and off the pitch on Sunday. The team, supporters, flag arrangers, everyone in Ks’ red-and-white hoops did everything that could reasonably be asked of them. Congratulations. And thank you.