The story of how this evening’s match between Ascot United and Wembley FC has come to be shown live via the medium of Facebook thanks to the tournament’s sponsors, Budweiser, has, it could well be argued, had a positive effect for all concerned. The Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup – and, in turn, the tournament itself – has received a shot of publicity for a stage of the competition that usually receives next to none. The sponsors, meanwhile, have aligned themselves with what even the purest of purists might call “The romance of the Cup”, and the match itself, with local interest having been piqued by the hullaballoo surrounding it, will now be played in front of a crowd of at least ten times the size of what might have been expected.
This last point is, perhaps, the most significant. Ascot United play in the Hellenic League, but they run a draw-dropping fifty-five teams of all ages, and have seven hundred and fifty registered players. This labyrinthine organisation is run by just over one hundred volunteers, of whom eighty have FA coaching certificates. This is grassroots football at its rootsiest. Furthermore, it’s an idiosyncratic venue for a football match. One could be tempted to look at the ground name of Ascot Racecourse and wonder whether this is some sort of pun but, sure enough, there is the racecourse itself, sitting in the background as if peering around a corner and wondering what all the non-horse-related fuss is about this evening.
Wembley FC, meanwhile, are relative darlings of the media when it comes to this round of the Cup. “Wembley To Wembley” articles are as old as the hills, but their Vale Farm ground is about as far removed from either the Twin Towers or The Arch as it is possible to imagine. Wembley play in the Combined Counties League, which is also at Step Five of the non-league pyramid, but they have been higher before – they were in Division One North of the Isthmian League as recently as 2003, when that division was one level higher in the non-league food chain than it is now – and they carry the claim to fame that Vale Farm was used as a training ground by the England team for the 1966 World Cup finals. In recent years, though, they have fallen upon somewhat fallow times.
For the uninitiated, Step Five (four promotions from the Blue Square Premier) football can be a confusing experience. At higher levels than this, the matches don’t feel a great different to the lower divisions of the Football League, and many of the players will have had some contact with the professional game, at youth, reserve, or first team level. The habits learnt there die hard and the coaching is of a higher quality, and this gives matches in the upper levels of non-league football much of the structure of the professional leagues. Yet the players involved this evening aren’t Sunday League players that have rolled out of the pub a quarter of an hour before kick-off with a roll-up still lodged in the corner of their mouths. The grass on the pitch is a little bit longer, there is a little more of a sense that the truly unexpected could happen, but it is still recognisable as football as we know it – just sometimes a little more chaotic.
Wembley must go in at half-time wondering how they have failed to take the lead. They hit the crossbar and the post, and the Ascot goalkeeper makes a terrific save from the rebound of the shot that struck the upright. When Ascot do get forward, though, they also look capable of scoring. Wembley are the more direct of the two teams – their coach may have spent some time flicking through Charles Reep coaching manuals – and their tactics seem to unsettle the home defence reasonably effectively. Ascot do manage one near-miss themselves, the ball pinging around the Wembley penalty area before being shot narrowly wide, but at half-time they may consider themselves to be a little lucky to still be level.
Eight minutes into the second half, though, Ascot’s luck runs out, and the opening goal of the evening for Wemblet has an apporpriately perfunctory air to it, a corner from the left hand side is driven into the bottom corner of the net by an unmarked Chris Korten. Ascot, however, recover well, keep their composure and, with ten minutes to go when a rash challenge from the Wembley goalkeeper earns Ascot a penalty. John Bennett’s penalty is not a great one – it’s more or less straight down the middle and hits the goalkeeper’s trailing foot en route, but it goes in and it looks as if the match will now head for a replay. With thirty seconds to go of normal time, though, Ascot hearts are broken when, having almost scored at one end, they allow Wembley to break and Roy Byron shoots in from twelve yards to win the game. They will now play Ardley United or Flackwell Heath in the Preliminary Round on the Third of September.
On Tuesday night, Ascot United drew 1-1 with Ardley United in the Hellenic League in front of a crowd of 88 people. This evening, their match was watched by an online audience of 27,000 and, arguably even more significantly, a crowd of 1,149 at Ascot Racecourse itself. It is, perhaps, disappointing that because it was a brand of beer that is sponsoring this year’s FA Cup, only over-18s could watch the match on Facebook and, of course, there are questions to be asked over whether purveyors of alcohol should be sponsoring sporting events in the first place, but overall the figures can only be regarded as a success and Budweiser are to be congratulated on an idea that did actually get to the spirit of the opening rounds of the tournament and has clearly sparked some interest in football at a level that normally receives very little coverage. Wembley FC, meanwhile, will probably not be too concerned about that this evening. They are now just twelve wins from a trip to, well… you get the picture.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.