Whilst it is normal for one or two Football League clubs to be given a bloody nose by a non-league club at some point during the early rounds of the FA Cup, predicting where this will happen is a slightly trickier business. Yesterday, ITV went with the “romance of the cup” and saw Norwich put seven goals past a Paulton Rovers side whose defence’s pre-match training didn’t appear to contain any extra “hap” sessions. In the evening, they went for Stourbridge against Walsall, only to see Walsall nick a scantly-deserved win and Oxford United against Yeovil Town, which saw Oxford win, but against the curiously unsatisfying backdrop of an impressive, all-seater stadium. One suspects that Oxford will play Yeovil in the league within two or three years, which somewhat detracted from the feeling of surprise at the result in that particular match.
The things about surprises is that, well, they are surprises. Bath City’s win away to a steadily declining Grimsby Town might have been an eyebrow-raiser, but the fact that it was taking place at Blundell Park was enough to keep the Outside Broadcast Unit away. Staines Town’s win at Shrewsbury Town was an even bigger surprise – not least because, mercifully, the travelling Staines supporters elected not to dress en masse like Ali G (although the winning goal was scored by someone called Ali C) – and these were the two matches that were pushed to the top of the bill on ITV’s (vastly improved) late night highlights show last night. This afternoon brings the second of their live matches. Northwich Victoria versus Charlton Athletic. Will Northwich do a Paulton or will they do a Staines?
Much of the answer to this question comes down to the state of the opposition, and Charlton Athletic supporters have cause to be concerned. Their team has won just one of its last six matches in League One and, while they remain in second place in the table, they are going at best sideways at the moment. Northwich, meanwhile, are deceptively placed in the the Blue Square North – without the points deduction that they suffered during the summer, they would be there or thereabouts in the promotion race, and they’re unbeaten in the league in two months. Moreover, last season they were a Blue Square Premier who, with relegation a certainty, won their last six matches in a row at the end of last season. The optimism that their supporters might have fel at the tail end of the summer has slipped away as the evenings have lengthened.
In the first half, Charlton Athletic are completely outplayed and it is somewhere between a mystery and an outrage that they are not a couple of goals behind, to the point that it is apt that ITV’s man at the match is the perennially breathless sounding Peter Drury. Northwich start agriculturally, throwing the goal forward towards their strikers, who buzz around the Charlton central defenders like hyperactive greenfly. This direct approach seems to unsettle Charlton, and Northwich start to control the game. If they have spotted a weakness in the Charlton defensive line, it may be goalkeeper Darren Randolph, who is their third choice and is making his debut for the club, but Randolph ends up being their first half saviour, making two brilliant saves. The nearest that they come, however, is a goalmouth scramble that ends up looking like a pinball game designed by an inhabitant from a lunatic asylum and requires Christian Dailly to block the ball on the line three or four times before Randolph falls on the ball like a soldier smothering a bomb.
The second half begins much as the first half ended, with Charlton continually fighting off a constant stream of aerial bombardment. By now, Randolph is getting better protection from his defenders and there are slim pickings for the Northwich strikers, but it is so constant that Charlton can, for the first twenty minutes of the half, barely get the ball out of their own third of the pitch, but then the balance of power slowly starts to shift as Charlton’s superior fitness levels start to manifest themselves. An outstanding dedensive block on the edge of the penalty area prevents thm from taking the lead. It’s as close as they have managed all match, though, which says a lot about the way that Northwich have managed to tame their opponents. When Northwich do get into possession they frequently find themselves running down blind alleys and losing possession. Still, though, that long ball into the penalty area looks dangerous.
Then, with nine minutes to play, the breakthrough. A looping header through from the halfway line catches the Charlton defence cold. Randolph, so assertive in the first half, hesitates as Wayne Riley bears down on him and the eighteen year old striker (who has only been on the pitch for six minutes) toe pokes the ball under him. The ball rolls over the line agonisingly over the line, but it makes it in the end and Northwich have the lead. Three minutes later, any thoughts of running down the clock are put momentarily on hold as Bailey’s header loops over Randolph and is cleared off the line by Sam Sodje. Charlton’s response is utterly toothless. They switch tactics out of desperation and start throwing the ball forward but Northwich tidy it up with ease every time. Deep into injury time, there are a tense thirty seconds as Charlton with a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, but the ball is charged down by the wall and with that the match is over. Northwich Victoria have beaten Charlton Athletic.
The better team on the day won. Of that, there is no question. The issue of how and why Charlton have fallen so far and so quickly is one for another day, but there is an important point to be made about this result which was only lightly touched upon by ITV. Last season, Northwich were locked out of their stadium by a vindictive owner, who referred to the ground as his “pension fund”, locked the gates and stripped it of the fixtures and fittings. They came perilously close to being expelled from the Football Conference then, and they did again in the summer when the Football Conference’s Dennis Strudwick expelled them from the league after their relegation from the BSP, only for them to be reinstated upon appeal. They are still here, and they will play Lincoln City in Second Round of the competition. They deserve nothing less.