The latter qualifying round stages of the FA Cup have a habit of rather creeping up on us. One week, village teams are playing each other in front of a handful of men and their dogs, but before you know it there is something altogether more significant at stake. This weekend it’s the Third Qualifying Round stage, and everybody involved this weekend has something to play for. The relative giants (and it is relative – Luton Town or Darlington, say, look like goliaths on the horizon if your club struggles to bring in a three figure crowd on a regular basis) of the Blue Square Premier enter the competition in the final qualifying round, and the winners of this afternoon’s matches also pocket £7,500 – a tidy sum for a small club, and on top of that lies the opportunity to profit still further from involvement in the next round, at least.
On the very perimeter of Brighton, at the foot of the Sussex Downs, lays The Enclosed Ground, the home of Whitehawk Football Club. Whitehawk were bought by a local company called Kingspan last year and have been on the up since then. They won the Sussex County Football League at the end of last season and the ground improvements required to host Ryman League football were carried out to ensure their promotion. The Enclosed Ground is now properly “enclosed” by a smart wooden fence, a new turnstile has been installed and there is now a small cover in one corner of the ground, behind the goal. Whitehawk have had a reasonable start to life in the Ryman League but this afternoon’s match is a real test of how far they’ve come, because this afternoon they play Hendon and, to people of a certain age, Hendon are A Big Club.
The visitors this afternoon are a long way from the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when they won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley three times, the Isthmian League twice and held Newcastle United to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup at St James Park. When the Blue Square South was introduced in 2004, Hendon were the only club to turn down the opportunity to join the new league, and they have had troubled times since then, culminating in them losing their Claremont Road ground in 2008. Since then, they have managed to arrange a groundshare at Vale Farm, the modest home of Wembley FC, and during the summer the club’s Supporters Trust took over the ownership of the club. They have made good start to the new season, and sit in fifth place in the Ryman League Premier Division.
With international matches again encroaching into the schedules of the Premier League and the Championship, it is the lower divisions chance to shine again this weekend. Ironically for Whitehawk, they remain out of the spotlight even within Brighton today by Brighton & Hove Albion being Sky’s choice of televised lunchtime match. The town centre pubs have plenty of blue and white striped shirts in them, worn by those that couldn’t afford or didn’t have the time to make it up to Withdean this afternoon. Up at Whitehawk, meanwhile, there are just shy of 200 present, a reasonable crowd but perhaps lower than they might have hoped for. Still, the FA’s cameras are here and there is an element of expectation in the air as the two teams – Hendon, for reasons best known to themselves, having eschewed their traditional green and white home kit for their tidy grey and black change kit – take to the pitch.
There is very little between the two teams in the opening stages. Indeed, the casual viewer would have been hard pressed to be able to tell which of these two teams was a division above the other. After fifteen minutes, however, we get an answer of sorts when, with their first significant attack, Hendon take the lead. Lubo Guenchev is the son of the former Bulgarian international Boncho Guenchev, who played a couple of seasons at Hendon at the tail end of a career that saw him play for, amongst others, Ipswich Town and Luton Town, and his header through for Belal Aite-Ouakrim catches the Whitehawk defence out. Aite-Ouakrim rolls the ball under the Whitehawk goalkeeper and in. The home side, however, keep pushing forward and with five minutes to play of the first half, they draw themselves level with a dubious penalty after an innocuous-looking tackle on the edge of the area. Paul Armstrong smashes the kick into the roof of the net and it’s a goal that Whitehawk deserve, even if they perhaps didn’t for the tackle that led to the penalty itself.
Five minutes into the second half, however, Hendon reassert their superiority with a goal that was almost one of the best of the season. Lee O’Leary’s thirty-five yard drive flies past the Whitehawk goalkeeper Alan Mansfield, hits the post, bounces along the goal line and out off the other post. Aaron Morgan, introduced at half-time, has the easiest job of the day to tap the ball into the empty goal with his first touch of the ball to give Hendon the lead again. From here on, Whitehawk push forward in search of en equaliser but fortune isn’t shining upon them today. They hit the post and should probably have forced the ball in from the resulting goalmouth scramble, but today isn’t going to be their day. At full-time, Hendon celebrate a big win – the next round could be very lucrative for them – whilst Whitehawk are left to reflect on the fact that, in spite of the fact that Hendon took their chances when they had them, they were probably a little hard done by not to come away from this match with another chance in the form of a replay.
Whitehawk seem likely to progress in an upwardly direction for as long as their owners continue to provide them with the means to do so, though there are no guarantees of how long this will be. Hendon, meanwhile, remain without a home of their own but the path that they have chosen, through being owned and run by their own supporters, means that their future as a club seems more certain now than it has done for several seasons. The FA Cup provides them with an opportunity to build a nest egg and to remind the world that they are still here – that they haven’t joined the long list of formerly great London amateur clubs that have gone to the grave or faded into absolute obscurity in recent years. The £7,500 that they will pick up for having won this match will be most welcome, but there are greater riches available if they get a favourable draw on Monday. Most importantly, though, Hendon FC are still with us, and that is a something that should please us all.
Video highlights of this match are available, courtesy of The FA’s website.