It’s a competition that may not mean so much to the grandest of the grand, but the FA Cup still has a relevance which still means a lot to many. It’s been eleven years since St Albans City of the Southern League Premier Division last appeared in the First Round Proper – it’s been eighty-nine years since their one and only win against a Football League club in this competition, a five-three win against Brentford in the long-forgotten Fifth Qualifying Round of the competition in 1924 – but this morning the faint smell of victory continues to cling in the nostrils after the Saints overcame a rousing display from Isthmian League Division One North club Chatham Town yesterday afternoon.
St Albans City play a division higher than Chatham in the overall scheme of the non-league pyramid, but whether this fact makes such a huge difference at this level of the game is very much open to question. The winners of this match, no matter who it turned out to be, would be amongst the lowest ranked clubs in Sunday’s draw, but at this stage of the competition all that really matters is winning the next match and getting through to the next round of the competition. Indeed, in an era during which the majority of clubs in the Conference Premier – whether rightly or wrongly – are full-time, it might even be argued that this weekend’s Fourth Qualifying Round of the competition is the true dividing line of the competition. After all, should you be drawn against them, what exactly is the difference between playing, say, Accrington Stanley or playing Grimsby Town? These lines are considerably more blurred than they used to be.
On the open terrace at the far end of the ground amongst the away supporters, however, the mood was ebullient. Times have been tough for the Saints since they had one single, solitary year in the Conference National during the 2006/07 season. Memories of playing the likes of Oxford United and York City in league matches fast became distant memories as the club tumbled through two relegations and into the comparative nether regions of the non-league game. This period was accompanied by regular apocalyptic warnings about the club’s future under its previous owners, but those days now seem similarly distant. Under new ownership, the club now has ambitious plans for a ground of its own nearer the outskirts of the city and, whilst promotion this season, to say the least, is as unlikely as not, it feels as is this club is on an even keel, and there are plenty of other football clubs playing at this level of the game who would give their right arms to be able to say this.
Yet for all of that, for forty-odd minutes at Maidstone Road in Chatham, there was a feeling that a surprise may just be on the cards. The home side were sharp and assertive, whilst the visitors seemed to fall somewhere between being overly nervous and sluggish. A cross from the left fell six inches of right boot short of being turned in. Another header from a narrow angle flashed just side of the left-hand post, having taken a deflection on the way. The veteran St Albans goalkeeper Paul Bastock – not, might we suggest, a man who suffers defensive fools gladly – was seldom overtly threatened, but the pressure was largely at one end of the pitch than at the other.
As the half-time whistle approached, however, so did the breakthrough goal. St Albans had missed one opportunity a few minutes earlier when Mark Nwokeji shot wide from close range, but as we started to consider how impolite it might be to head for the bar before the referee’s whistle blew, a shot was blocked, not successfully cleared, and John Frendo – who, I am reliably informed, is the youngest person ever to complete the infamously fiendish London taxi drivers’ Knowledge and, considerably more significantly, seems far too gifted to be plying his trade at this level for too much longer – swept the ball in from close range. The half-time whistle followed shortly afterwards, and everybody at our end of the ground, especially the Oslo branch of the supporters club – whose huge Norwegian flag with the words “St Albans” and “Oslo” crossed across the middle of it is truly a thing of beauty – walked the length of the pitch to the bar in a reasonably happy state of mind.
So, confession time. The second goal came three minutes into the second half and I missed it because I was still in the bar (look, it had been a very long journey up from Brighton and I’d found a very comfortable leather sofa), so I’ll leave it to the St Albans City website’s match report to sum it up:
St Albans started the second-half much brighter than they started the first, and they won their first corner of the game in 47th minute. The resulting set-piece saw Locke head toward goal, which was flicked onto the bar by Mark Nwokeji, and as the ball came off the wood work, David Keenleyside was the quickest to react, with the winger hammering the ball home to double City’s lead, and virtually book their place in Sunday’s draw.
That definitely happened, yes? Let’s assume that it did. The last sentence of it is certainly true. From here on, it felt as if a little of the sting was taken out of the home side, but things may yet have ended up quite different had Lee Hales’ shot with fifteen minutes to play not bounced down onto the goal-line from the underside of the crossbar. It was a close thing – close enough for there to be a reasonable suspicion that the ball might even have crossed the line, but play was waved on and with that chance it felt as if Chatham’s final opportunity to drag their way back into the match to a replay had passed. And at full-time came a touching moment, the sight of the players celebrating with supporters behind the goal. For much of the last six or seven years or so this has felt like a dislocated, rudderless club, more likely than not destined to continue to drift in a downward direction in a sea of more ambitious competitiors, but at ten to five yesterday afternoon it felt more like one club again. The FA Cup may well not matter too much to the biggest clubs any more, but at this level it still has the capacity to captivate and prompt great celebration at this stage of the game.
Early this afternoon brought the draw for the First Round Proper of this year’s FA Cup, and St Albans City’s reward for winning yesterday turned out to be a home match against Mansfield Town of League Two. It will be the first time that City have played a home tie against a Football League club in this competition since they drew one-all against Torquay United in the Second Round of the competition in 1980. A hughely difficult tie, but a result of some description is just within the realms of possibility. In a broader sense, it’s unlikely, of course, that any of the clubs making an appearance in this afternoon’s draw will make an appearance at Wembley next spring, but the financial rewards for clubs of the size of St Albans City for getting this far in the FA Cup remain substantial and there is always the idle daydream that maybe, just maybe, this year could be your team’s year. Hope, that vital sustenance of all football supporters, springs eternal.
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