Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity. 

Merstham wrap – Merstham 0 Oxford United 5

They came to watch a public execution; a symbolic act, a nod to a forgotten past, an annual ritual turned into a form of entertainment. It wasn’t Guy Fawkes Night, it was the FA Cup.

BT, along with the BBC and the cup’s corporate sponsors have bought a narrative which involves small teams beating big teams. This is particularly true in the earlier rounds, before the big teams take over. Global sponsors don’t want the big teams getting beaten, that would spoil the product for the worldwide audience. Early on, though, they salivate at the prospect of a giant killing, with blood dripping from their teeth, they seek it mercilessly.

I doubt even people in Merstham care much about Merstham football club. They probably lie awake in the dead of night worrying about how they’re going to maintain the mortgage payments on their extravagantly overpriced houses as a result of Brexit. Football, in the main, is something that happens on TV, not in their village. I

In truth, the TV companies don’t care about Merstham or Oxford, they just care about The Narrative. The Small Team of normal people beating The Big Team of overpaid superstars. Every year they want to recreate a Ronny Radford moment, but it never quite comes. They keep trying; if they can get themselves a giantkilling, then they will be sated never to return again, the only sign they were ever there are the tyre tracks from their mobile TV trucks.

We have to talk about pluckiness and giving a good account of themselves, but Merstham didn’t understand their role; their manager seemed like a lovely bloke, so happy and excited by the whole thing, but tried to turn the occassion into a football match, talking about ‘false nines’ in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Tactics, though, only really work when everything else is broadly equal. He was never going to outfox a club with our quality. Really, he should have focussed on turning the game into a brawl; a big mess of a game that we didn’t recognise. But it was all too friendly and polite, they would play on our terms, not theirs.

Of course, the corollary of the giant killing is the minnow killing. It is what makes the giant killing such an attractive narrative; that it happens rarely, certainly not to the demands of television. Ours was a killing which had all the classics of the genre; the moment of true class from Alex MacDonald, the killer goal just before half-time when minds have started to drift, the swift double which destroys spirit and souls, and the late killer blow when legs have turned to jelly. Typically only one or two of these is enough, we conjured up a raft of them.