This weekend is FA Cup First Round weekend, and tomorrow remains my favourite day of the English football calendar. However closely I follow the build up, it always brings a delight, and there’s always a few teams that have me scrambling for a map.
Now my team are ‘big’, I don’t have the direct contact with it as in my earlier years, but I remember trips to places as exotic as Worcester, Doncaster and Port Vale… I was too young for the likes of Altrincham.
They say the cup is ‘for the dreamers’, and while all those teams in action tomorrow will be dreaming of better, with a quarter of an eye on a couple of rounds’ time, they are ‘the doers’, ‘the triers’ and some of them will end up as the ‘be-ers’.
Its that, the all-encompassing possibility, that I love. Anyone can be a hero in a one-off game, and there will be names in the headlines tomorrow that will perhaps never make them again.
There’s two places I want to go to with this piece, and I don’t know whether to go for the rant or the paean first. Maybe take your pick, I’ll label them accordingly.
Saturday, as you know, is a day that English football doesn’t really feature on TV. There’s a lunchtime game, which tomorrow is Stoke v Leicester. There’s a concurrent Cup game, too. Shaw Lane v Mansfield. Get the map book out, I don’t know either. Mansfield is the top end of the A38, though.
The evening game is West Ham v Liverpool, which is likely to get a decent audience but not take too much away from Newport Co v Walsall.
Saturday, as I say, isn’t a day for televised football. That day is Sunday and this glorious weekend gives the opportunity for some of the lesser lights to shine, to take their place in the Sunday spotlight and make a name for themselves.
There’s some interesting ties, too. Charlton A v Truro C, Cambridge Utd v. Sutton Utd, Leatherhead v. Billericay…the list goes on. I couldn’t pick a favourite, but there isn’t a single one on TV – you’ll get goals as they go in, and a bit of live action across the board, like a Championship night on Sky Sports News, but no full game to get one’s teeth into.
Instead, the big football viewing day of the weekend goes to the Premier League. Three games – Tottenham H v Crystal Palace as an appetiser, a goal glut to whet one’s appetite before the serious business of Manchester City v Arsenal and then Chelsea v Manchester Utd. Big games, all. Televised, all.
One weekend, one day, for the Premier League to demonstrate its respect for grassroots football, and it is singly refuses to do so.
I expect nothing less, but it frustrates me the same.
Back when Huddersfield Town weren’t much of a time, it was difficult to find them on TV. I went, my first year of university, from upwards of 50 games a year to around 15. This was even fewer games when a disappointing Huddersfield Town ended up relegated and in the bottom tier.
One of my favourite football memories of all comes from that time, from the FA Cup First Round in 2003.
Huddersfield were drawn away to Accrington Stanley and as a potential upset, as it would undoubtedly be, the game was to be televised.
My housemates at the time were non-football people. There’s a lot to be said for this. Much as I’m an archetypal football person, since this day I’ve always loved the company of non-football people. I encourage those of you in the football bubble to seek out, from time to time, those who are outside it; they provide an alternative to something that you might not even realise you’re doing.
Because that game meant a lot (for it’s scarcity value as much as anything) I made a real effort to ensure that it was the focal point of out house in Norwich for the afternoon.
We had balloons, we had a homemade HTAFC flag and we really got into the spirit of it all. I don’t think I’ve made such effort for any game at any point.
It’s strange looking back, and knowing my mate, how unusual and out of character it must have been for him. We’re both regarded by others as being pretty gloomy people, but I’ve never found it in him, I’ve always enjoyed a similar sense of fun.
It wasn’t much of a match, truth be told. Not many thousand were packed into the ground, and the pitch was a November pitch in the north of England, being used by two teams who each possessed more spirit than ability.
Yet I also remember really enjoying it. Watching football with a neutral is one thing, but watching it with someone who hasn’t grown up with the collective assumed knowledge of the football fan is another entirely.
Some aspects of a game that seem utterly banal are actually quite wonderful; the fans actually get to touch the ball when it goes out of play! And pretty regularly, too.
The lyricism to some of the chants is a wonder as well, the talent of those terrace songsmith to produce something memorable, singable and generally quite offensive is under-rated indeed.
In the end the inevitable happened. Town’s were already down to ten men when keeper Ian Gray went off with an injured hand in the last minute, and his young replacement was beaten by an absolute belter of a strike by a substitute.
Accrington won 1-0, John Coleman made his name, and Huddersfield tumbled out of the cup. I didn’t mind too much. I’d enjoyed the experience thoroughly despite the result, at that stage maybe for the first time.
It remains my favourite First Round game, because it made me closer to one of my best friends. I’m sure, maybe he’ll read this and disagree entirely, he doesn’t recall the afternoon as well, he was just making the best of an otherwise boring afternoon.
So yes, this weekend is FA Cup First Round weekend. The time of year, perhaps the only time of year, when all things are possible for most clubs.
I suspect that the third round used to carry more weight, but the increase in money at the bigger clubs has meant bigger and better squads, so the gaps throughout the leagues have increased, and the chances of upset decreased.
For us, though, for those of us who love the nobodies, the never-have-beens and never-will-bes, this is our weekend.
For Craig Robinson, for Ryan Blake, for Andy bloody Gouck. Heroes all.