Last month I was asked to write an article for the Fanzine, Real Mad Red. The article had to have an FA Cup theme. You may have seen it already, but what you saw was an edited version- cut almost in half. As I laboured over it, I thought I would reproduce it in full here. My apologies if you’ve read it already!
Being asked to write a topical article for an FA Cup edition was always going to be difficult. You see, until last season the FA Cup had brought me nothing but misery and disappointment. I’ve spent most of my life viewing the FA Cup draw with the fatalistic outlook of Private Frazer in a particularly panic stricken moment. And generally I’ve been right.
From the age of six I supported Leeds United. My first game as a Leeds United supporter? Wembley, May 1973. Leeds odds on favourites to win the cup, and then Ian Porterfield stepped up and ruined it. And where did I live? County Durham- Mackem land, where all of my friends had- at that point, anyway- red and white stripes. I met Jim Montgomery, the Sunderland keeper, in my early teenage years. My friends queued for his autograph. I tried hard to pretend he didn’t exist.
Years of FA Cup misery followed, until 1981 when my home town team, Bishop Auckland, actually reached the first round. Home to Nuneaton Borough (I had no idea where that was. Still not entirely sure even now). I got to be ball boy, behind the away goal. I was so proud. Well, until the Nuneaton fans, whose train had broken down, finally arrived fifteen minutes into the game and took a non-paying shortcut across the pitch, threatening me with violence on the way. I made myself scarce, and joined the throng behind the home goal, but the terraces were so packed I ended up standing behind three big blokes and saw next to none of the game. It finished four-one, a victory, but I saw only the goal Nuneaton scored. By the way, their fans stopped play again by leaving 15 minutes before the end the same way they’d arrived. Didnt you just love the 1980’s?
The second round. Bishop were drawn away to Carlisle United. It rained like hell. At 70 minutes, with the score 0-0 and the pitch in the best condition it had been all game, the ref called it off. The following week it snowed. Not light, Southern snow (!!) but proper northern stuff, four feet deep and impassable. The rearranged game was called off three times. Eventually they moved it to Workington. Ever been to Workington? No? Keep it that way, if you’ve any sense- it makes Barrow look like a beautiful and thriving metropolis. A 1-0 defeat, my scarf nicked by a Carlisle fan, and my so called friends throwing cigarette butts down my wellingtons. Some of them still lit. And yes, I know I shouldn’t have been wearing wellingtons, but it’s easy to be wise after the event……….the fashion police hadn’t been invented and I was worried about the snow! I would also add that I was 14 years old and hated getting wet feet!
If we mention the 1987 semi final between Coventry and Leeds I may be forced to use foul language. Brendan Ormsby was never the same again. Mind you, he wasn’t much cop before either……In the years to follow I moved to London and watched home FA Cup games at Fulham, QPR, West Ham, Wimbledon (well, Sehurst Park) and Charlton. Not one home victory did I witness- not that I really cared about any of these clubs enough for it to matter. I had friends who would actually put money on an away victory after finding out I was going!
Then, after around a decade in the football wilderness, I discovered the mighty Crawley Town FC. I missed out on the delights of Northampton and the famous loss to Brighton at the Toys R Us stadium or whatever it was called. I do remember that it was the same day that Arsenal were knocked out by Wrexham, but I’ve promised “nearly Scouse Alf” that I won’t mention that and I’m not the type to break a promise. So, it’s 2004, and we’ve drawn Dagenham and Redbridge in the 4th qualifying round. My first red FA Cup match, and a 2-1 defeat. 2005, we lose at home to Braintree. 2006 and a Ben Judge own goal loses a match at home to Lewes. 2007 finds us losing to Aldershot after a replay. By this point I’m convinced that I’m an FA Cup Jonah of the highest order. 2008, Havant and Waterlooville at home, a 3-0 defeat. I almost decide not to go in 2009, but we manage a home draw with AFC Wimbledon, and head confidently into the replay. Only to lose again.
Last season dawned with me optimistic about our League chances but with no hope at all of a run in the FA Cup. We drew Newport away, and I decided that the lads would stand a better chance without me. And I was right! I stayed at home, went to Ikea and later dropped a flat packed tv unit on my foot. But we won! A trip to Guiseley beckoned, and I thought long and hard about staying away. But in the end, I decided to take a chance. If we’d lost, I’d probably have given up FA Cup football for life. Or at least 12 months. Just before the end of the second half, I received a call to say that my eldest boy had been taken ill. Cue me driving down the motorway like Nigel Mansell. But we were through to the second round, and had played brilliantly. My hoodoo had departed!
Swindon- a draw and a victory. The morning after the latter, I managed to slip on the drain cover at the top of our drive and bang my head on the car boot. And began to have irrational thoughts. We’d won three FA Cup games. I’d had two accidents or a panic stricken drive to the hospital after every victory. Was this just a coincidence, or a visit to the Twilight Zone? I put this to the back of my mind.
Next came Sergio’s goal against Derby, and grown men in tears. I then became a “media tart” (copyright: Paul Prendergast) for the weeks leading up to both Torquay and Manchester United. More about that in a moment. Two days after the Derby game I got a chest infection and end up on steroids- this wasn’t my attempt to be the new Arnold Schwarzenegger. And I began receiving calls from the BBC, the Sun, the Independent- asking me about our mighty Reds and our FA Cup Run. This was actually a lot of fun- it was nice having the opportunity to educate people who knew very little about Crawley Town (some of them shockingly little). Then came Torquay, another majestic victory- despite the missed penalties which made us live on our nerves when we could have been out of sight. I’d been telling anyone who would listen that we’d beat Torquay and then draw Manchester United away. Of course, to our delight that came to pass, but by Monday I had a terrible near-death illness- or as my wife described it, man flu.
The weeks between the 5th round draw and the match itself were amongst the most hectic of my life. The phone seemed to ring continually. Over a ten day period I was interviewed by The Sun, The Times, BBC Sussex and Aldershot (sorry!), the Independent, the Obby, the Reds Cafe website (Manchester United), the New York Times and the Dubai National, amongst others. The last two, particularly, were an education!
I also got calls from people looking for Welsh speaking Crawley fans to interview, Irish Crawley fans- and remembered with not a little irony the days not so long ago when we struggled to even find Crawley fans in Crawley! The day before the game I received yet another call from the BBC. I’d helped set up interviews with CTFC fans who were flying in from the other side of the world, and expected that this was a similar request, but I was wrong. “We need you and another Crawley fan to appear on BBC Breakfast tomorrow morning”. I protested that I would be on the way to Manchester, but after some discussion involving the promise of an early interview and of a fast car to Euston, I agreed. Then immediately regretted it.
Matchday dawned with a feeling of trepidation. James Laraman had been press-ganged into being “Crawley fan no. 2”, and we were at the Television Centre for 8AM. Shortly afterwards we were in the green room. Simon Calder was in there, Dan Walker just leaving. The BBC had been taken over by CTFC! Simon was very positive about our chances, and a thoroughly nice chap. We then had to go into make up- unfortunately I needed lots of powder due to having a rather shiny head! The interview itself passed in a blur- I recall one of the presenters (whose name I cant remember- sorry)- suggesting that I was doing Sir Alex’s team talk for him by being so positive about our chances. But I felt irrationally confident. James was very much the same.
At Old Trafford, I recall telling Paddy Crerand- who had the temerity to suggest that we’d want a money spinning replay- that we didn’t have time for a replay due to fixture congestion and needed to beat them today! The look on his face was a picture. I was full of confidence and entirely sober, honestly! Paddy wasn’t so cocky after the game! The match has been recounted so often elsewhere that I won’t describe it again- but one moment sticks in the mind more than any other. Two Japanese fellows, Man Utd fans, were sat right in front of us. During the first half, they noisily cheered and disputed every decision that their team was involved in- albeit it in very broken english (not that this is a criticism, it isn’t like I can manage any Japanese!). During the second half, as we took control, they became quieter and quieter, sullen and uncommunicative. Until the moment Wayne Rooney got himself booked. One of them jumped to his feet. “Fluck off Looney”, he yelled, face contorted in anger! We were playing so well that Manchester United fans were turning on their own team. Full time, and we’d outplayed the biggest team in the world. Emotional, but so proud. A feeling that I can still recreate just by writing about it now. Images that will be ingrained in my mind for the rest of my life.
Sunday, I had to speak to The Sun (again), as well as writing a piece for the Crawley Observer and one for the CTFC Matchday Programme for the next home game. Monday it was another stint on BBC Radio Surrey, where I remember pointing out that the Manchester United goal had come from a corner that everyone else in the ground bar the referee had known was a goal kick. And then it was over. Back to normality, back to work, back to “Project Promotion”.
On the way to work, my route was blocked by a collection of schoolchildren milling about on a bus stop near my office. They were discussing football, loudly. One was carrying a Manchester United bag, another wearing a Manchester United hat. I smiled and went to walk around them. I stepped in some mud, slipped, and damaged my back so badly that I’m still in pain six months later.
So, with the FA Cup first round on the horizon, a feeling of excitement mounts. I am quietly confident that I will no longer bring bad luck to my team. And the suit of armour I’ve ordered to protect me from our success is apparently in the post!