Groundhoppers are like snowflakes. Put lots of them together and you get an amorphous monochromatic mass, but individually we have uniqueness and beauty. Well, that’s my view anyway. Trips to Yorkshire (with the sole exception of a quite nasty encounter between Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday back in 1998) have always put a smile on my face. My first match in the county was a season opener for West Brom at Barnsley in our first game back in the second tier in 1993, when I was but an infant ‘hopper. The funniest was at Hillsborough among some crazy Danes on their way out of Euro 96 despite a win over Turkey. I was up here last week as FC Halifax Town went to the top of the Northern Premier League after a feisty local derby with Bradford PA. Happy days.
I’m here at Sheffield FC in Dronfield today, though, because this was one of seven possible new hops for me in this 4th Qualifying Round, and I always choose (usually by strange random methodology) an FA Cup tie if there is one available. This time the method was to listen to the advice of friends on Twitter – to paraphrase, “Get to Sheffield v Tipton Town!”, they said with unanimity, “… and go to the Coach and Horses!” was the subtext. Well, I am proud of my Black Country roots and I had seen Tipton Town’s replay win over Radcliffe Olympic in the last round, so I decided to obey this reasonable logic and embed myself in the visiting hordes.
Any downside of being a neutral can be offset by ticking the following boxes. A game that means something to both clubs. Tick. Another attraction in the vicinity for cultural or educational purposes. Tick. Some element of footballing history or significant personal link. Tick. Good quality refreshments. Tick. Also, in this national treasure which is the early rounds of the FA Cup, add the chance of drama and craziness in the final few minutes of a knockout game. Big Tick.
You cannot fail to notice that Sheffield FC is The Oldest Football Club In The World. Even if you have the attention span of a guppy, the reminders are everywhere. The club has a unique selling point for potential supporters and sponsors, and good luck to them. The left-hand side of their supporters’ wall is astonishing. Sepp Blatter, Pele, Geoff Hurst, Howard Webb, Eric Cantona, David Blunkett and Gordon Banks just a few of the hundreds of household names. The right-hand side has the mere mortals. It’s the club’s nominal birthday on Sunday 24th October – 153 years of age, so Happy Birthday and Many Happy Returns. Posters advertise an anniversary celebration of the first competitive match against Hallam to be staged for 1000 supporters later in the year. It’s one of those grounds where you are right next to the touchline all the way round and the assistant referees will hear every word of encouragement that you offer.
There was a real buzz around the ground, and the club had geared itself up for a big crowd. As it turned out, the attendance of 1026 was almost 400 more than the second-highest of this season, against Frickley Athletic in the previous round. The aforementioned Coach and Horses, whose rear wall is part of the ground perimeter, was beautifully equipped with five hand-pumped beers. I can vouch for the Thornbridge Jaipur India Pale Ale which I sampled, purely in the interests of research you understand, before the game. Choosing the ale was a tricky moment having left my dice at home, which readers of modushopperrandom will understand. For the record, I decided to work to the western linguistic convention of moving left to right but never made it to pump two as I feared my judgement, impartiality and record-keeping could be impaired. Such dedication. Nothing to do with my ageing bladder, oh no.
Supporters of both clubs seemed confident. Sheffield’s had the quiet confidence of a step 4 team facing step 5 opposition this time, and after all they had seen off a step 3 one (Frickley Athletic) last time. Tipton’s travelling support had the confidence of those whose team has been flying in the Alliance Midland League, and who knocked in six in midweek. They were not over-impressed by the memorabilia in the bar. Game on (but only after pie and peas, well it’s rude not to when north of the Watford Gap).
The teams were announced and Sheffield confused me immediately by naming a new keeper, Whatsize, their fifth of the season, and not mentioned in the programme. Tipton were without the Hungarian striker Jakab, their second-highest scorer who had been impressive in the Radcliffe replay. Ninety minutes later, honours remained even, and Sheffield head to the Midlands on Wednesday to the soulless atmosphere of the Tipton Sports Academy. To sum up in one sentence, as is my wont – a draw was a fair result.
Here’s the ebb and flow.
Tipton ensured that the crowd stayed quiet by taking the lead after seven minutes. Good work on the right by Ricky Baker meant that the ball came across into the area for Danny Bragoli. After what seemed like an age, he bundled it home past the debutant. Sheffield’s first chance came four minutes later, but visiting keeper Matt Sargeant made a straightforward low save. However, yellow-booted Sheffield winger Ashley Burbeary started to become a consistent threat, and a good piece of work following a corner after twenty-one minutes created the chance for Andy Gascoigne to head his sixth goal in seven cup games for the season. One Tipton fan headed immediately in disgust to the Coach and Horses as the rain fell on our unprotected non-league heads.
The equaliser seemed to settle the home side and it needed sharp defensive interventions by both Parker and Palmer before the half-hour mark to keep the score level. Burbeary was involved in most of the best approach work on the Sheffield left, but on thirty-seven minutes a gorgeous curling ball by Outram down the other flank sent Cusworth in on goal. He rounded the keeper and hit the target, but defensive cover had reached the near post at the expense of a corner. A second goal seemed imminent and it arrived two minutes later. Quality crosses had led to a series of half chances, and finally a looping header by Cusworth crossed the line before it was cleared. The assistant referee gave the goal from the corner where I was also positioned. I was not in line, but he certainly was, and my first impression is that he made the right call.
Sheffield were looking comfortable by this point, and Tipton’s Cameron Jones was certainly uncomfortable as a hobbling passenger of a player as the half-time whistle went and the rain cleared.
Half-time: Sheffield 2 Tipton Town 1
The Tipton fans around me seemed just as interested in the news of Wolves at Chelsea, and one, on hearing (from me, via a text from my mum) that West Brom were leading Fulham, suggested that the Albion were playing better this season. There was an awkward silence, and I never saw him again. I assume he was taken for 1984-style reconditioning by his mates and they have hidden the day’s final results. The Sheffield fans seemed calmer and pie-and-appeased. “How many leagues are these below us?”, asked one. Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan, I now see, tweeted at this point that more goals were expected in the second half. To be honest, I would not have argued with him at this point.
Jones did not reappear for the second half, and on fifty-one minutes Tipton were forced into a second substitution, losing Ross Brown to injury. Eric Bowen moved to left-back, and Sheffield’s influential Burbeary moved over to the right to attack him for much of the half. For the next twenty minutes, the play was fairly unremarkable. Tipton, needing to press, created a few half-chances, and Sheffield, looking reasonably comfortable, looked dangerous on the break. Sheffield made two substitutions of their own and a beer-induced torpor began to settle over the proceedings. Or perhaps that was just me.
On sixty-nine minutes and out of nowhere, Danny Campbell broke free on the right for Tipton and the balance of power shifted in an instant as his low shot found the back of the net. That’s over twenty this season for him now. Although there were no more really gilt-edged chances to report, the home crowd became anxious and I tweeted after eighty-three minutes that all three results were still possible. Michael Vaughan’s followers got no such insight, so there. The final whistle came after five additional minutes and a thrice-taken corner that shredded a few Black Country nerves, and Tipton’s officials greeted the players warmly as they left the field having secured a replay.
Full-time: Sheffield 2 Tipton Town 2
I really would not want to make a prediction. I heard a lot of Sheffield supporters hoping for a trip into the city to Hillsborough and Sheffield Wednesday in the next round. I guess a trip to Walsall is the nearest analogy for Tipton but chickens were not being counted. They are both in the proverbial hat and will know what is at stake when they face each other again. I don’t think Tipton will be overawed, but neither should Sheffield be too downcast. They won at Frickley after all. For me, Burbeary was technically the man of the match by a mile. Whether the managers and players are thrilled about yet another cup game to interfere with the league programme, we may never know. If it’s any consolation, this groundhopper had a splendid day.
Regular readers of my blog will be eager to know the effect on my pulse rate. Well, imagine opening your loft hatch to find that a family of black squirrels have set up a nursery school and have clearly arranged acorns in patterns that demonstrate an understanding of triangular numbers. That would be it, and it COULD happen – there are black squirrels in Hertfordshire, honest.
On the drive home, I even switched off BBC’s 6-0-6 to silence a stream of premier league fans moaning about money rather than talking football. Tick. They need a dose of The Real FA Cup.
Words and photos courtesy of Graham Yapp who is dice master of the superb modushopperrandom blog. Essential info, randomness and fun at grounds literally all over the country.