We are almost always neutrals when it comes to the games we attend. Almost.
I suppose we’d have to admit that we always have a fondness for the underdog, whoever that may be and, despite mine and my father’s assertions of neutrality to the Hayes & Yeading officials when asked “home or away” on arrival at Church Road on Saturday, we were quite hoping to witness our first upset of the season in this year’s FA Cup.
My parents moved to High Wycombe – the unfashionable boil on the backside of the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside – whilst I was at University and I have always struggled to fall in love with the place. I have been to Adams Park on numerous occasions and vaguely claimed the Wanderers as my own “lower league side”. But it was always very half-hearted and I will be very surprised if I ever look back with any kind of nostalgia at the place. The “olds” are planning to move away very soon – having recently retired they no longer require the only thing that Wycombe’s miserable town centre provided them – a job – and I don’t think they will miss it either.
So it was then, that when pushed on the issue of partisanship by the stewards (who simply wanted to tell us which turnstile to enter by) we plumped for the home side and nailed our colours to the wall.
Hayes merged with neighbours Yeading in 2007 and play at Hayes’ ground – a proper old-fashioned sort of place, the likes of which are quite common in the lower leagues and remind you of days gone by when football was mainly about football and issues such as leveraged buy-outs, annual results and drug-fuelled three-in-a-bed romps were reserved for high-flying city businessmen. Since being United, Hayes and Yeading are plying their trade in the top level of non-league football for the first time but they are struggling near the bottom of the table and they only managed to attract a crowd of 274 for the previous week’s loss against fellow strugglers Altrincham.
Today was different though – it was the FA Cup and there was league opposition to be seen and possibly a giant killing to be carried out so, on a crisp autumn afternoon, an extra 1152 people deemed it worthy of their patronage and Hayes had a crowd to urge them on. Not that sheer numbers is enough to provide impetus to the 11 players on the pitch – some of the paying customers have to actually shout some encouragement from time to time and, disappointingly, the crowd was more visible than audible. A decent contingent from Wycombe gave their all from time to time and a reasonable police presence was positioned between the two sets of supporters on the far side of the pitch for the early stages of the match in order to prevent anyone getting over-excited. But they soon realised that they were not needed and slowly dwindled in numbers. One policeman near us might have made the understatement of the decade when passing by as he mentioned to his colleague that it “seems to have quietened down”.
The pre-game formalities featured the oldest mascot I have ever seen at a football match. For some time, I was convinced that Hayes had a player who was not only wearing number 50 but looked more overweight than your average non-league veteran and I feared for his fitness when taking on the former FA Cup semi-finalists that represented the opposition today. Having explained the slightly portly-looking gentleman’s less-than-athletic appearance to my visually-impaired father, I was slightly embarrassed to watch as the man, who was obviously celebrating his 50th birthday, left the pitch once the photos had been taken only to join his wife and children who had been standing right next to me all along.
Luckily the football began soon after and my shame evaporated. After one or two early half chances for the home side which came to nothing, the first half produced little of note for either side. The closest either side came to scoring was on 20 minutes when Wycombe’s ageing captain, Gareth Ainsworth hit an ambitious strike from 35 yards which had to be clawed round the post by Lee Harrison in the United goal. A fairly dull first period was summed up when Tom Cadmore managed to throw a ball which had been cleared into the crowd and returned to him, straight back into the stands. Hayes had edged it but had not really done enough to give anyone any thoughts that 0-0 was not the most appropriate half time score.
The second half was a very different affair and, whilst the match never quite lifted itself above “acceptable” as a spectacle, it at least provided enough entertainment to help fend off the biting cold that had enveloped the ground since the disappearance of the early autumn sun during half time.
Hayes had clearly decided that this was their best chance of a League Two scalp, probably realising that Wycombe were looking lethargic and lacked ideas going forward. Bradley Pritchard and Andy Yiadom began to pass and move and created some chances, most notably after 58 minutes when the two combined down the right after a Peter Holmes header – but Nikki Bull in the Wycombe goal came charging out, narrowed the angle and smothered Pritchard’s shot. A minute later, the favour was returned by Pritchard but Yiadom’s side-footed shot was too weak to cause the Chairboys’ keeper any significant problems.
Most of the crowd was beginning to sense that Hayes were winding up to take the lead at any moment but the League Two side burst their bubble with a goal of sheer ordinaryness. With Kevin Betsy seemingly a master of the art of running directly into defenders whenever he received possession, and precious little creativity anywhere else in their team, Wycombe’s tactics had become increasingly similar to that old advert for a certain bitter, simply punting the ball as hard as they could whenever a chance arose, almost as if they thought they could claim a replay if they managed to lose every single ball the home team had brought with them. If you throw enough mud at the wall though, some will stick and eventually Hayes failed to clear one and Stuart Beavon stretched out a leg to stab the Chairboys in front.
Wycombe then enjoyed a period where they were on top and it took some guidance from Jamie Hand in the Hayes midfield to get the home side back in the game. Hand was urging his side to take “two touches” and it seemed to do the trick when Hyde slotted Holmes in down the right hand side. The Hayes captain squared the ball first time and our Man Of The Match, Pritchard, was there to slot past Bull and even things up again.
Wanderers were stung into action and, after Scott Davies’ audacious effort from the kick off had gone just over the bar they really should have wrapped it up 4 minutes later when a cross from the left was struck against the inside of the post by Ainsworth. Strevens followed it up but somehow managed to head over from what seemed like a yard out.
Despite that chance, Hayes still looked much more creative in attack but they failed to put any of their chances away, Michael Malcolm guilty of two misses, one of which appeared to be simply passed to the Wycombe keeper.
With the game looking to be heading for a replay though, and injury time running out, Gareth Ainsworth sent Wycombe into the next round with a goal that can only be described as even uglier than their first. A Davies free kick turned into a scramble on the edge of the 6 yard area and Ainsworth stabbed it home to send the Wycombe fans delirious and the Hayes fans streaming towards the exits and the muddy car park.
It was a touch cruel on Hayes, who had played a good deal more football throughout the game than Wycombe but I guess it just goes to show that all the football in the world does not make up for actual goals.