The 2011/12 FA Cup got underway amidst controversy in the north-east tonight as Northern League Division 1 side Sunderland RCA swept aside Birtley Town of the Northern League Division 2 to claim their place in the Preliminary Round. The scoreline of 7-0 was a deserved result on a mild evening at Meadow Park, 97 days after Carlos Tevez had hoisted the famous trophy aloft for Manchester City on a sunny afternoon at Wembley, and came after RCA had been defeated at this stage in each of the previous four seasons.
Yet Birtley will surely feel aggrieved as all of their pre-match planning to contain the hosts went out of the window after only 90 seconds of this encounter. When Andy Jennings found himself just in an offside position chasing down a long through-ball he must have had a feeling his luck was in as the assistant referee failed to flag. When Birtley’s goalkeeper, Philip Holgate, went up to gather the bouncing ball, Jennings then fouled him and was left alone to stroke the ball into the empty net. With all other players turning away, expecting the foul to be given, the referee allowed the goal to stand, despite the protests of Birtley’s management team of Scott Oliver and Barrie Fleming.
With Birtley rocked, RCA took full advantage to dominate possession – and oh how they did so. As the visitors struggled to find a third consecutive pass, the hosts stroked the ball around patiently looking for an opening and testament to the instructions delivered to them before the opening whistle by manager Neil Hixon.
The second goal arrived midway through the first half when a delightful left wing free-kick was swung in from the right foot of Lee Owens. Jennings and his strike partner, Gavin Barton, were first to react amongst a static Birtley defence, and it was Barton’s head that met the ball first to steer it back across goal to score.
Within two minutes it was game over. Holgate just beat Owens to a through-ball but his clearance only found Barton out on the RCA right. One of the deadliest forwards in the Northern League is not the man you would want to be leaving with any chance, and he took the opportunity to grab his second by lobbing the ‘keeper and the backtracking defence with a first-time effort from 30 yards out.
Birtley settled more as the half progressed and Kevin Dixon became more of a danger. However, despite three good efforts where he held off the home defence, he was just unable to find the goal when cutting in on his left.
RCA started the second half with another early goal. When a right wing cross was allowed to drop into Birtley’s box, it was the substitute Gary Shields who reacted first to stab home goal number four.
With Brian Close, formerly of Middlesbrough, Chesterfield and Darlington and making his competitive debut tonight, pulling all of the strings in the midfield, RCA advanced forward at will. They soon added a fifth goal when defender Leon Carling stepped forward and met another right wing cross at full-length to beat the ‘keeper. Jennings then grabbed his second of the night and RCA’s sixth when he was left all alone in the middle to stroke home.
Birtley had a rare attack when James Allsopp was allowed to carry the ball forward on the right, but when he unleashed a left footed shot it rebounded away off the post.
RCA went straight back on the attack and Barton completed a tremendous hat-trick, the first of the FA Cup this season, in style. Receiving the ball out on the left, he was allowed time to pick his spot and he curled a right footed shot into the far top corner to end the scoring at 7-0.
Another FA Cup year is over for Birtley Town but for RCA there’s an away FA Cup game on Saturday 3rd September against either Spennymoor Town or Esh Winning.
Sunderland RCA manager, Neil Hixon:
We were quite fortunate to get the first goal so early in the game and that set us up for a quite easy and comfortable win. After watching Birtley during the week, I knew that even after rotating the squad tonight we would be more than capable of beating them. For our first goal tonight, you see them given. A lot of the time the referee gives it in favour of the goalkeeper, but on this occasion we’ve got the good result on that side of things. Some of the goals tonight were exceptional. Barton and Jennings were fantastic. Barton gets goals; he’s in the right position most of the time and he gets good goals. I was very happy with the way we kept possession tonight. The midfield players were excellent; they kept the ball and kept us playing basically. We’ve got a tough next round against either Spennymoor or Esh Winning but I fancy us to be competitive against anybody this season.
Birtley Town manager, Scott Oliver:
You tell your lads to get to that twenty minute mark without conceding; you set yourself up for the game ahead; and then after that [the opening goal], well, everyone inside the ground could see that it was a foul. Our goalkeeper had the ball in his hands and it has happened too quick in the game for the referee. He’s looking for his linesman to help him out, the lineman doesn’t help him out, and he just takes the easy option. They were expected to win the game of course, but he goes and gives him the goal. We couldn’t have had a worse start and then we go and concede again. The RCA movement was frightening for twenty minutes, and we found ourselves 3-0 down; we couldn’t handle it. The game settled down after that and it was a little bit easier to get to grips with them. We changed our system for the second half but at the end of the day, whenever they were in or around our box their finishing was frightening. It sounds daft as we’ve let seven in, but our ‘keeper hasn’t had many saves that he has been able to make. We’ve lost a lot of players from last season, we’ve had a bad week [losing both of the opening league games] and tonight was always going to be difficult, but the lads kept on going tonight.
FA Cup hat-trick hero, Gavin Barton:
That was a great team performance; everyone chipped in and played their part. It was my job to score the goals and I’ve scored then goals; it was the lads at the back’s job to defend and they defended really well; the lads in the midfield pulled all the strings and it was a good effort. I had a free header at the back post for my first goal, I wasn’t marked, and I headed it back across the goal. The second one came from Lee Owens chasing the ‘keeper down brilliantly and it’s fell to me to hit into an empty net. The third one I saw the ‘keeper off his line and I curled it in. It could be Spennymoor or Esh in the next round but bring them on. We’re hoping to do well throughout the entire season and I think we’ve got an excellent squad.