On the first day of this year, Rochester & Strood MP Mark Reckless joined forces with up-and-coming young shrinking violet Keith Vaz at Luton Airport to greet the “influx” of immigrants that would be aboard the first scheduled arrival from Bucharest.
So it seemed apt that about 3.30pm on Saturday, September 28th, while Reckless was announcing that he hadn’t had much telly time recently and was thus joining UKIP, we were in Cheshunt to watch a team of Romanian immigrants play in only their fifth ever FA Cup game. It’s the sort of thing that makes Dulwich Hamlet fans weak at the knees.
The run of FC Romania to the second qualifying round has caught the imagination of the public. Well, if you count a video article on BBC London and a couple of hundred people in a Hertfordshire field as the public’s imagination. These things are all relative.
Given the attention of the BBC and the fact that FC Romania are a club that have a) only existed eight years and b) are tenants at Cheshunt FC’s Theobald’s Lane stadium, we’re not entirely sure what to expect. We start asking questions that probably bordered on the Reckless-esque. Just how Romanian ARE FC Romania? Is it basically a pub chat that went a bit too far, and now no-one can back down? If it is, how have they risen from the Sunday leagues to the FA Cup in such a short time? Why the hell did they settle in Cheshunt? And if the Cheshunt-based readers of BeerInTheEvening gave this pub a 7, how low are their refreshment standards?
The answers to a couple of those are answered immediately. We approach the stadium and below the sign telling us the entry prices (they’ve bumped it up to £10, but it seems churlish to complain) is one offering “Scarfs (fulare)” for £10 and “Pennants (fanioane)” for £8.
Rejecting the chance to fill our manbags with fanioane, we pick up a programme and wander round. On the stand behind the dugouts along the opposite side to the entrance is where the FC Romania support are, and they are an incredible sight. Three giant flags are waved in the air while a brilliantly vocal bearded chap yells encouragement and chants in Romanian through a loudspeaker, accompanied by a drummer. Red, yellow and blue balloons are released on kick off.
His loudspeaker is actually louder than the ground’s terrible tinny PA system. To hear anything from this you actually have to stand right next to the octogenarian fellow sitting in the main stand with the microphone. Although as he doesn’t appear to be talking about the football anyway, and is seemingly telling himself a lovely story about the last time he saw his grandchildren, it matters little. It’s not rare for non-league grounds to believe that not investing in a PA system is necessary, but I think it’s about time we starting clamping down on it. As a result of this situation, I haven’t the faintest idea of either of the starting line-ups. And as FC Romania currently lack a dedicated social media expert, it’s now Sunday afternoon and I still don’t. Similarly, the attendance. Or who won the half-time raffle. Or if there even was one.
We overhear a couple of conversations from Sutton fans about how FC Romania don’t ever train, they just turn up and play on Saturdays. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but the way they start lends credence to it as a theory. The FC Romania players look quick, skilful and up-for-it. But they lack a distinct shape, and all too often try a fancy flick, turn or elaborate lay-off when holding the ball up or a simple lay off may have been a better option.
It’s brilliant to watch. Adopting the only Romanian reference points that we know, we start comparing them to Ossie Ardiles’s famous Spurs side that didn’t include any defenders but had Ilie Dumitrescu up-front alongside Klinsmann, Barmby, Anderton and Sheringham. If they’re going to win this game, it’s going to be 8-7, and you’re going to love it.
Unfortunately, they have a defence that is missing a regular in Ion Costache, sent off in the win at Sudbury that got them into this round. Whether this is the reason why they look wobbly at the back I can’t say, but the ease with which Sutton repeatedly get in to the box on the left hand side must be troubling for their support.
It all comes to a head with a clumsy challenge on Sutton’s giant centre-forward Craig Dundas, a man so terrifyingly sized that the noise from the Romanian’s band is reverberating off three things: the roof of the stand, the giant heap of earth behind one goal, and him. He hits the deck, a penalty is awarded, and it’s 1-0 to Sutton.
Sutton’s left is where it all happens. Romania’s lively right-winger, Valentin Vasile, is their key outlet, linking up well with their big front man on a couple of occasions. But despite this, and prompted by Sutton’s Modric-esque number seven in the middle of the park, Sutton are clearly the better side. More good work from Dundas up front leads to him being felled once more, and once more Glen Southam sticks the penalty into the bottom corner. It’s 2-0, it’s pretty much one way traffic, and it doesn’t look good.
Things look even worse when a few minutes before half-time, a beautifully-curled first-time shot from Modric hits the top corner. The man standing behind the Sutton keeper at the other end turns and says “Game over, that”. It’s hard to argue.
During the half-time break we do some research on Romania and learn that in their equivalent of the BBC’s Top 100 Britons list (but for Romanians, obviously), they placed Gheorghe Hagi at 13. He remains, despite much chin-stroking, the only member of the Top 20 we can name. Yes, we forgot Nadia Comeneci. And no, I was not familiar with the work of their number one, Carol I. And again, no, I didn’t think they’d put Ceaucescu in there. The £1 programme (sans staples – you gotta trim costs wherever you can, I guess) is wonderful though, with some fabulous words about main sponsor CONARG, and a great column entitled John’s Corner. I don’t know who John is, but he has a real way with words.
At the start of the second half, after a refreshing Blue WKD, we re-enter the fray mindlessly gurgling out positive clichés designed to keep our minds fully on the game. “If only they can get one back…”. “Just hold it, play it, give it number seven some more…”.
The power of positive thinking is a strange thing. Romania start the second half as if they are a completely different team. They use more width, they get a couple of passes on target, their midfield starts to get a bit more involved. And eventually, they score. Vasile breaks into the area on the right edge, and via a slight deflection, finds the far side of the net.
Game on. The chants start up again, louder and more intense. A little bit of Bucharest in Hertfordshire. The flags wave, the English FC Romania fans on our side of the pitch urge them on more and more.
Another great chance comes to their number 11, who looks clean through but demonstrates a surprising turn of sluggishness and forgets to shoot completely. Who knows whether he’d have scored, or smashed a window on the abandoned Belair caravan behind the goal. If only, if only.
Then, they score again. Same player, same side, same goal. It’s 3-2, there are 15 minutes left. It’s pandemonium. The Sutton fans behind the goal at the far end aren’t seeing much of the ball at their end. Not only because it isn’t going anywhere near them, but also because they’re probably scared of what could happen.
The last 15 minutes are terrifying. Sutton are dangerous on the break, and hit the post. Romania force a couple of corners. Romania’s be-jeaned unsmiling stick of a manager urges them on. A man wearing a lot of pin badges and a flat cap, and who may or may not be the John of the eponymous programme column, hollers encouragingly in Romanian.
But it all comes to naught. It ends 3-2.
The fans on the far side wave their flags even more extravagantly, and their players go over to them, to celebrate the narrow defeat. Sutton have got lucky, and they know it. This game could have been a draw, or even worse for them. Romania have won the hearts of everyone in the stadium. In the far corner, where the caged tunnel leads to the changing rooms, the fans applaud Sutton off. But a large group of Sutton fans head over, to applaud the Romania players off the pitch. “Yeah, they bloody deserve it,” says one. He really isn’t wrong.
The final person off the pitch is manager Ion Vintila. He shakes the hands of everyone along the touchline, saluting all. He can be rightly proud of what his team achieved in the FA Cup, to get this far and to run a team from three leagues higher so close. They’ve only lost one league game this season, and this game should act as a further spur for them to get up and out of the Essex Senior League. Good luck to them.
Words & Pictures: Stefan Appleby, otherwise known as Twitter’s famous @AppleBamos