the real fa cup

Maidenhead 1-1 Gosport

Maidenhead United 1-1 Gosport Borough
FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, 2014/15

There’s nothing worse – apart from world hunger – than drawing a team from the same division in the FA Cup. The novelty of a new ground to visit and the chance to explore a new set of pubs is one of the pleasures of the competition, so to be pitched into another internecine battle having already played out a dour draw just a few weeks’ previously does lack serious allure.

Plus it’s worse when the game is at home and worse when the best available place for a drink is the local Conservative Club, willing to admit visitors for a ‘ small fee’ Thanks but no thanks – CAMRA listing or not, I’d rather smash my big toe with a croquet mallet.

More on mallets later. Having identified, along with (one of) this site’s esteemed proprietor(s) Damon Threadgold, a Bermuda Triangle sized hole in the FA Cup Fourth Round Qualifying Map uncannily corresponding to the outline of the Thames Valley, I was left with little alternative to head for my home town Maidenhead for local team United’s all-Conference South battle with Gosport Borough on Saturday.

As a regular throughout the 1983-4 and 1984-5 seasons, I have fond memories of York Road, the longest continually used football ground in the world, and I still become dewy eyed at mention of Brian Caterer and Colin Lippiatt’s joint managerial partnership of the time as well as stars of the black and white, Gary Attrell, Benny Laryea and Mark Franks.

As my teenage years progressed, ‘Big Cheese’ syndrome (to use the fashionable parlance of today) set in and I gradually decamped to those city slickers down the road in Reading – to the extent that this was my first visit to the stadium for thirty years (I missed an FA Cup First Round draw with Aldershot a couple of years ago but did accompany a selection of the Real FA Cup’s contributors to the subsequent replay).

The intervening years reveal quite a number of changes. The Conference, even in its southern poor relation incarnation, constitutes heady climes for Maidenhead and the wily management of non-league face, Johnson ‘Drax’ Hippolyte has brought the Magpies a comparative period of success. The ground has also received a real scrubbing since an arson attack put paid to the original stand. Maidenhead are now running out to a spanking new 500 seat stand on the railway side of the arena, theirs for a cool £320,000.

The black and white stripes which adorn this new structure are matched elsewhere in the stadium and a comparatively recent badge design is also ubiquitous, helping lend a real sense of character to the ground and helping attract sizeable crowds by Maidenhead’s standards – 807 came for the visit of Eastbourne Borough in August.

Accompanied by my dad and nephew, providing the former with the opportunity to express outrage that Wayne Rooney is homing in on Jimmy Greaves’ scoring tally for England (déjà vu given his previous bemoaning that Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker had achieved the same feat), we sat down to the visit of Gosport.

It soon became clear that the visitors are more than a little handy as a side. Currently positioned in eleventh place in the league, three behind Maidenhead, this belies the fact that the Hampshire club have only played nine games and, even more significantly, have conceded but four times.

Having negotiated a fairy story run to the final of the FA Trophy in 2013-4, manager Alex Pike (sample quotes: ‘many think I’m an annoying motormouth with an inflated ego’ and ‘I heard someone remark that I thought I was the José Mourinho of non-league football, but I’ve been doing it long before him’) swooped to add Havant & Waterlooville’s Steve Ramsey in the Summer, thus providing midfield drive to an already over performing team and increasing a burgeoning enmity with local rivals whom they dispatched at the semi-final stage of that trophy run.

Ramsey produced a delightful chip in the early stages, acrobatically tipped over by the home side’s custodian, Elvijs Putnins (a Latvian seemingly arrived from Memphis) before the visitors inevitably took the lead; two times Southern League Golden Boot winner Justin Bennett scoring from close range. With 13 goals in just 12 matches this season and hat-tricks against Weston-super-mare and Hemel Hempstead, Bennett is on serious personal terms with south of England goal nets and partner Matt Paterson ain’t too shabby either with 8 goals netted so far this term.

I have never been to Gosport but get the impression that it must be quite a hard place – situated on a peninsula across the harbour from Portsmouth, they probably regard Pompey fans as incorrigible land lubbers and the port’s navy associations conjure up images of press gangs and tattooed muscles. That said, it was Maidenhead’s crop who looked older and more wizened, often finding the pace tough going against a seemingly younger and quicker side, but hanging in there thanks to Drax’s astute stewardship and an equaliser from Harry Pritchard.

Before the game, national headline writers had been attracted to the fixture by the presence in the squad of DJ Campbell, just a year ago turning out in the Championship for Blackburn Rovers and previously having enjoyed spells at Blackpool and Birmingham City. A non-league folk hero after this exploits for Hayes & Yeading, he’s back in the game after fighting to clear his name of match fixing allegations, his manager and pal Hippolyte stressing that the Magpies aren’t paying him a bean.

Campbell looked lively early on, wasting a couple of promising moves, but retired hurt after finding it hard to stay with the pace of the game, looking pretty heavy around the top of his legs (if I’m being polite). Still, with three goals so far, his contribution has been welcome for Maidenhead in recent weeks and helped facilitate a run of 18 goals in 4 matches for the team.

Gosport’s FA Trophy dream ended in a 4-0 defeat by Cambridge United but they remain on an upward curve and continued to press after the break, often displaying superior fitness. Still, Maidenhead held on thanks to some excellent keeping from Putnins, forcing a replay and the prospect of a visit to the location of one of the season’s most appealing FA Cup narratives in Willand Rovers.

At half-time, I idly read some of the plaques adorning the seats in the stadium’s new stands only to be amazed to find the legend, ‘Maidenhead United are utterly brilliant’, the television personality Timmy Mallett having clearly been persuaded to part with some money for the privilege of having his name emblazoned thereon. Astounded of Maidenhead.

Words & Pictures: Rob Langham,
Rob writes for and co-edits marvellous Football League website The Two Unfortunates.

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