the real fa cup

AA 2-2 MM

Ashton Athletic 2-2 Maltby Main
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, 15th August 2015

I am heading to Brocstedes Park, ground 573 for me, because this is game number 73 on a list of 103 possible new ticks, chosen randomly through an arbitrary formula involving email inboxes.  Trust me, it beats making your own decisions in life.  A tiny but discerning percentage of the population watched the story unfold last week on Twitter interspersed with Labour party infighting and men wanting more Carneiro knowledge of Chelsea‘s medical staff.

I love my northern trips, but I had forgotten that Ashton by itself is ambiguous in these parts.  United are from under-Lyne and nowhere near here, neither geographically nor in the football pyramid.  They will join the FA Cup later, as is their Step 3 Northern Premier privilege.  Town and Athletic are both in-Makerfield, but Town are in Step 6 and will be in the FA Vase.  Ashton Athletic were formed in 1968 and these days ply their league trade at Step 5 in the North-West Counties Premier League.  The visitors today are from the Other Side (of the Pennines).  Maltby Main play at the same level in the Northern Counties Mystic East.  I love the early rounds of this competition, and especially so when it throws together opponents from different leagues.

My intense fear of M6 northbound delays means that I am in Ashton town centre early doors.  A notice in the market announces that “Fish Man” is unexpectedly absent.  I am gutted, unlike his fish.  I buy two local papers in search of insight.  Outrage!  Not an FA Cup peep in either of them, just pages and pages of Rugby League, a bit of the League One Latics, and a minor mention of Town.

The Observer (Your Paper, Your Voice) is a weekly which leads this week on the increasing problem of rooster noise at dawn in Wigan.  The Evening Post has an early edition that enriches my life in two sentences.  Firstly, Hedley Wiggan (of Wigan, honestly, on page 3) has “created a micro sculpture of the late Amy Winehouse“.  From a pencil.  He’s done The Beatles, George Formby and Beethoven in the past.  Genius.  Secondly, on page 5, “Jealous Ex Mistook Dog for New Lover“, apparently.  Happens all the time.

Ashton-in-Makerfield’s main street still has the Victorian buildings whose upper stories and neglected rooflines hint at grand former purposes far removed from the tanning, chiropody and takeaway food now available at ground level.  Not a tinfoil FA Cup in any shop window anywhere.  Some of the letters are falling off the shopping centre sign, Fawlty Towers style.  There are some Wigan Warriors underpants in a window display, but I resist and head for Brocstedes Park.

Athletic’s ground is a couple of miles out-of-town and approached down a narrow lane.  The weeds outside are plentiful and colourful, and the sun is shining brightly as the home players turn up one-by-one.  There is the incessant hiss of the nearby M6 in the background, but it’s a rather nice green and rural setting.

Maltby Main’s mini-coach arrives and disgorges the red-clad Yorkshire lads.  They look bigger and wider, to be honest.  One finishes his ciggie and another immediately urinates against a telegraph pole.  Classy.  Maybe footballers should do this more often to mark their territory.  Zonal marking at corners, for example.  Goalkeepers would need to drink a lot more.  But I digress – all of this is merely the build-up to what turns out to be a very enjoyable game, with the result in doubt to the end and beyond, which is all a passing neutral can ask.  Here’s the story.

The first half is a game of two quarters.  Maltby Main’s strike force of Sam Forster and Josh Hemmingway time their early runs to beat Ashton’s high defensive line.  They make the early running and create the first chances.  It is no real surprise, though as a goal it is a bit scruffy, when they take the lead on 13 minutes.  I can’t see the final touch but the celebrations suggest that Danny Swales has his name on the scoresheet from left back.

Athletic are stung into action and are very unlucky not to get level immediately, as Callum Mahoney rattles the bar with a fierce shot.  The home side are now getting on top, and a cross bounces agonisingly across the six-yard box, just evading the attackers.  Visiting keeper Paul Stancliffe has to come out of the area and is left stranded by a rebound – he gets back just in time to stop the ball being rolled in from a narrow angle.

He is suddenly very busy but the equaliser is on the way and it arrives after 40 minutes.  He can only parry a close-range shot and Mahoney has the time and shows the necessary composure to place the ball between the defenders on the line.  There is time for Hemingway to be called on for defensive duties, clearing the ball off the line, before we head for half-time refreshment all square at 1-1.  There are pies to be had, with crusts harder than the plastic forks, but enjoyable nonetheless.

That man Mahoney goes close again soon after the restart but the game is too close to call.  There is plenty of effort and running, and both teams are playing the percentage game often seen at this level.  Ashton miss another half-chance with a shot-on-the-turn from Danny Smith but then Maltby’s Dean Conway pops up in the right place at the right time to restore their lead.  We still have 23 minutes left for twists and turns.

In a repeat of the earlier sequence of events, an equaliser arrives, and deservedly so.  With just over 10 minutes left and the pressure building, Aaron Morris finds space to lash an unstoppable shot in off the bar.  Both sides then have a last chance to win it – firstly Mahoney wants a bit too long on the ball in the area, and then Ashton keeper Martin Pearson makes a flying one-handed save from sub Nathan Lovell.  I am not arguing with this result, the draw seems fair enough.  A youngster with CR7 trainers, full Barca kit and Wigan Athletic tracksuit top is also happy.  Confusion to come in later life, maybe, but happy for now.  The joys of youth.

These teams will meet again in Yorkshire on Wednesday to settle the issue of who will visit 1874 Northwich in the Preliminary Round.

Words & Pictures Graham Yapp
See MUCH more hopping action at Graham’s Blog

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