Radford 1-2 Spalding United
FA Cup Preliminary Round, 29th August 2015
You always look forward to Nottingham. As much a time as a place; with memories outweighing landmarks. For others it may be left lions and lace markets but for you Nottingham is Jazz serenading that girl, it’s Charlie chasing that bus, it’s that conversation on a Ferris wheel. It’s John’s wedding, it’s Dan waking up in Mansfield, and the lad with a car mat on his back.
Today you are especially looking forward to Nottingham because arriving there will end your proximity to this stag-do. Two hours on a train hemmed in by incessant loud foul-mouthed banter from numbered polo shirts, of who’s shagging who, who’s f***ed who over, and who’s a c**t. Two hours of cans opening, of gassy lager farts, and the cold, unrelenting, desperate stare of a blow-up doll who’s haunted eyes seem to follow you round the carriage.
Lunchtime on a Saturday matchday; doormen on The Cross Keys, empty beer bottles on al-fresco tables, red shirts dotted among the shoppers snaking down Lister Gate. Past the lions of the city square a dad and his two boys hurry to the match, all wearing the red and white … of Arsenal. They’re rushing to a pub for the early afternoon Sky game. You contemplate a call to Child Services, but instead walk beyond this madness, past Brian Clough’s clasped hands, following the tram lines to another Nottingham. Beyond an under-attended festival in Forest Park sits Hyson Green; the whole world on a single street. Market stalls of Indian fabrics, Polish skleps, Turkish barbers, Shawarma grills and masala fish and chips. And tucked behind all this, nextdoor to Chapatti Junction and in the shadow of St Stephen’s is the home ground of The Pheasants; an antiquated nickname for a club in the heart of a modern city.
Behind the goal, heavy Notts accents and heavy men in club polo shirts decorate the clubhouse, telling the same jokes every other Saturday. ‘See if they do table service Kev’ ‘Do you want a flake in that John?’ ‘Don’t let Pete do the raffle’. Keeping it local you order a Radford Craft Lager and subsequently endure the worst pint of your life. You jot down tasting notes; ‘tonic water, sulphur, regret’ and gallantly battle through three quarters of it as balls from the pre-match warm-up thud off the corrugated metal roof.
Outside a man in a jacket and club tie clutches a clipboard and a microphone. You ask him for the line-ups. ‘Are you a groundhopper?’ he asks. ‘No’ you reply. ‘Yes’ he undoubtedly hears. Why are you still fighting it? As the teams mill in the temporary tunnel he launches into his heavily scripted introduction … ‘We come into this game on a high …’ he says with the deadpan emotionless delivery of a child reading out lines in a nativity.
Hailing from two divisions higher Spalding United are the undoubted favourites. The Tulips have twice reached the first round proper in the past, whilst Radford’s greatest Cup excursion is taking place here and now. It’s no surprise therefore that the first half plays out almost exclusively in Radford’s half, with United’s full-backs using the space afforded by the home side’s 4-5-1 formation to keep up the pressure.
Though his side are on top from the off Spalding manager Pat Rayment is angry, very angry. Tom! Tom! What was that? You’ve got two minutes to do something!’ he yells at his forward. We’re only four minutes in. ‘Get the ball to Josh!’ he bellows; they do and almost take the lead; Josh Moreman’s cross being turned over his own bar by Radford’s Hesham Ramadau.
The home side’s only chance of the opening forty minutes comes from a ball over the top into the right channel for Carey Knight; he attempts to lift the bouncing ball over the advancing Michael Duggan but gets too much on it and it thuds onto the clubhouse roof. Spalding merely up the pressure; full-back Mitch Griffiths wanders forward and fires over, Jordan Nutthall flicks a low cross that clanks off Call Dunning’s right hand post and the keeper’s loose hands on a high ball are mitigated by a referee’s whistle for a foul as United turn it into the empty net. The travelling supporters are unimpressed and evidently untrusting of their companions;
‘What’s he disallowed that for?’
‘A foul I think’
‘It wasn’t offside’
‘No, he’s given a foul’
‘Hey ref! What’ve you disallowed that for?
The crowd figure fluctuates as smoke-breaks and phone-calls are taken on the back steps of the shops behind the clubhouse goal. Chances come and go too – Dunning saves well from Moreman – and the longer Radford keep it goalless, and the more Rayment’s temple throbs – ‘Get back in there and shut up!’ he barks at a centre-half who had the temerity to stray forwards – you sense the home-side might sneak something.
And, just before the break, they do. Kenny Reeves carries the ball forwards and a Spalding defender, perhaps unsettled by the unfamiliarity of his own penalty area, clumsily brings him down. Penalty. Knight steps up and arrows the spot-kick into the top corner. Polo shirts cheer, the man in the club shop sounds a novelty car horn, a fella on a nearby scaffold politely applauds before returning to his pointing.
Brought to life, the game duly accelerates into to the break with a rampant back and forth. Spalding again strike Dunning’s right hand post, this time through a low drive from Moreman whilst Reeves gets into the right channel to bring a good save from Duggan.
‘Eleven! …eleven!’ booms a voice through the speakers as the players trudge off for half-time. ‘On the raffle… Eleven!’ Radford’s subs stay out, taking it in turns to punt balls into the car-park; on a wallpapering table buckling under their weight, a thousand programmes are thumbed through outside the club shop; tea is served with a smile; laughter emanates from the club-house door, a man offers a fellow spectator unsympathetic sympathy; ‘How’s your knee? It’s completely gone hasn’t it?’ And all through this, all you can see are those empty desperate blue plastic eyes that followed you from St Pancras.
Spalding control the start of the second half as they bossed the first only now with added urgency, bringing Dunning into early action to save a deflected shot. Big Glen Russell, Radford manager and erstwhile John Candy lookalike needs to do something to break up the attacks and so kicks the ball away from a quick throw-in. The referee and the visitors are evidently big Uncle Buck fans as he gets served no more then a wry smile for his misdemeanour.
Russell though can’t prevent the inevitable and on 56 minutes Spalding equalise. A ball to the far post, nodded back across goal and bundled over the line by Tom Waumsley. The tide can be stemmed no longer and within minutes the visitors are ahead; Waumsley again, this time unmarked in the six yard box to head home a corner.
‘There’s a free f***ng man!’ yells full-back Matt Hope about ten seconds too late to be of any use to his team-mates, but it does make his subsequent frustrated hoofing of the ball into a neighbouring garden more dramatic. Radford’s players look to rally each other by shouting slogans from Gym Motivation tumblr memes into the Nottingham afternoon; ‘We go again, we go again’… ‘Believe it lads, believe it’… ’It’s all for this moment lads’
The pep-talks have some effect as Radford cease conceding, but struggle to create truly meaningful moments in attack. Substitute Azash Abdollah’s honesty saves Spalding conceding a second penalty as he stays up despite a noticeable tap on his ankles, whilst Tyrone Burton heads just over from a Ramadau cross.
At the other end Waumsley elects to fill the void of possession in attack by irritating all around him; his team-mates by not releasing the ball, Ramadau by shoving him at any opportunity and then the whole ground with the most theatrical of dives on being clipped by Hope. So elaborate is Waumsley’s scream that he hits the ground holding the wrong ankle. 5.8 for artistic merit, 2.3 for execution. Still, those vacant desperate eyes; perhaps she knew what horrors awaited her, perhaps you should’ve tried to help.
The game plods on; Knight is mercifully withdrawn. A useful player but as in control of his emotions as he is the Hubble telescope; already on a booking for dissent, you sense he’s only one wrongly given throw-in away from dousing himself in petrol and taking us all with him. Waumsley departs too, hobbling off whilst attempting to keep the weight off both ankles.
Radford go three at the back in one last hurrah but it brings them only a single chance; a free-kick on the right that’s cleared over his own bar by a Spalding centre-half. United send on big Danny Hussey, a man with the stature of a Belarusian bodyguard, to kill the game, and he just about manages to hold off killing Dunning in the process.
The final whistle sounds and though Spalding are deserving winners, it’s to polite applause and encouraging noise for the home side that the two teams leave the field. You forego another pint – and may now always do – and instead edge out into Radford Road where a polystyrene tray of masala fish and chips has your name on it. And as you wait for the fryer to finish sizzling you console yourself that even if you’d stepped in and saved her from all that you’d have only let her down.