the real fa cup

Cards Are Out, Stripes Are In

There was a hole in my shoe.

In the short walk from my house to the station, the rain had got in and by the time I sat down on the tube my left foot was damp.

The lady in the coffee shop at Paddington spent so long dithering over the complex conundrum I’d set her by paying for my sandwich with a gift card that I very nearly missed my train.

With my foot slowly drying on the heated ducting at the side of the carriage, I watched many of the world’s most glamourous place names pass by as we gently rolled through the mist and drizzle. Hayes & Harlington, West Drayton, Slough.

Moments after I emerged from Maidenhead station, the rain began to fall once again and my foot was instantly returned to it’s soggy condition.

Today was going to be a good day.

Maidenhead’s York Road is one of those grounds that “you just have to go to”. And yet I’d never been there. I grew up in North Hampshire and have been writing a non league website for several years but I’d never had cause to venture to The World’s Oldest Senior Association Football Ground Continuously Used By The Same Club before. The place is what football grounds should aspire to be.

Old murals adorn some walls, whilst new ones embellish others. The black and white of the club’s shirts spells out the club’s name along the back of the terrace behind the goal – a terrace divided almost, but not quite, in the middle, to allow entry to the stadium from the road behind via some grand old iron turnstiles crafted by R & B.M. Mayor of Sale in Cheshire. Everywhere, there are oddities. The pitch seems to slope in several different directions at once, there is a fully enclosed all-weather 5-a-side pitch in one corner and the train I arrived on slid in to nearby Maidenhead station on a raised bank that runs right down the side of the ground. The tannoy belted out the original version of the Match Of The Day theme tune and the scene was set.

Today’s opponents, and the only obstacle standing between The Stripes and the First Round Proper of the FA Cup are The Cards of Woking. They arrived in a slightly beaten up red transit van but they’d disembarked long before I arrived so I have no evidence to prove it. Woking may be in the division above Maidenhead but they are struggling near the foot of their division with only 2 wins in the last 10 league games, whereas their hosts today are daring to poke their stripey heads in to the playoff spots in theirs.

Some of the younger, more boisterous Woking fans seemed in confident mood early on, setting off a flare behind the Maidenhead goal which belched smoke in the same yellow of their team’s change kit into the drizzly Berkshire air whilst they stood with their arms wide in the “come on then” stance of the would-be provocateur of home stewards.

Their confidence did not last long. The fourth minute in fact – Kieron Forbes unleashing a curling shot which beat the Card’s number 1 (the Ace?) and gave the home side something to defend. And defend they did. For almost all of the remaining 41 minutes of the first half. Woking dominated possession but seemed hell bent on proving that possession statistics are not relevant to anyone but possession statisticians, creating almost no chances with their patched up team, one of whom had only arrived on loan at the club the previous day.

Maidenhead’s players looked more than comfortable – which is more than can be said of the poor wretches who were unaware of the FA’s slightly baffling rule that alcohol cannot be consumed within sight of the pitch (during FA Cup games only) and found themselves chaperoned by the aforementioned stewards into a specially taped off “drink your beer quickly in the rain” area to be humiliated.

Programmes were read, scores were caught up on and sad photographers looked for better angles to capture the more ramshackle backwaters of the ground.

The tie was put beyond any doubt and certainly beyond the National League side in five second half minutes when first Pritchard neatly chipped the advancing keeper before Tarpey smashed in an effort which was parried by same.

If the Woking players hadn’t quite given up, some of their fans certainly had. A selection of the more idiotic of them felt that the only way to gain the respect of their fellow fans was to wade in to the home fans and try and start something. They were thrown out by those in yellow that were not on the pitch – although I’m not sure I would use the word “swiftly” as the whole thing seemed to drag on for an age before it was finally over.

The FA Cup is most certainly over for Woking but I’m not entirely sure they ever thought that it wouldn’t end this afternoon. Their players rarely looked interested and, taunted by the home supporters regarding the score, the away ones simply responded “you’re nothing special – we lose every week”.

As the players celebrated in front of the main stand the rain returned with a vengeance. I left them posing for the customary Team Jumping Around photo which works so well in these conditions and, by the time I was heading back towards Slough, West Drayton and Hayes & Harlington, both of my feet were completely wet through and undryable.

Whilst Maidenhead’s players and supporters were dreaming of a home tie against a league club in The Propers, I was fantasising about buying some new shoes.

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