the real fa cup

Tiptree Duck Out

Aylesbury United 2-1 Tiptree United
Preliminary Round, Sunday 30th August 2009, Bell Close (Leighton Buzzard)

The bank holiday weekend presented the opportunity to head up into Buckinghamshire to see a clash of two Uniteds. Essex Senior League Stalwarts Tiptree headed up the M1 to visit famed Cup campaigners, Aylesbury, for a Sunday afternoon clash.

They’ll have needed to check their directions, though, because Aylesbury United don’t play in Aylesbury at the moment. The club have been homeless for a couple of seasons now, after the lease ran out on their former home. They’ve been forced to decamp north to Leighton Buzzard, where they groundshare with local heroes Leighton Town.

Today’s preliminary round tie features teams with two of the least intimidating nicknames in non-league football. Aylesbury can at least claim that their epithet, “the Ducks”, played a significant part in their greatest moment in the FA Cup limelight.

Back in January 1995, around the time that Eric Cantona was karate-kicking Matt Simmons at Selhurst and Kevin Keegan was fleecing Alex Ferguson for £7.5 million in exchange for “Andrew” Cole, Aylesbury travelled to QPR (where Sir Leslie Ferdinand still strutted in his pomp) for a third round tie. They lost, but their “ducks in a row” waddle-dance – already made famous as a goal celebration in previous rounds – was trotted out after the final whistle and, courtesy of the BBC cameras, broadcast far and wide to charm sports fans around the world.

It’s still the first (and only) thing most football fans think of when they hear the name Aylesbury United. Tiptree, meanwhile, have yet to really capitalise on their alternative name of “the Jam Makers” – the mind boggles to think what kind of team mime they might have to devise in order to do so.

Leighton Buzzard is fully 20 miles from Aylesbury, which is quite a trek to make every other week for a home game. And although United have done their best to make Bell Close feel like home on matchday, it is identifiably Leighton’s ground, with their crest (complete with eponymous bird of prey) and red and white colours everywhere. Lived-in but well enough maintained, it’s a typical small town football venue, with a few twists to give it a character of its own.

The single-storey clubhouse stands at the eastern end of the ground, nearest Lake Street, on a slight rise above the pitch. There are a couple of steps of terracing running down the front of this rise, complete with rusty crush barriers. Unusually, as you move to the right along this terrace, you have to pass through the players’ tunnel – actually not a tunnel at all, but simply a path across the terrace that can be closed off with a mesh gate, to allow the players to pass from dressing-room to pitch unmolested by the baying Leightonian hordes.

Bell Close isn’t a ground that makes much effort to shield retiring players and officials from the close attention of the spectators, a theme that continues to the right where, along the northernmost side of the pitch, tiny wooden dugouts like three-walled sheds allow barely enough room for the substitutes to sit, with coaching staff spilling either onto the pitch (no room for a technical area here) or into the four-row-deep covered stand, which features smart red seats. West of here, the other end has a typical non-league covered terrace, with disused turnstiles at the back.

The club name is painted onto the front of the roof, which combined with a fresh coat of creosote for the rest gives the stand a smart, professional look. The remaining side, to the south, is a curio. A small path, fenced off from the pitch, runs about one third of the way down from the eastern end, allowing spectators to stand and watch. This path peters out halfway down, and from there on, the only way to walk up or down this side of the ground is upon the turf at the very edge of the pitch.

After the game, your writer and his better half were forced to take this route, meaning that we effectively staged an involuntary pitch invasion in the FA Cup! Nobody noticed us. Behind the fence along this side lie a cricket pitch and some nets, part of the same complex that comprises the football ground and a tennis club – not an unusual arrangement at this level.

The game itself is lively in the first half, slowing to a jog in the second. Green-and-white Aylesbury, the better side on this showing, are 2-0 up before half time, urged on by comfortably the louder of the two coaching staffs. Their assistant manager does most of the bellowing, with Gordon Ramsay lookalike manager Byron Walton leaning over the fence (there’s no room for him in the dugout after all) and periodically hollering invective or (more rarely) insight.

After the break, Tiptree’s Reds shape up, with energetic striker Lee Underwood clipping in a smart finish to set up some sustained pressure that keeps Aylesbury on their (webbed) toes until the whistle. All in all a decent game of football, enlivened by the skills and powerful running of Aylesbury goalscorer Matt Kimani and by a generally high standard of genial banter between both sets of players and the Aylesbury bench.

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