the real fa cup

Chalfont’s Saints Go Marching On

Metropolitan Police FC 0-1 Chalfont St Peter FC
FA Cup, 1st Qualifying Round (replay) 2013

The area of South West London – North Surrey is a footballing hotbed. Aside the unmentionable blues and whites, fans here have an incredible goldmine on their doorsteps. Corinthian Casuals, Kingstonian, Wimbledon (I know but, AFC are the epitome of what can be achieved), Molesey, the Waltons, and the double act of Hampton & Richmond. They all lay on fantastic footballing experiences and, smack in the middle of them sits a very underrated Imber Court.

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Before you start with all those passé generalisations, Imber Court really is a fascinating place. As football grounds go, there are far worse. A well stocked club bar at its entrance, there’s a tidy stand with more leg room than the School End, Loftus Road. A sturdy perimeter fence, cosy covered terrace at one end which echoes fans’ chants well, a decent well-priced tea bar (granted this is uncomfortably close to the gents) and, there are always welcoming smiles everywhere you look. Really, what more could supporters want?

Of course we could all be somewhere else; I should have been. But elsewhere meant driving and, my immaturity at a skate park had rendered such things impossible for a few weeks at least. At times like these, the big leagues pale into insignificance whilst Non League football comes to its community’s aid and, in need of a football fix, Imber Court was again my saviour.

Grabbing a lift to the ground, to be greeted at the door by one of the Non League of Extraordinary Photographers, I knew I’d made the right choice. Before another NLOEP arrived – like Mr Benn’s shop keeper – other familiar faces appeared from nowhere. There’s the gate man who last season mistook me for a Senior Citizen (20 years too early), the smartest programme seller in the country (who regularly insists that the only reason I don’t win the golden goal is I don’t buy enough tickets), the friendly girls at the tea bar and finally the announcer of “the three teams”. A stand-in for the Watford fan who’d clearly gone to Vicarage Road (my somewhere else) Cliff suggested I pop into the Director’s Lounge for a team sheet. If only this happened at Old Traff or field of Ann …

Having devoted too much time to idle chatter – with OCD-like precision – I quickly folded the team sheet away and made my way to the left of the dugouts; The Clash stopped fighting of the law as the boys in blues’ keeper (not wearing blue) was demanding “BIG VOICES” of those actually wearing blue in front of him.

Up the other end – nicely completing the Cathode Ray Tube primary colours – the boys in red and green seemed more relaxed as they waited for the Met to kick off. To my delight, that Home Counties reserve didn’t last long as the lower league away team immediately went in for the kill.

There are two things every reasonable supporter wants from a FA Cup match; an upset, or a win for a local team. If the stars were aligned I felt certain Chalfont could offer both. Ok I don’t live in Bucks anymore, but in my youth the Chalfonts were part of our stomping ground and to top it all, THIS Chalfont side was once graced by the original goal-getter from his own half. No not Becks or Nayim… Graham Taylor’s finest signing, Ian Bolton.

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Before me Andy was complaining how the ref made him look old, whilst even younger players tried in vain to find some kind of form to dominate the opposition. The first decent opportunity fell to Chalfont, as a goal mouth scramble saw two shots well saved by former Watford keeper, Stuart Searle, before the third attempt was blocked by Chalfont’s  own number nine who’d found himself both stranded on the line and unable to get out the way. Having not checked the team sheet his name escaped me at first but, the unmistakable short-burst-running-style as he scurried back onside gave away his identity.

In 2003 Scott Fitzgerald was signed for Watford after impressing at Northwood. His signing, it could be said, lead to the Hornets also getting Jay DeMerit soon after. For that and his insistence on charging down any keeper looking for an easy life, I will always be grateful to Fitzgerald. Clearly his pace isn’t what it once was but, he’s still lightening over five yards.

Moments later the Met’s centre back Gary McDonald was the first in the book, having taken out Scott’s strike partner Romaine Walker on the edge of the D. The resulting freekick was curled just wide of the stanchion by John Carroll, and proving I wasn’t the only one rooting for the visitors, ooos went up behind me. Soon the blues’ Howard Newton and David Knight combined well but the resulting shot was easily saved by Michael Power-Simpson. Immediately the language on the away bench deteriorated to standard well below that on my Home Counties upbringing, and the saints went marching upfield again.

Walker rifled his first effort wide of the stanchion his teammate had missed earlier, whilst his second from a Fitzgerald flick, went straight at the keeper. Bookings and fouls aside, the remaining notable incidents of the half saw a fine Power-Simpson save in a crowded box and the Met waste two free-kicks.

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Supping my first Bovril of the season, clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought the visitors were edging the game. Looking about I wondered if Lewes had sent a scout to check out their next round opposition but, it seemed not. Instead halftime entertainment was supplied by the gentlemen of the NLOEP, comparing their craft and complaining of the colour of the new yellow balls whilst, Alan Dowson – here to see Kingstonian’s forth-coming league opponents – recounted amusing anecdotes on both league matters and his triathlon exploits (worth the entrance fee alone).

The second period kicked off with another lively Chalfont start, with Walker immediately putting in a dangerous cross which Searle smothered. Having put the kettle on, the Met introduced a sub, Nick Hutchings. The change was immediate; Charlie Collins crossed for McDonald to head fiercely on target only to find Power-Simpson equal to the threat. Evidently heartened by this, the Met chucked another sub on. Again the change was immediate.

Having watched the wily Fitzgerald use his experience the only get a yellow for a slightly high challenge, sub Josh Gallagher tried the same stunt on Fitzgerald. The game was at this point in danger of getting out of the young ref’s hand, and a red card was the only way to get it back and with that, Gallagher lasted just five minutes.

“KEEP YOUR SHAPE” yelled Searle as Kevin Ayodele waltz through his defence before another Met sub, Manny Osei, appeared to plug the Gallagher hole. Being the biggest threat the Met had all night, minutes later I was scratching my head as to why Osei hadn’t started. His first touch was a darting run down the left, his second a threatening cross. “Tempo… Start again” retorted Saints’ Danny Edwards from the bench as the game began its final frantic climb to a crescendo.

A great Dan Sintim last-ditch tackle brought Chalfont to an abrupt halt, the Met shot wide, Walker missed chance on the break, Tobi Alabi repeated the feat up the other end then, ten minutes from time, Fitzgerald did what all poachers do well, lost his marker and headed in from close range.

Searle didn’t stand a chance and, despite picking up the pace further the Met couldn’t find the (wonderfully rhyming) net. As the whistle went, the heavens opened on both us and their cup run. Their proper 1st Round achievements last season will go down in history whilst The Saints go marching on… For the boys in blue it’s now another, maybe next year (but there’s no shame in that).
For nearly forty years I’ve been dreaming of the “maybe next year” – I envy any fan that has even seen their team lift this, the most precious of trophies – and whilst I wait, it’s in places like Imber Court that I’ll get my fixes; standing in puddles, chatting with friends, drinking bovril and hoping for a cupset.

There will be others of course who, through an outdated prejudice, avoided this game tonight; there will be others that looked past it on the fixture list. Just judging these ninety minutes, it is again their loss. This ground may seem like a contradiction to the claim “If you build it, they will come” but the football here, like the welcome, is a good quality and a fine advert for the FA Cup.

There’s something about the early rounds of the FA Cup; there’s all the excitement of a win-at-all-costs but with the personal touch of a family picnic. Just what one needs with a broken hand.

Imber Court
Entrance £10, Programme £2
Distance (from putajumperon towers) 2 miles, Attendance 67

Words & Pictures: A. E. Greb.  You can buy the story of his 2012-13 Real FA Cup journey, ‘The Long Way’, here. Ashley’s blog and Twitter.

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