Coming from an era when the FA Cup Final was always the biggest event in football – before England won the World Cup and we then took an interest in that – it disappoints me that some clubs treat this venerable competition as well down in their list of priorities. And I think that has reflected in attendances in recent years. I went to see Forest v Wolves in the Third round a few years back, and there were only 12,000-odd at the game – and half of those were from Wolverhampton!
FA Cup Third Round Day – when the Big Boys are set loose amongst the minnows – was always the day of shocks and the crowds turned up ready for anything. I was lucky enough to be at the famous Leicester City v Leatherhead match in 1975 after the non-league ‘no hopers’ had won at Peter Taylor’s Brighton in the third Round. They nearly did it again to a Leicester side featuring several current or future internationals, and were just a goal-line clearance away from going 3-0 up before succumbing to the team from the top division. I’ve also had the pleasure of attending four Wembley FA Cup finals plus numerous semis, and due to my current preoccupation with the lower leagues I have probably now seen a match in every round.
For good measure I’m heading off to Essex today to see a 4th Qualifying Round tie between sides from different levels of the game, with Isthmian Premier Witham Town entertaining Conference South outfit Weston Super Mare, a match which could be difficult to call.
Essex destinations invariably involve a train journey from Liverpool Street, so after arriving at St Pancras I set off on the two and a half mile walk to the East End, where I’ve promised myself a Wetherspoons veggie breakfast at the Hamilton Hall. As is becoming the norm, the veggie sausage is virtually inedible – bring back the Linda McCartney’s, all is forgiven! Afterwards I decide to take a stroll round Spitalfields market to visit an excellent music stall there, only to discover that it doesn’t start trading until 11.00am. I thought all markets were early morning affairs?
Not to worry, it means more time in Witham, and I arrive at the White Hart which is listed on CAMRA’s What Pub website as being open at 8.00am. That’s as maybe, but they don’t start serving beer until 11.00am. So it’s a detour down the road to the local ‘spoons, an austere looking building called the Battesford Court, where seats for drinkers are in short supply as the place is full of Saturday morning shoppers with numerous kids in tow. I brave it for a pint of Banks’s Botanical – it being the Wetherspoon’s Beer Festival – which is the kind of odd-tasting beer you’re never likely to have more than one of. I’ll just state at this point that the Banks’s head brewer is a friend of mine – sorry Simon!
And so back to the White Hart which has a number of beers served on gravity. And if the two that I sample are anything to go by, the best beer in town. The Green Jack Red Herring – a ruby red brew – is excellent and although I’m not a massive fan of Woodforde’s Wherry, being served straight from the cask allows all of the flavours to come through. The pub also sells a mean bowl of cashews for around £1.
There’s just time before the mile-long trek to the ground to go back up past the station and visit the Woolpack, an excellent village local that serves as the brewery tap for the Witham Brewery. The house beer is called ‘No Name’, is malty with a lingering hoppy mouthfeel, and only costs £2.50 per pint. I can’t find fault with that! And it’s also a long time since I saw dominoes being played in a pub.
Witham Town’s Spa Road stadium is on a site away from the town centre, and just like the ground of Dereham Town that I visited a couple of weeks ago, it smacks of ‘new build’ but in fact has been used for the past 40 years. There’s a clubhouse bar on one side, which is partitioned prior to the match, so that anybody who just wants a pint can do so without having to pay £10 entry fee. The bad news is there is nothing decent beer-wise to be had. Inside the ground there is an area of covered stepped terrace either side of the players tunnel, which can be a bit of a bottleneck. Behind both goals are covered single-step terraces that run from corner to corner, and on the side opposite the clubhouse is a covered stand, featuring three rows of seats. There is a snack bar near the clubhouse selling chips.
There’s a good crowd in excess of 600 in today – more than 3 times the Witham average for a League fixture – and most of them are ecstatic when the home side take an early lead. But it’s not long before visiting Weston-Super-Mare begin to demonstrate why they are from a higher division, and as half time approaches they start to dominate the possession, going level on 40. Ten minutes after the break a comedy own-goal completes the comeback and despite a scare on 70 when Weston lose a man to a red when conceding a penalty, Witham contrive to miss it and the visitors see the game out, albeit not without the odd wobble or two.
And so Weston go on to Round 1 proper – and a date with Doncaster Rovers, the draw having just been made as I type this up. Hopefully a handful of the lower league sides left in the competition will make it to Round 3 and get some serious revenue with a game against one of the big boys. It would be good to see a match in the ilk of Leicester v Leatherhead, or better still Hereford v Newcastle, again – just to remind Joe Public that there is still some real magic in the FA Cup.
Programme: £2 on the turnstile. A nicely produced affair with several pages of colour action pictures. Shame they felt the need to make it serve two games (today and the Essex Senior Cup match on Tuesday – embarrassing if they sold out today!)
Floodlight pylons: 8
Birdlife: Just a flock of Starlings with a fondness for the Mobile Phone mast
Music the players run out to: None
Club Shop: Didn’t see one. Maybe in the part of the clubhouse Bar I couldn’t access!
Toilets: Between the turnstiles and the clubhouse
Kop choir: Quite a crowd of home fans behind the appropriate goal, but with not a song amongst them.
Away fans: A fair few in the stand where i was sitting, evident when they scored
What’s in a Name? I’m guessing that Witham’s Mr S. Murfet has a club nickname, although i can’t for the life of me think what it might be…. Presumably Town’s Brad Stopher is not a centre back in the Beckenbauer mould…..