There’s nothing quite like walking towards an FA Cup game, seeing the now-famous arch of Wembley Stadium and getting a shiver of excitement down your spine as you make your way to the ground.
You wonder if the players at Wembley FC get the same thought as they make their way towards the distinctly less glamourous yet far more charming surroundings of Vale Farm some twenty minutes down the round. On FA Cup weekend, you’d be hard-pressed not to dream.
But for The Lions, as Wembley are known, May is a long way off. In fact, the first round of the FA Cup is still a long way off and the Combined Counties Premier Division team are entering the competition at the earliest possible round – the Extra Preliminary Qualifying Round.
While Phil Brown is celebrating a first win the Premier League for Hull and Arsenal and Chelsea get down to business as usual, the club that plays in The Home of English Football face South Midlands Premier side Royston Town.
This, then, is where the magic of the cup truly begins – at the start of August in front of 50 or so supporters. The competition got a welcome shot in the arm last year with the exploits, Cardiff, Barnsley, and Havant and Waterlooville, and it’s these kind of games that FA Chief Executive Brian Barwick, a guest in the boardroom, is hoping for this season.
With the Premier League season starting on this day, Barwick may seem like an unlikely visitor to Vale Farm but as he tells the Wembley chairman, Brian Gumm, he tries to get to a game in every round of the FA Cup, including all the qualifying games.
Barwick has had his fair share of detractors over the years, and has made several mistakes (the most notable one being named Steve McClaren) but listening to him speak, it’s clear he’s very much in love with the game still and has a feel for the history of the FA Cup, and the prestige and financial boost it gives to a club like Wembley. After listening to the conversation for ten minutes, it’s hard not to come away with a slightly more sympathetic view of the FA Chief Executive, even if his organisation still has much work to do.
A financial lifeline
Gumm, for his part, is just hoping to last in the cup for a few rounds. If Wembley win today, they’ll net £750. If they manage to negotiate a further five rounds and make the first round proper of the FA Cup they’ll have made £29,750, which may just about equal the annual salary of a League 2 player but is a footballing jackpot for a club like Wembley. Gumm says he’ll be happy if the club manage to make the First Qualifying Round, in two rounds’ time. Royston, on paper, are the better team today, although Wembley have taken four points from their opening two fixtures.
Before kickoff the jovial and enthusiastic Gumm, who has been at the helm for nearly 20 years, fills Barwick and the rest of the room in on Wembley FC’s history. The club, formed in 1946, was the training ground for England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, as seen by the signed photo on the boardroom wall.
Wembley’s President, Eric Stringer, and Vice-Chairman, Cyril Farmer, got to ride on the bus at one point with the England team, and Alf Ramsey was so taken with the club he continued to send menus from assorted foreign hotels England stayed in to Vale Farm long after ’66.
It’s easy to see why Ramsey continued to have a soft spot for the Lions. Gumm is one of the friendliest chairmen you could wish to meet, while fans from both sides happily mingle on the terraces. It’s a cosy atmosphere, a world away from the stadium in the near distance, although there’s a touch of glamour with the FA Cup present at the ground, and cameras from ITV.com and ITV Local filming the game for their website. Wembley manager Ian Bates only tells his players about the cameras an hour before kick-off so not to make them too nervous.
Up for the Cup
But it’s not clear what effect this has on Wembley as it’s Royston who come out of the traps quickest, putting immediate pressure on the Lions defence. Wembley keeper Richard McCabe makes a couple of dodgy kicks from back passes but atones not long after with a superb tip-over from a goal-bound header.
There are still nerves though – Lions striker Paul Shelton is booked for a very late challenge on Royston full back Lewis Endacott that sees the defender’s boot fly off his foot. Shelton is lucky not to pick up a second yellow for another late tackle a few minutes later.
Wembley settle down after about twenty minutes with both sides settling into their respective grooves in what is rapidly becoming an evenly-balanced match. Impressively, there’s precious little hoofball with both sides attempting to work the ball along the floor and there’s some intelligent movement from Shelton at one end and the Royston forwards at the other but both sets of centre-halves are solid and there’s few clear-cut openings.
Just when it looks as if we’re heading in goalless at half-time, Royston win a free-kick about 30 yards out. Luke Robins’ shot is well hit and despite flying towards the centre of the goal McCabe fails to get a hand to hit and the Crows head in with a just about deserved lead.
Following a very cheap chips and burger, the second half kicks off with more of the same and, if anything, it’s Wembley who start the half brighter as they push forward in search of an equaliser.
There’s a few more long balls in this half but when the Lions do score, it’s a move fellow Northern Londoner Arsene Wenger would be proud of. A Wembley defender rakes a crossfield pass from right to left before the ball is cut back across the six-yard box leaving the goalkeeper stranded and an open goal for Shane Sinclair.
The goal, though, doesn’t give Wembley the lift the need to push forward for the winner and Royston come immediately back at them. The Lions are forced to defend deeper and a triple substitution for Royston gives the Crows an added edge, with diminutive attacker Josh Bronti looking particularly threatening. He immediately gets into two good positions but his decision making leaves a little to be desired in both instances.
It’s now clear that if Wembley are going to nick a winner it’ll be very much against the run of play. Their hopes of making it to the Preliminary Qualifying Round take a further hit when towering centre-half Andrew Walker, who has hitherto mopped up most balls, gets a second yellow for a needlessly clumsy tackle in the centre of the pitch. From his point, it’s just a question of survival as the Lions are caged in their area for the last ten minutes.
Then come three gilt-edged chances for the visitors, with a Walker-less backline breached three times in as many moments but a combination of McCabe in goal and woeful finishing from the Royston forwards mean Wembley hang on for a replay and the right to play AFC Hayes, should they triumph in the replay.
In the clubhouse afterwards, Gumm is busy tending to guests and players alike, many of whom settle down in front of the TV to see the final scores from the Premiership come through. Barwick can be seen taking another stroll around the ground. He’ll be back at Wembley in just over nine months time. For Brian Gumm, Ian Bates and the rest of the players, they’ll settle for a win on Tuesday and a shot at the Preliminary Qualifying Round. The magic of the cup, though, remains no matter what level the match is played.