Despite my status as an unashamed advocate/addict of Premier League football, I had no hesitation on Monday night in choosing to watch Cheltenham Town take on Hereford United in a local F.A. Cup skirmish with the not inconsiderable prize of a home 3rd round tie with Merseyside giants Everton at stake. In hindsight my decision was happily vindicated.
While Newcastle United simultaneously brought their recent stuttering form to a halt with a welcome, if facile, win against 10-man pre-relegation fight Wigan Athletic, the South-West adversaries produced a frenetic and compelling spectacle to warm a cold December night.
This wasn’t merely a harum scarum tussle – in line with ignorant expectations – between two sides from the fourth and fifth tiers of English football. In Jermaine McGlashan, Cheltenham had a winger full of skill and pace. Watching his direct play in the first-half was as exhilarating as plenty of what will be seen in this week’s final throes of the Champions League group stages.
McGlashan is an embodiment of all that a cup run can do for a club which exists in the lower reaches of the game. His transfer from Aldershot to the Robins was secured using funds which were earned by last year’s progress to a third round clash at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur. The double-boost of that cash injection and experience of a marvellous event – everything surrounding a huge F.A. Cup tie against an illustrious opponent makes it an ‘event’ – for an outfit such as Cheltenham cannot be under-estimated.
No club is better placed to eulogise all that is great about the F.A. Cup than Hereford. Ronnie Radford’s goal on a mud-heap of a playing surface at Edgar Street against Newcastle, and the ensuing pitch invasion by ecstatic parka clad locals and the most famous soft panda toy in history, provide arguably the most evocative and joyous cup images witnessed to this day.
40 years on from that momentous afternoon, the distinguished competition is more valuable to the Bulls than ever. Following relegation out of the football league last season, Hereford have plunged into serious financial strife. Wage packets have been empty and PAYE commitments not met. This is the stark reality of the monetary differential between operating inside and outside the league.
All involved at Edgar Street will therefore have had fingers firmly crossed for a favourable cup run. When the side were drawn at FC United of Manchester in the 4th qualifying round many Bulls’ hearts will have sunk, but the team earned a 2-0 win and an enrapturing run was born. Over 3,000 were in attendance to see League 1 Shrewsbury Town swept aside in an A49 derby. With this term’s reduced crowds taking their toll on income that tie alone was vital.
What transpired at Whaddon Road in the first battle with Cheltenham must have gladdened the souls of all associated with this enduringly famous club. Their team, after a hesitant opening, were wholehearted, cavalier and not lacking in talent or bravery. Sam Clucas is a thrilling wideman and Ryan Bowman a lone-forward blessed with a wonderful touch and an intelligence that belies his mere 21 years.
When watching a leggy central midfielder who possesses bundles of energy, terrific hunger and ability to track runners, attributes all allied to vision and first-rate passing, the lazy comparison to make is with Patrick Vieira. Nevertheless, Harry Pell, like Bowman only just 21, brought the great French player to mind with every galloping stride, lung-bursting forward run, and retrieving challenge.
Hereford were worthy of their hard-won replay and anticipate over 5,000 crowding into their atmospheric ground, with all those paying customers hopefully to be joined by the TV cameras, next Tuesday.
ESPN and ITV must take some credit for their insightful thinking when selecting which matches to screen in January’s 3rd round. For many a football traditionalist the first Saturday of the new year – of all the insults the F.A. has delivered to its marquee trophy, moving this date forward to December in the ill-fated 2000 competition was one of the gravest – remains the day in the calendar with the biggest ring around it. The reason for that is predominantly the prospect of a ‘giant-killing’.
Sunday’s draw pitted eight Premier League sides together in four matches. The initial buzz on hearing West Ham United paired with Manchester United and Southampton slated to host Chelsea hastily gives way to a weary acceptance that these meetings will be a pale imitation of the same confrontations when points are at stake. Sadly, it is at its classically grandest stage when the first signs of erosion to the cup’s sheen become perceptible.