From Barnoldswick Town to Tottenham Hotspur – The Magic of the FA Cup
After joining Marine Football Club as Media Officer in January 2019, I almost packed my bags at the end of the season. The club had been relegated for the first time in its 125-year history, so I was beginning to think I was bad luck and they were better off without me. I stayed put, and Marine had a much better next season in the Northern Premier League North West Division One (quite a mouthful). The club looked set for promotion back to the NPL when the pandemic hit. The season was declared null-and-void, and the team had to start again from scratch as all their hard work in the promotion push proved to mean nothing. Now, I was sure I was bad luck. Maybe every club I joined in my budding sports media career would be consigned to failure for the entirety of my time there? Maybe something to leave off the CV. Until the 2020-21 Emirates FA Cup run...
Saturday 12th September 2020. Football is just about back. Marine are allowed 400 fans in for home games with government guidelines, and 323 show up for this one. The Mariners trail to ninth-tier Barnoldswick Town with 87 minutes gone in a Preliminary Round FA Cup tie, when new signing Ryan Wignall bags a late equaliser. We win a free-kick in stoppage time, which another new signing Josh Hmami slams against the top of the crossbar before it bounces on the goal-line and is cleared out of danger. The linesman on the left-hand side is flagging for a goal. The referee, confused as anyone else, awards the goal. This sparks something magical.
The next step in the journey is a midweek trip to a freezing Frickley Athletic in the First Qualifying Round. A second-half winner from centre-back David Raven sees Marine across the line in a cagey affair after an early goal for the hosts is disallowed.
There’s a local clash against Runcorn Linnets in the next round. The rain is teeming down in Runcorn for the entirety of the game, and every player and fan in attendance is soaked through. Even the ones under the shelter. Marine captain Niall Cummins looks to have sealed a spot in the Third Qualifying Round until the hosts win a penalty deep in stoppage time. Former Mariner Kurt Sherlock tucks away his penalty to send the game to more spot-kicks. No one wants to be on the field any longer than they have to be here, but the clubs’ respective places in the FA Cup are at stake. Runcorn miss a couple and Marine miss one of our own, but Hmami seals the win to cue the dramatic celebrations with the rain pounding down.
The Mariners sweep aside higher-league opposition in Nantwich Town in the next round by four goals to one, Hmami at the double again as well as an unlikely double for imperious centre-back Anthony Miley. Cue the ‘Miley came in like a wrecking ball at the far post’ jokes.
Marine draw sixth-tier Chester in the Fourth Qualifying Round, with a place in the First Round Proper at stake. Marine manager Neil Young returns to the club with which he won three successive promotions as their first-ever manager, securing himself club legend status. Young and his players execute a genius plan, and James Barrigan scores a late penalty to see the Mariners through. Access to the toilets are restricted at the Deva Stadium, half of which lies in Wales and half in England, and the two countries have different COVID restrictions with Wales not currently advising English people to cross the border. I’ll find an English bush...
A trip to League Two side Colchester United is next in the First Round Proper. It’s crazy to get to this stage. I’m sat having a socially-distanced dinner with some senior club officials before the game, watching Skelmersdale United in their first-round game. ‘Just imagine if we won...’. Neil Young has another masterplan to do just that.
Miley scores first, and the Marine officials in the stand are happy to get a goal. Colchester pull one back in the second half, and are absolutely all over us, but the game stays level and goes to extra time. This is semi-professionals against professionals, and there is supposedly a huge gulf in fitness levels. Here, the semi-pros dig in to match the pros every step of the way. Stalwart Kenny Strickland is required for a goal-line clearance in the 120th minute to take the game to penalties. The teams can’t be separated until Colchester miss their fourth. All the pressure is on Mike Howard to score the winner, after he saw one saved two weeks previously on his 21st birthday. Howard makes no mistake, and the penalty begins a huge piley-on, providing an iconic picture in the history of Marine Football Club.
Havant & Waterlooville at home awaits in the Second Round, providing more higher-league opposition for Neil Young and his side to stick their teeth into. Fans are again not allowed in, so local residents with gardens backing onto the ground have climbed trees, are on top of their sheds or up scaffolding to get a view of the match. It goes to extra time in a scrappy tie with seven bookings and a sending off for the visitors, as well as another three cautions for Marine players. FA Cup runs are all about moments of magic, and this game needs one. In one of the most magical moments in the club’s history, in the 120th minute, captain Niall Cummins stumbles over on the goal-line to knock the ball in with the back of his neck. Marine fans in various vantage points as well as the officials in the stadium are sent into ecstasy. BT Sport cameras follow Cummins as he wheels away to be jumped on by his teammates. Marine are through to the Third Round. Goalkeeper Bayleigh Passant immediately leaves the field to run to the local off-license to get the beers in. Meanwhile, champagne bottles are popped on the pitch in one of Marine’s finest moments.
Watching BBC One at 7pm on 30th November, I never thought I’d watch Robbie Savage with his hands on his balls so attentively. Imagine getting a Premier League side. In truth, everyone is split between wanting Liverpool or Everton, but we don’t actually think we’ll draw a Premier League side. Out come Premier League leaders Tottenham Hotspur, producing one of the most romantic cup ties in the competition’s history. It’s the biggest gulf between clubs ever at this stage. The excitement is crazy, and so are my phone notifications. Mourinho at Marine. It’s incredible.
Over the next month and a half, my workload of the usual couple of hours a week multiplies into what is essentially a full-time job. Everyone at the club is the same, and we’re all volunteers with other full-time commitments. But it’s absolutely worth putting our lives on hold for. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Things like this just don’t happen to clubs at our level.
Back in January 2019, my role was to Tweet during games on a matchday and write match reports afterwards. Nothing during the week, and not even post-match interviews to start with. Now, I find myself selling player sponsorships at £250 a pop, launching and relentlessly promoting a virtual tickets campaign (which I will come to), managing the club’s social media across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram around the clock, auctioning match memorabilia, creating media promotions and partnership announcements all to maximise this enormous opportunity, the greatest in the club’s history, in a time where the club really needs it.
In reality, my role at the club in the lead-up to the game is just a tiny portion of what is going on behind the scenes. Club officials are dealing with the logistics of hosting an enormous occasion in a very small location in the time of a pandemic, and the ever-changing situation of whether fans will be allowed in or not, constantly liaising with the local council, the police, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, and more. This is without the logistics of hosting BBC, a completely different prospect even to BT Sport, and all of the media attention coming the way of the players and management. It all goes crazy. But we absolutely thrive on it.
The decision not to allow fans into the ground after being told we could have 500 fans in and sorting the incredibly difficult logistics of ticket allocation is a massive blow. The fans of Marine Football Club are incredible, following them up and down the country whenever possible. For such loyal fans not to physically be part of such a massive occasion is heart-breaking. This is when we introduce the virtual ticket campaign.
The CEO, James Leary, texts me for predictions as to how many we’ll sell. 600, he says. I go more optimistic with 1,000. We go on to sell 32,000 of them. The support from the football world is absolutely overwhelming. Fans of Tottenham Hotspur all over the world help us out, with North American fan site Cartilage Free Captain raising enough money through a JustGiving page to sponsor the team’s shorts. Football rallies together in support of Marine, and we can’t thank them enough. We announce that we are to have a board printed with the name of every virtual ticket holder to stand in our ground as a permanent memento.
Then comes the big day. When we arrive at the Marine Travel Arena, socially-distanced fans line the street to give the team a heroes’ welcome. Liverpool FC have offered their stewards to help with the occasion, and one of them refuses me entry to the ground as I don’t have a media accreditation. I tell him I’m the Social Media Manager, and he replies, ‘Anyone could say that’. Good start. Eventually Vice Chairman Dave McMillan walks past and says hello, and that’s enough accreditation to get me into the ground. The MTA is brimmed with scaffolding, wires and electronics. And stars. On my way in I let onto Ian Wright who walks past with Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker. Standard. I’m sat next to Sam Matterface on the press box, and my brother, who has come to help out with the Instagram updates, is next to Jamie Carragher. Our eighth-tier ground has been dressed up to host the elite.
We go down to film the players arriving. The Marine team arrive to rapturous applause and the Spurs side meet a hostile welcome. ‘Bail Bale, you ponytailed muppet’, is one of the first shouts. Worldwide superstars are walking right past us at Marine, and we’re supposed to act professional and normal.
Marine hold our own for the first 20 minutes of the game. We go closest to scoring, trainee plumber Neil Kengni breaking past Toby Alderweireld to almost catch Joe Hart out with an audacious effort which pings off the crossbar. Then comes the onslaught. Spurs score three in a few minutes, and add another before half time. The dream is finally coming to an end. They add another in the second half, but Marine’s solid centre-back pairing of Miley and Raven manage to prevent Bale from scoring when he comes on. Gareth Bale comes on at Marine. Wales captain Ben Davies is casually chatting to our photographer Susan Nugent and club historian Barry Lenton whilst playing the game, telling them he’s enjoying playing ‘proper football’ again.
Although the result is emphatic, the achievements of the Marine players to win seven FA Cup games in a single campaign will go down in football history. If a Premier League club won seven games in the competition after entering in the Third Round, they would win the competition. Simply by welcoming Spurs to Marine, we feel like we have won the competition.
All eyes were on us. Our social media followers shot up by over 50,000 altogether between the draw and the game. Marine gained thousands of fans around the world, and although the game is gone, those fans are always welcome.
From a personal point of view, my in-game updates gained the attention of outlets such as ESPN UK and Amazon Prime Sport, who published them on their social media pages. Fans from clubs around the world asked me if I could go and be the admin for them. Apparently I’m off to Brazil post-COVID to be the admin for Gremio. In all seriousness though, I cannot thank the club enough for this life-changing opportunity which will set me up for a career in sports media. The efforts of the players and management staff have given us all the ride of our lives, and the memories will last forever.
Everyone now knows the name of Marine Football Club, and if we can be remembered for putting a smile on some people’s faces at a time when they really needed it, then our work here is done.