Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup. For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players. For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV. For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win. More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”. For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).
However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks. Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game. Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing. Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup. Success is simply based on progression.
As a club we never budget for cup runs. That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget. An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances). Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days. It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws. Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup. What could possibly go wrong today? However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?
On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year. Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game. In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby. Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.
Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them. Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent. However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today? Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town? I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.
After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had. I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut. However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round. The script was all but written.
Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier? Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything! The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these. Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other. It wasn’t a good day. Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.
Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart. Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round. Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear. However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.
Boysie, the club snapper, turned up late. We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story. Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down. One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area. No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way. He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence. Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.
One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half. Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team? Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead. Three one? Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men. Game over, start the bus.
We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable. But this defeat hurt. More so than any other game this season. Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance. The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.
So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup. Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.