Welwyn Garden City 2 Burgess Hill Town 1

Tuesday 15th December 2020 – 7:45pm KO at Herns Way, Welwyn Garden City in the FA Trophy

The most pressing issue before I left for the FA Trophy tie at Welwyn Garden City from CMF was what made it a “city” in the first place. We spent A LOT of time around the Welwyn and Hertford area twenty plus years ago, looking for wedding venues yet not once did she ask the question back then.

I did what any self-respecting person would do when they didn’t know the answer – I looked on Wikipedia, where I found out that the town, designed in 1920 by Sir Ebenezer Howard was one of the first developments of its time. Ebenezer described it as:

“A town designed for healthy living and industry of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger, surrounded by a rural belt; the whole of the land being in public ownership, or held in trust for the community”

Matter sorted, I could leave. Alas, this being Tier 3 lockdown eve, the rest of the South-East of England currently in Tier 2 had decided to head to either Bluewater or Lakeside shopping centres which led to traffic chaos. Still, it’s not like we are in the midst of a virus pandemic which spreads by cramming thousands of people in an indoor space. There was some irony that Bluewater which has over 13,000 parking spaces and thus handle tens of thousands had limited restrictions whilst I was heading for a football match outdoors where strict limitations on a maximum of 400 people and no alcohol could be served. I know where I would feel the safer of the two.

Welwyn Garden City FC of the Southern League Central Division sit in the middle of the hotbed of the Hertfordshire Non-League landscape, if there really was such a thing. Unfortunately, they find themselves in a different league to most of their rivals. Hertford Town and Ware, no more than 10 minutes away in the car are in the Isthmian League, are their closest rivals but the opportunities to play together are limited these days. It is a quirk of the Non-League maps that they are so close together yet Marlow and Bracknell Town, firmly sitting in the Southern League territory are in the Isthmian Leagues.

One notable point in terms of their history. After originally being wound up over unpaid debts in 1936, they merged with local rivals Shredded Wheat FC a year later and restarted again. Yep, there was a team called Shredded Wheat, who were based in Welwyn at the Nabisco plant, with their own ground and even entered the FA Cup from 1932 until the merger. Missed opportunity in terms of global sponsorship and awareness by not keeping the breakfast cereal name?

The club were promoted in 2018 from Step 5, the Spartan South Midlands League, which is tenuous to say the least with clubs in their constitution based in London, and in their first season at Step 4 in 2018/19 14th, then last season at the point the leagues were curtailed, were in 4th place with a shout of the play-offs. When this season recommences at some point they will look to build on their 10 points from six league fixtures.

2018/19 season saw them enter the FA Trophy for the first time, losing to Chipstead in the Preliminary Round, making this tie against fellow Step 4 Burgess Hill Town one of their biggest ever cup ties, having already knocked out fellow Sussex clubs Haywards Heath Town and Step 3 Horsham on penalties before a home win against Hednesford Town last week. The Hillians route to this point had been a bit for fortuitous, beating Ware and Harrow Borough before receiving a bye in the last round after Margate withdrew from the competition.

The massive carrot dangling in front of both sides was the chance to host Step 1 Aldershot Town in the next round on Saturday. Whilst COVID restrictions would cap the attendance at just 400, the opportunity to play against a team from three steps higher was one that would surely motivate both sides.

It was a classic Non-League cup tie. A loud and rumbustious gathering of home fans in the covered corner terrace provided a constant reminder to the Burgess Hill players that they were not on home turf. A pitch that would be graded as “heavy going” at any racecourse. A referee who at times seemed to be concentrating mentally on his Christmas shopping rather than the game and two very different halves of football.

The home side came out of the blocks strong and fast, taking the lead in the sixth minute after poor defending from a corner allowed Lee Close to power his header home with very little challenge.

Carl Mensah doubled the lead for the home side after smashing the ball home from the edge of the area after the Hillians keeper could only punch a free-kick clear, rather than catching it. Somehow the visitors made it to half-time without conceding any more.

The second half started as the first had ended with the home side looking dangerous every time they attacked. But then an error by keeper Crowley allowed Nathan Cooper to score and the visitors were back in it. Five minutes later Mensah was dismissed for a second yellow and the Welwyn Garden City goal was under siege.

Burgess Hill had a goal chalked off for a foul but showed no let up in the pressure to equalise. Somehow, on two or three occasions the ball stayed out of their net thanks to a combination of good goalkeeping and desperate defending. A case of too little too late for the visitors and the celebrations from the Welwyn Garden City players, management and fans showed what the result meant to them.

The win and the guaranteed losers prize money from the next round will have seen The Citizens earn at least £14,000 so far which would be a very much needed bonus for the club at a time where no other competitive games can be played. Roll on Saturday and their biggest game in the club’s history.

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