Alton Town versus Selsey
FA Cup Extra-Preliminary Round
Saturday 17th August 2013
Approximately three months ago, Wigan Athletic upset the odds by defeating big spenders Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley (Interestingly, Wigan are the only team to win the FA Cup and be relegated from the top flight in the same season). It was the climax of a season long competition which started with 758 teams across the nation.
Now, in mid August, it was time to begin the 133rd instalment of the greatest knockout competition in the world. The FA Cup
The Extra Preliminary round is a far cry from the all too famous 3rd Round fixtures where the two top divisions enter the competition. A team entering at this stage would have to win eight games (excluding replays) just to be put in the pot with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. It’s a far cry from The Emirates or Old Trafford but like great rivers, the FA Cup starts with these small tributaries.
First dilemma was where to go? The choices on offer reached the length and breadth of England. Some ties had already been played on the Friday evening, but I was looking at a few select games on the traditional Saturday 3pm kickoff. On the shortlist was Bermerton Heath Harlequins, Petersfield and Arundel as well as a potential mission to Tow Law Town and Penrith. However, I chose Alton Town as my first foray into the Cup for this season.
Alton is an historic market town located in a picturesque part of Hampshire. It’s also the terminus for the Mid Hants Railway commonly called ‘The Watercress Line’, a restored steam railway running between Alton and New Alresford, so called because it used to be used to transport fresh watercress to London.
Just down the road from the station is the Bass Sports Ground – home to Alton Town FC. In recent years, the club has been under threat of eviction as a result of action by landlords wishing to sell the land for development. However, the local council is supporting Alton Town’s bid to improve a nearby council-owned playing facility to a standard good enough to ensure they continue at a senior level. Funds are very short at the club and is evident by the ‘rustic’ appearance of the ground and its fixtures. Last season, Alton held a fundraising day cleverly entitled as ‘Save Alton Town Day’. 448 locals came through the turnstiles to see the Brewers (Alton’s nickname) defeat Hayling Island. Upon speaking to one of the player’s parents, I questioned “If the community can turn out in such numbers on one occasion to help save the club, why don’t they come week in, week out?” a question I’m sure that’s asked in non-league clubs up and down the land.
Upon arrival, it was clear that the attendance wouldn’t trouble three figures, let alone 448. We were warmly greeted at the turnstiles by ‘Smoking’ Jim McKell’… the club Chairman and Secretary. You instantly know what a friendly place this is when the officials are on hand to welcome each visitor with such gusto. Seeing the camera in my hands, he partially removed his coat to look more presentable for his photo. Once admitted into the ground, it appeared we were the only ones there… and with barely an hour before kickoff.
The heavens opened and we retreated to the only real cover in the ground. The main stand (correction… the only stand) is located along the halfway line, opposite to the players’ changing rooms (which we first mistook as a cricket pavilion) and the dugouts. The clubhouse and teabar/tuckshop are the only other cover from the elements.
It wasn’t long before we were acquainted with Michael – a life-long supporter of the Brewers. Following them for over fifty years, Michael carries a life-size Sylvester the Cat cuddly toy to every match, usually in a cart. Today, he’d brought along Tweetie too. Whilst there are certain oddities to walking around with a load of Looney Tunes characters, it’s not unusual to have lucky charms or mascots. Perhaps that’s what these were.
Michael was an endearing soul. It became clearly obvious that Alton Town FC has given him so much pleasure and even comfort over the years. Whilst this was my first visit to the Bass Sports Ground, I could tell Michael had a pre-match routine. He’d sit and wait for the teams to emerge from the ‘pavillion’ changing rooms, ensuring he’d personally greet the officials and opposition. He’d walk out with the teams before taking his place behind the goal, ringing a bell when the home side were on the attack and then later, seated on the sidelines, earphones in listening for scores around the country. He’d kept me updated with the Arsenal score after finding out that we both support the same team.
I’m sure every club has their own Michael… someone whose passion for the club eclipses all others. Someone who’ll support the lads through driving rain, snow and whatever the weather can throw at them. I tip my hat to you, good sir… you are the lifeblood of non-league football.
With a place in the Preliminary Round, prize money of £1,500 and a step closer to Wembley (you can dream, can’t you?), there was plenty to play for and the match certainly reflected this. A bruising affair full of crunching tackles, flare-ups and real bite, it started at a hundred miles-per-hour and only got quicker.
Selsey scored in the opening five minutes, ensuring that the home side had to push to get something out of the tie. As the half progressed, the Brewers grew in confidence, with good levels of possession. The hard work paid off – with Wayde equalising and Ryan Ayling breaking through the Selsey defence to take Alton into the break 2-1 to the good.
During the break, I chatted to one of the Alton faithful… the father of one of the players. He enlightened me to another problem faced by the club. This season marked their first in the Combined Counties – a league where the majority of clubs are based around the Home Counties of Surrey, Middlesex and London. This move wasn’t of their own doing; instead enforced by the FA to switch across the league pyramid. Previously, Alton were members of the Sydenhams Wessex League – made up of a constitution of clubs around the Hampshire and Dorset regions. The majority of Alton’s players are based around this area meaning travel was relatively easy to both home and away games. Now, facing a vastly increased mileage and subsequent costs, an estimated 80% of last season’s squad have left the club, with some dropping levels in standard just for convenience – a bitter blow for the Brewers. They’ve done really well to rebuild and on the basis of the first 45 minutes, maybe it’s not a bad thing after all.
The second half commenced and between chatting to a few more locals, including a discussion about one of their four-legged friends – a 20 year old Yorkshire Terrier, I concentrated more on the action. I was able to capture the fantastically curled free kick from Ash Lee-James to put the home side 3-1 up. Selsey’s attempts to get back into the game were continually thwarted and even though Alton went down to ten men when a second bookable offence saw the end of Brown, they held on for the win. They’ll now face Raynes Park Vale in the next round.
This is what the FA Cup is all about… a real cracking blood and guts tie, played at full pace and real edge. As one far travelling onlooker from Russia commented in broken English said “I think I bring your club good luck”. If that’s the case, perhaps Michael should ditch Sylvester and take on the Russian instead!
Author – Stuart Tree