Friday 11 November 2011 (10.30 am)
With the (Budweiser) FA Cup 1st Round fixtures this weekend, the competition moves into its second phase. The six Qualifying Rounds, played every two weeks since 20th August this year and the domain of the non league clubs, now gives way to what is referred to by some as the FA Cup “proper” with the professionals coming to the table. However, for me it is a term which is ill used and can be seen as a slight to the clubs who have battled to this stage of the Cup. In all the games I have witnessed this season in the tournament, there is certainly no less desire, determination and excitement both from players or fans at being involved in the Qualifying part of the Cup than will be seen in the later Rounds. It would be churlish not to recognise too what a Cup run can achieve on a financial basis for a club, non-league or otherwise.
Tonight, battling for the right to be in the 2nd Round draw is a top of the table clash from the Blue Square Bet (BSB) Premier between former League rivals, Cambridge United and Wrexham. Wrexham currently lead the table on 40 points with Cambridge 4 points behind in third place. Despite the success on the pitch, behind the scenes Wrexham are still trying to secure its future. Fingers crossed that the Wrexham Supporters Trust are able to ensure football continues at this historic club in North Wales. These team met on the opening day of the season at the Racecourse Ground. Wrexham looked like they had done enough to claim victory with a goal on 17 minutes from (current caretaker player-manager) Andy Morrell. However, in injury time, Conal Platt’s goal grabbed a point for United.
In the Fourth Qualifying Round, both teams faced fellow BSB Premier opposition. Cambridge faced struggling Hayes & Yeading away, but came through comfortably 6-2. Wrexham were handed a much tougher challenge at home to high flying York City. Wrexham went ahead early in the second half with a header from Nat Knight-Percival, but the lead was quickly wiped out as a Patrick McLaughlin free-kick brought York level. With the game entering the final ten minutes, the Racecourse faithful saw their team take the lead once more, as a David McGurk own goal handed a 2-1 win to Wrexham. It could be another tight encounter tonight.
Friday 11 November 2011 (10.15 pm)
Just as the fixture in the League proved to be a close one, so did the FA Cup meeting between Cambridge United and Wrexham. In a game of ‘cat and mouse’, Wrexham were twice ahead through Andy Morell, but were pegged back each time with a brace from United’s Josh Coulson. As in the League opening day meeting between these teams, Wrexham must have thought they had done enough to win, but conceded an equaliser (as they did back in August) to Cambridge in injury time.
Bring on the rest of the fixtures and all the stories that will unfold. The Cup weekend is underway!
Saturday 12 November 2011 (11.00 am)
The destination today is Bramall Lane, for the game between Sheffield United and Oxford United. The attraction? Well to be honest, there are a few. Firstly, I have a soft spot for The Blades, since on the day I was born, Fulham (my beloved Whites) played against Sheffield United in a First Division fixture at Bramall Lane. As such I feel I have a connection with the place. Secondly, it is one of my favourite grounds. It is a compact and atmospheric venue with a vocal home support. Thirdly, in practical terms it is easy to get to by train and lastly, the tickets are excellent value at just a tenner today.
There is also a good link today between the clubs, which adds a bit of spice to the fixture today, as current Oxford manager Chris Wilder is a boyhood Sheffield United fan and he also made over 100 appearances for The Blades in two spells at Bramall Lane. Also returning to the club he supported growing up, is Oxford goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson who spent his entire professional career with Sheffield United, making 675 appearances.
Neither team has had a great November to date. In their League One fixture, The Blades lost at Stevenage last Saturday, with a penalty in the last ten minutes sealing a 2-1 win for the team from the Lamex Stadium. In midweek, it was a Yorkshire Derby at Bramall Lane in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against Bradford City. Matt Phillips put United ahead on 27 minutes, but back came The Bantams to equalise before half-time through Michael Flynn. The score remained at 1-1 and so it was left to penalties to decide the tie. With penalties at 4-4 it went to Sudden-death where after Erik Tonne’s miss, Chris Mitchell sent Bradford City through 6-5. For Oxford United, November has seen them play Southend United twice in the last week. In their League Two fixture at Roots Hall last Saturday, the home side Southend emerged 2-1 winners. In midweek, at home in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, Oxford had the chance to avenge that defeat, but in a game where United ended with nine men, a goal from Ryan Hall condemned Oxford to a second successive defeat to The Shrimpers. Two sides possibly low on confidence, but which United will emerge victorious today?
Saturday 12 November 2011 (11.00 pm)
As the players merged for their pre-match warm-ups they were greeted by a crisp day under a blue sky and fading weak November sun. Both teams went through their routines and the travelling Oxford fans made their presence felt in noisy anticipation of the game ahead. With both sides leaving the pitch as they completed their preparations, Oxford goalkeeping coach and ex-Blade Alan Hodgkinson received an excellent reception from the Bramall Lane faithful. Soon however, the teams emerged once again and after a well observed minutes silence ahead of Remembrance Sunday, the game was underway.
The first ten minutes disappeared in a frantic and scrappy opening with neither side creating a goal opportunity. However, with their first real attack, Sheffield United took the lead on 12 minutes. Richard Cresswell’s attempted over-head kick from Stephen Quinn’s cross fell to Ched Evan, who slammed it in to give The Blades the lead. The goal settled Sheffield and they took control of the remainder of the first half, with Oxford conceding the midfield area, The Blades took full advantage. Ryan Clarke in the Oxford goal made good saves from Ched Evans, Stephen Quinn and Lee Williamson in the opening 45 minutes, but was helpless on 19 minutes when Ched Evans arrowed in his second from a free kick. The home team led 2-0 at half-time and deserved their two goal advantage.
Oxford had to show more commitment in the second half and in at attempt to stir his side into action, manager Chris Wilder made a double substitution, with James Constable and Harry Worley replacing Paul McLaren and Jonathan Franks. It had a desired impact as Oxford did threaten the home goal. However, for all their ‘huff and puff’, the visitors were unable to create a real clear cut chance. The Blades continued to create opportunities and Evans was denied a hat-trick as Clarke continued with his heroics in the Oxford goal. However, the Oxford custodian must take some of the blame for the Sheffield goal on 71 minutes. Clarke came a long way off his line and failed to deal with the cross into the box and in the scramble, substitute Ryan Flynn drove home for The Blades third goal. The game was well and truly over and the last quarter of the game fizzled out as the Red and White half of Sheffield progressed into the draw for the FA Cup 2nd Round.
Credit to the Oxford United fans, they supported their side to the end and the club is now left to focus on promotion from League Two. It was a shame that despite the reduced ticket prices, less than 8,000 were at the game today. Personally I think it would have made for a better atmosphere if the Kop had been opened today rather than the Family Stand, as the home fans were on the whole pretty quiet and drowned out by the 2,000 plus travelling fans. However, the club obviously knew it would be a low crowd today and acted accordingly in making a financial decision to only open certain sections of the ground. A sad fact of modern day football that even the magic of the oldest Cup competition in the world can’t overcome.
Sunday 13 November 2011 (3.00 pm)
So what of the other “trail” sides from my FA Cup adventure this season? Well to paraphrase Bjørge Lillelien, my teams took a hell of a beating!
Blue Square Bet Premier side AFC Telford United got a 4-0 thumping at Chelmsford City from the Blue Square Bet South. The Clarets were 2-0 at half-time with goals from Aiden Palmer and Craig Parker. In the second half, City captain David Rainford completed the rout with a brace to send the team from Essex through.
After two impressive away wins at Hyde and Kidsgrove in the previous Rounds of the Cup, Bradford Park Avenue travelled to AFC Totton with confidence. However, the team from West Yorkshire simply imploded against their opponents from the Evo-Stik Southern Premier Division. Richard Marshall was sent off for Avenue after 10 minutes and after 28 minutes of the game his team were losing 2-0. To their credit Bradford got one back through Adam Clayton on 30 minutes. However, any chance of a comeback was short-lived, as Michael Charles restored Totton’s two goal lead before half-time. The second half became simply calamitous for Avenue as Mike Gosney (51 minutes) and Stefan Brown (63 minutes) increased the score to 5-1. Avenue then were reduced to nine-men on 65 minutes when Martin Drury received a second yellow card. Stefan Brown completed his hat-trick with goals on 73 and 79 minutes and the 8-1 thrashing was completed in injury time by a second goal from Jonathon Davies.
FC Halifax Town featured as one of the televised games today against League One leaders Charlton Athletic and in truth didn’t deserve the 4-0 beating they got. Matty Taylor with a towering header put the Londoners’ ahead just five minutes before half-time. Nevertheless, Town were still in the game as the last ten minutes approached, however, a three goal burst from Jackson, Hollands and Pritchard, killed off Halifax and rather flattered Charlton.
Following the 2nd Round draw, the “trail” teams fixtures look like this:
AFC Totton v Bristol Rovers
Charlton Athletic v Carlisle United
Chelmsford City v Macclesfield Town
Sheffield United v Torquay United
Sunday 13 November 2011 (5.30 pm)
The closing action of this Cup weekend was provided by Morecambe at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls dominated the first half and led 1-0 after the first 45 minutes, thanks to a goal from Chris Lines on 17 minutes. Morecambe went further behind on 52 minutes when Chris O’Grady headed in a second for Wednesday. However, the home team got back into the game just ten minutes later, when Laurence Wilson scored from the spot to bring the score to 2-1. Morecambe battled hard, but couldn’t force a second goal and so Wednesday progress to the 2nd Round for a home tie with the winners of the Maidenhead United/Aldershot replay.