Magic of the FA Cup

Each May, football fans around the country set a date in their diary for the FA Cup final. Two teams will duel it out in the final for English football’s ultimate knock-out competition trophy, having been whittled down from over 700 teams in its preliminary stages. Every fan hopes it will be their club, but for some, it isn’t always the final they are aiming for.

Hereford FC are one of the 700 teams that were entered into this year’s competition. A seventh-tier side in the Southern League Premier division, they have punched above their weight to reach the FA Cup second round proper. Having been reformed as a phoenix club from the remains of the liquidated Hereford United FC, Hereford FC are a partly fan-owned club with a heart as big as their ambitions.

For some clubs, reaching the FA Cup first round proper is a huge achievement. It means they will have played, and won, six qualifying rounds, and for some of these clubs, this starts as early as August. Non-league clubs will strive for a first round proper draw for both the financial and publicity rewards that are associated with them.

Hereford FC began their 2017 FA Cup journey on the 2nd September 2017, with a comprehensive first qualifying round 8–0 victory over Goldalming Town. This was followed by victories in the second, third and fourth qualifying rounds, and a home draw against AFC Telford in the first round proper. League One and League Two clubs enter the competition at this stage, so by playing another non-league club, progression of a non-league club into the second round is guaranteed.

Hereford FC beat AFC Telford by a goal-to-nil, and were rewarded with a trip to Fleetwood Town. Hereford FC, or Hereford United as they were until 2015, had never played League One’s Fleetwood Town in a competitive match and this game offered financial reward as well as the chance of progression to the third round — a feat which would be simply astonishing for a club in the seventh tier of English football. This is where Premier League and Championship clubs are drawn into the mix, and there can be no bigger stage than the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United to be drawn against.

Friday 1st December. It was the eve of Hereford FC’s most high-profile match since the club’s reform in 2015. I travelled to Blackpool prior to their visit to Fleetwood Town in the second round of the FA Cup, with the Lancashire town being the meeting point for dozens of fans of the ‘Bulls’.

Hereford FC’s own radio broadcaster, Radio Hereford FC, had arranged to travel up from Cider Country to Blackpool prior to the game and were due to broadcast live from the Excelsior pub, close to Blackpool FC’s Bloomfield Road stadium, that evening. I met with the radio’s presenters Frank Williams and Joanie Roberts beneath Blackpool Tower, along with fans Jim Clewer, Mike Baldwin and both fan and Radio Hereford & Worcester presenter Keith Hall.

Joanie Roberts setting up for the evening’s broadcast (left) at the Excelsior, on Lytham Road, Blackpool (right)
(L-R) Keith Hall and Christine Seddon, presenting from the Excelsior in Blackpool.

The Excelsior pub provided the perfect atmosphere to preview a famous FA Cup tie. AFC Fylde were busily drawing at home to third-tier Wigan Athletic on the big screen, whilst Frank & Joanie chatted to Keith Hall and Christine Seddon, Hereford and Blackpool FC fans respectively. Christine is the chair of the Blackpool FC Supporters Trust, and she was discussing the current turmoil that her club is facing. Sadly, it isn’t a unique story. Her experiences resonate with what Hereford United had experienced, prior to being reformed and supporters chipping-in to own a 50% share in the new club.

Fans of both Hereford FC and Blackpool FC attend Radio Hereford FC’s live broadcast

Fans from both clubs keenly attended and, although having discussed previous and on-going situations with both clubs, the night was filled with laughter and mutual appreciation as to just how far Hereford FC had already come in the competition.

Saturday 2nd December. Match-day for Hereford and Fleetwood Town, and the day started early for Radio Hereford FC and fans. I stayed over with the group at the Blackpool FC hotel, at the Bloomfield Road stadium. Breakfast was consumed with a view of the pitch below and the rugby league world cup being broadcast live from Australia in the background. Set-up was due to be early before kick-off, around 12pm, and this meant a mid-morning drive from Blackpool to Fleetwood Town’s Highbury Stadium.

Pictured left, Mike Baldwin and Jim Clewer discuss directions to get to Fleetwood, whilst Frank Williams (right), loads up his car with the kit for the radio’s broadcast later that afternoon
The route from Blackpool to Fleetwood takes in the Lancashire coast, and some famous attractions too.
Hereford fans pose with the FA Cup

Arrival at the ground was just before 12pm, and whilst Frank and Joanie went to set up in the press box at Highbury, I went to Jim’s Bar, where, very appropriately, I met with Jim and Mike whilst they enjoyed their meal deal of a pie, chips and a pint. Jim’s Bar was full with fans of both clubs, Fleetwood Town and Hereford, and on show was the actual FA Cup (no better motivation for either club!), along with a selection of security guards and stewards to protect the special trophy.

BBC One’s Football Focus were presenting live from Fleetwood that afternoon, and that previewed extended highlights of Fleetwood Town vs Hereford with live commentary. A large gathering of fans surrounded the presenters as they discussed the fates of both teams later in the day, as well as other football matters.

Football Focus are swamped by fans of both clubs inside Jim’s Bar, Highbury Stadium, Fleetwood

It was soon becoming apparent that the FA Cup means as much to the teams who enter at the first round proper, as it does to those who enter at the first qualifying round. The FA Cup offers the opportunity for clubs to punch above their weight, to prove to both their fans, their league and the public that they are not just a number within the football league or a passing point on a map. The chance to be able to play on the biggest stage against the most daunting of opponent is of huge appeal. More than one thousand Hereford fans had already arrived in Fleetwood, and it was clear it meant just as much to them as anybody.

One hour until kick-off, and fans of Hereford are arriving in droves. Banners and flags are placed over the top of railings on the terraces, Jim’s Bar is now completely full and standing, and the local fish-and chip shop is beginning to queue out of the door. On every corner of the ground, an echo of “Hereford FC, from the Cider Country” reaches round from passing fans heading into the turnstiles.

Fans of Hereford FC arrives at Fleetwood

45 minutes until kick off, and Hereford players run out of the tunnel from the dressing rooms beneath the main stand at Highbury to begin their warm up. Warm applause greets them as they set up in the half of the pitch next to the away stand. It takes a further ten minutes until Fleetwood Town come out to start their warm up and each team work their finely-tuned routines.

The away stand is really beginning to fill now as fans keenly away the 3pm kick-off. Meanwhile, on the pitch, Hereford’s manager Peter Beadle is watching Fleetwood Town’s warm up whilst managing his own squad as they prepare for the game. The sun is starting to set over the sea to the left of our stand, and long shadows are starting to form across the pitch form the Hereford players.

Pictured left, a fan applies a flag to the back of the away stand, whilst pictured right, a fan marks Hereford FC’s territory with a sticker for, at the very least, until about 4.45pm.

15 minutes until kick-off, and the whole stand is really beginning to move. The players have applauded the travelling fans and left the field to prepare for the match start, but fans are starting to up the pace as they place arms across each other’s shoulders and bounce up and down. A chorus of “Hereford FC, from the Cider Country” and “Come on you Bulls” roar from the standing terrace whilst Fleetwood Town fans gradually spill into the ground in the opposite end of the stadium.

(L-R) Fans applauding and chanting prior to kick-off, whilst other fans soak up the atmosphere

3pm, kick off. The players of both Fleetwood Town and Hereford line up side by side infront of the Highbury home stand and shake hands as part of the formalities. This is greeted with cheers and plenty of applause as proud Bulls fans make their feelings known to the squad of players. Immense pride but a sense that this is only the start for the next 90 minutes, go out and make it obvious that you deserve to be where you are.

Immediately, Fleetwood Town make their League One quality show with Hereford having to soak up pressure from the Cod Army as they look to open the scoring. Hereford look fairly comfortable at this point, applying pressure at the other end with a series of good runs but no product in the final third.

Fleetwood Town respond with shots from Wes Burns and Kyle Dempsey (pictured), but neither find the target.

3.23pm. Fleetwood Town clear a Hereford cross but the ball falls neatly to Keyon Reffell, who, with no other options passes square across the 18-yard box to Calvin Dinsley. Dinsley, with a right-footed strike, fires a curling effort through the box and plants it in the bottom left corner, beyond a helplessly flailing Fleetwood Town goalkeeper Chris Neal. The away stand absolutely erupts.

A thousand Hereford FC fans burst into a melee of cheers and screaming. Their team, a mere 89 places below Fleetwood Town in the football rankings, have gone 1–0 in the second round of the FA Cup, three years after reforming and coming back into existance. The atmosphere is electric and lasts for several minutes.

3.29pm. A Kyle Dempsey cross is met by the torso of Fleetwood Town striker Devante Cole and spirals into the corner of the goal.

Fleetwood Town have found their equaliser, and a despondency rattles through the away end as the ball is plucked out of the back of the net. Fleetwood’s celebrations are muted from the players, but Hereford fans are reminded that there is still over an hour to play and this definitely isn’t over. Cue more chants and cheers as the players regroup and begin all over again.

3.47pm. Having played 2 minutes of added time, the half time whistle is blown by the match referee and its time to take stock. The general chatter amongst the fans is one of positivity. Hereford have more than held their own during the first half, and for a team that is separated by four divisions, it is more than an admirable effort. Peter Beadle is currently giving his players a team-talk that could lead to one of the club’s most lucrative draws in its short reformed history.

As for the fans, a queue has already formed outside the food halt on the corner of the away end, and the smoking group has grown large on the opposite side as pensive fans smoke away their worries.

For the next 45 minutes, the tension becomes more and more palpable. There is an obvious anxiety that a Fleetwood goal at the other end would not only seal the game, but also break the heart of every Hereford FC fan in and not in attendence. The game is being broadcast live by ESPN and the BBC are producing extended highlights with detailed commentary. The eyes of the footballing world are watching to see how the small Herefordshire county town’s team from the Southern League Premier Division can cope with the pressure.

However, they continue to cope well. Hereford have their fair share of chances and only once or twice do Fleetwood break down either flank and look to take a lead in the game. A flurry of half-chances going amiss from Hereford before Fleetwood Town start to apply the pressure against tiring legs.

4.47pm. Fleetwood’s Ashley Hunter fires a shot from the edge of the box directly in front of goal. It’s the 90th minute of the match and it is still a goal-apiece. The shot is curling towards the bottom corner of the goal, out of the reach of Hereford’s despairing goalkeeper. The view from the away end is not a good one, and it all seems to be happening in slow motion. At the opposite end, the ball is swerving and continuing to bend towards the bottom right corner, right in front of the Fleetwood Town fans.

Thump. The ball fires back off the goal’s woodwork and back into the box where more Fleetwood players are waiting to pounce. It just did not swerve and curl quite enough, slicing through the box before smashing against the inside of the post. Finally it is cleared, but not after a thousand gasps of air are taken.

The nerves are jangling but the ball has already made it back up the other end of the pitch and Hereford’s Mike Symons is making waves on the right wing. Another cross is delivered and cleared… it just won’t happen in front of goal for Hereford.

More tackles are made, some good and some not so good. Hereford’s Dara O’Shea is hacked down by Aiden O’Neill of Fleetwood and that earns him a yellow card for his efforts.

Hereford have nearly survived the onslaught.

4.52pm. Full-time. The final whistle blows. A few nervous glances towards the scoreboard show that it is still 1–1. Hereford FC, of the seventh tier, have earned themselves a second round replay back at Edgar Street, their home ground. They are going to have to do it all again, but the odds will have definitely shortened.

Hereford FC’s Dara O’Shea poses for a photo with the flag of his home country of Ireland during the celebrations
Fans applaud as the players show their appreciation

The crowds of fans erupt once again. Pride overflows and the players applaud in return before posing for a photograph in front of the travelling fans. There is no belief that this means more to one party, the players, than that of the other, the fans. The fans of Hereford FC are as much a part of the club as anyone else. 50% shareholders in the club and this journey is there’s to savour too.

But now, there is the small matter of planning a mid-week FA Cup replay at Edgar Street. 5/1 odds of a draw may have seemed excessive but there was little to tell the difference between the two clubs on the pitch. Hereford, at the time of writing, are the second lowest-ranked team left in the entire competition.

And, on the evening of Monday 4th December, they will be ball №63 and hoping for the biggest mid-January Saturday of their lives in the FA Cup third round.

To be continued…