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December 5, 2004

Stream Of Consciousness: FA Cup Special Edition


by @ 1:41 pm.
Filed under Stream Of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness: Hinckley United v Brentford – FA Cup 2nd Round

Apart from an FC Dallas match, or a USA World Cup match, there is no better soccer to my way of thinking than an FA Cup match featuring a huge underdog. Take Hinckley for instance. Tiny town, non-League club (Conference North, to be precise, which doesn’t even have a parallel in American sports, I don’t think, unless your town has a semi-pro American-style football team), small ground, rabid supporters, and a chance at glory and riches, and maybe even a match with Manchester United. You can’t get much better than that.

If Hinckley make it to the 3rd round, the fortunes of the club change dramatically. A huge influx of money, primarily, plus incalculable benefits from publicity and national exposure in England. This means they can buy more players, pay for their nearly-completed new stadium (the current ground, Middlefield Lane, known as “The Chicken Shed”, can barely be called a stadium at all; balls that go out of touch often leave the property entirely). The added money increases the possibility of promotion to the regular Conference, still semi-pro, which would be the equivalent of Rookie-League or somewhere beneath “A” baseball in this country. Then of course, they shoot for the big jump, to League Football. First to League 2, and, if the soccer gods smile on them, to League 1 or even the the Coca-Cola League, or, dare we say it, the Premiership in a decade or two. All because of one match on one raw December day.

Personnel-wise, we’re talking a collection of older guys who may have spent time with big clubs in their youth, young guys who want to make it big, but probably won’t, and pure lovers of the game who just want to keep playing, at any level, as long as their bodies will allow. Most of them have regular jobs; no team in Conference North has funds to pay more than one or two full-timers.

Brentford, on the other hand, are in League 1, only two levels below the Premier League. These are mostly professionals, albeit not the high-salaried type. They too are a collection of journeymen and prospects, much like Hinckley, but with better hopes for the future, more money, and a true professional atmosphere. The FA Cup is important, but not supremely important in their lives. Some of the players may even see the whole idea of traveling from west London out to the boondocks for a 2nd round FA Cup match as beneath them. They may see it as an unwelcome interruption to their regular schedules, and as a risk of injury that will sideline or even end their careers. But, as professionals, they have pride, and the last thing they want is to be humiliated by a team that doesn’t even have League status.

The field is muddy, the weather dry but overcast and cold, and the crowd, though small, is extremely vocal. The regulars who sit behind the Hinckley bench chat amiably with the manager, who chats right back, and probably knows them by name. Hinckley come out playing very well, defending fiercely and getting two excellent chances in the first half. One was a header which had to be cleared of the line by a defender, and the other was parried by the keeper in a goalmouth scramble.

These types of matches happen every year for some fortunate small-town club. For a non-league club like Hinckley, the road begins way back in August, with innumerable qualifying matches that have to be won merely to get into the 1st round draw. This means less time spent training and healing, more time off from “real” jobs, and less energy for conference matches, which can’t neglected too much, lest the team be relegated even further down the English Football food chain. They currently stand mid-table in Conference North, but have several games in hand, and aren’t by any means out of the hunt for a promotion playoff spot.

No goals at halftime. This in itself is a victory for Hinckley. The problem becomes one of stamina in the second half, where Brentford’s professional training will begin to tell. Hinckley will be relying on guts, pride, and home-field advantage.

The average Hinckley home attendance of roughly 500 supporters has quintupled for this match, and, probably for the first time in the club’s history, some were even turned away. Every fan is within a few feet of the field, and there’s even a small contingent of Brentford fans down in one corner.

Brentford have the better of the early second-half action, but Hinckley aren’t backing off even a bit. Really, though, a draw would be a good result for Hinckley, because it would mean a replay at Brentford and more money in the bank. But a home win and a trip to the 3rd round would be magical, and I suspect playing for a draw wasn’t even discussed in the locker room.

Horrible break for Hinckley in the 54th minute. A questionable handball call gives Brentford a penalty kick. John Salako, who at one time played for England, and has been to a World Cup, lines up to take the shot.

HA! He misses to the right! Hits it with his left foot and sends it two feet wide! You’ve never heard 2,000 people make so much noise in your entire life. It sounded like 20,000, easily. Incredible.

Paul Barnes, 37 years old and who spent years in League football, nearly scores twice for Hinckley in the span of a minute. First on an outside-of-the-foot flick from six yards out; deflected narrowly wide, and then on a volley from a flicked-on header from no more than six feet out, barely pushed aside by the shin of the Brentford keeper.

The sun is starting to peak out at the Chicken Shed. Maybe it’s a good omen for the home team.

One certainly doesn’t get the sense that Hinckley are outclassed in this match. The play has been even, and indeed Hinckley have clearly had the more dangerous chances. Right now they’re really pressing Brentford, nearly scoring an olimpico from John Byrnes’s corner. Byrnes, who was once an Irish U-21 international, celebrated his 27th birthday yesterday. This could be the best birthday present ever.

I also don’t get the sense that fitness is an issue for Hinckley, either. With three minutes to go, they haven’t lost much pace at all. This is a team that trains at night, mind you, with the majority of the players having put in a full day’s work as plumbers, medical supply salesman, and the like. Whether it’s actual fitness, or just adrenaline, they’ve acquitted themselves nicely.

Stoppage time, and a corner for Brentford. Tommy Whittle, the 22 year old keeper, looks like a pro, coming off his line and skying to collect the ball about eight yards out.

Full time, and a scoreless draw for Hinckley. They’ll travel to London for the replay in a week or so. I hope it’s on Fox Sports World. I’m checking the Tivo listings as soon as I’m finished typing; you know it’ll be on my to-do list if it’s on.

I may actually like these kinds of games better than FC Dallas or USA matches, because I can watch with pure joy, without the stomach-churning and fear-of-doom type of feelings that invariably accompany them. This is pure unadulterated soccer goodness in all its glory.

I love this game, though, wherever it’s played.

See you next time.

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