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The Beauty of the FA Cup – Non League Style

This midweek sees a raft of FA Cup 1st round replays taking place up and down the country. Fans of Stourbridge, Maidenhead United and Bath City in particular will be dreaming of taking a famous league scalp in the shape of Plymouth, Aldershot and Dagenham & Redbridge respectively and simultaneously booking their place in the 2nd round proper. Oxford City & Redbridge, Tamworth & Hinckley United and Wrexham and Cambridge United fans will also be dreaming of being only a step away from the really big time and possible Premier League glory. It’s such an exciting time to be a fan of a Non League side, and in my 15 years plus of watching Hendon, I have been lucky enough to enjoy some fantastic times.

The best of these times came 14 years ago this week when the Greens took on Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road in a 1st Round replay. On a misty Saturday afternoon at Claremont Road 10 days previously in what was a North London derby, 2,421 people witnessed an entertaining 2-2 draw. Colin Simpson was the Hendon hero that afternoon with a pair of goals, the first charging down a Paul Hyde clearance and the second a simple far post header that led to our second charge. Following the first match, Orient manager Tommy Taylor was heard to say that they would win the replay 5-0 and also ‘tapped up’ Simpson, offering him a move into Division 3. Simpson went after Hendon’s FA Cup exit and was replaced by Paul Whitmarsh, the best striker bar none I have seen regularly for Hendon .

Hendon boss Frank Murphy must have thanked his opposite number post replay for saving him the bother of the motivational pep-talk as Junior Lewis’ 2nd half header from John Simon-White’s cross gave Hendon only their 2nd ever league scalp and a 2nd round visit to Ninian Park and Cardiff City. It was a famous evening that has gone down in folklore, current Hendon managerial pair Gary McCann and Freddie Hyatt both played key roles in the win, McCann with a number of excellent saves and Hyatt with a wonderful shimmy and step-over in the build up to the winner. John Murray and John McGovern of Radio 5 Live were there to witness the memorable scenes, providing live commentary on the 2nd half before heading off to Basingstoke Town for extra time and penalties of their own shock win over Wycombe Wanderers.

The previous season, under the stewardship of former Watford FA Cup Finalist Neil Price, had seen us reach the 1st round for the first time since a 1988 visit to Elm Park, Reading, and visit Ninian Park for the first time. Although Hendon battled hard, they were easily beaten 2-0 by Cardiff City. 12 and a half months later, with a giant slaying under their belts confidence was high that we could go one better upon our return to the Principality’s Capital. Alas, we didn’t really get started and found ourselves 3-0 down at half time. ITVs London Tonight cameras had followed the side up the M4 and famously forgot to bleep out one or two f*cks from Frank Murphy’s half time teamtalk and must have been responsible for a few heart attacks in the Capital and surrounding counties. Current Hayes & Yeading United boss Nas Bashir scored a belter from the edge of the box late on to give the scoreline some respectability and we fans left Wales proud as punch and trying in vain to get through to 6-0-6.

The following season, once again we reached the 1st round proper and drew Sam Allardyce’s Notts County side at home. They had just sold Jermaine Pennant to Arsenal and were sat comfortably in the middle of the 3rd tier. Hendon, with Paul Whitmarsh and Junior Lewis scoring a ridiculous number of goals between them were keen to make it two home matches unbeaten against League opposition. And so it proved. With a strong wind behind them in the first period, they pummelled and peppered the visitor’s goal. Gonad grabbing midfielder Mark Pye sent a chip onto the roof of the County net whilst Whitmarsh sent a beautiful curling effort bouncing away off the far post. Despite our best efforts though, the goal wouldn’t come. In the 2nd half, the visitors came at us strongly but we held out fairly comfortably in the end to take the tie to a replay.

After being encompassed in thick fog upon our arrival at Meadow Lane and finding the game had been postponed 10 days later, we returned a further week on and although gave a fair account of ourselves, found our famous hosts were far too strong and professional for the Hendon lads and a couple of late goals added a little gloss to their 3-0 win. Still, it had been a hell of an achievement and gave us all a taste for more.

And more we got as we approached the millennium. The 1st round of the 1999/2000 season saw us travel to Paul Bodin’s Bath City, who although playing at the equivalent level to Hendon in the Southern League Premier Division, were the only side in the top 6 tiers of English football to still boast an unbeaten record (something that we were reminded of all too often during half time). A torrential downpour did little to dampen spirits. The two skippers in opposition were both centre halves, and brothers. Paul and Colin Towler added a little kiss and a cuddle to the pre-match handshake and we were soon off and running. As the game approached its final stages it was still goalless, the home side had probably had the better of things, but Hendon had defended superbly.

Two substitutes provided the ammunition to smooth Hendon’s path into the 2nd round late on. First of all, Jason McKoy got past Bodin and delivered a cross for Dominic Gentle to launch himself at and direct a diving header into the bottom corner of the net. Then, with the match entering a 4th minute of stoppage time Gentle sent former Bulgarian World Cup star™ Bontcho Guentchev through on goal and he simply stroked the ball past Elliott Jackson in the Bath goal to seal another famous win. Unbeaten run over, and onwards to Nigel Worthington’s Blackpool in the 2nd round.

It was cold up on the North West coast that December afternoon. Cold, windy and stood on the most barren of terraces I’ve ever been. Even more so that at East Thurrock or Canvey Island. Guentchev had done enough to garner himself a start, and had been at the centre of much of the pre-match hype and media coverage. He was outstanding and with the game still locked at 0-0 was denied by the crossbar (a 30 yard curler) and then a fingertip save from Phil Barnes (an overhead kick). If either chance had gone in, who knows what would have happened. As it was, quick 2nd half goals from Phil Clarkson and then John Durnin sealed the Seasiders passage into the 3rd round and mortifyingly, a trip to Highbury – a ground where Hendon hold a 100% record over Arsenal in Cup matches. Gutting, absolutely gutting.

And that has been about as good as it has got. In 2000/1 we hosted Dagenham & Redbridge, by then of the Conference in the final qualifying round but were soundly beaten 3-1 and since then, we have reached that stage on just four occasions, conceding 5 against Stevenage (2004), Woking (2009) and Luton Town (2011), whilst beating Met Police last season and drawing Chelmsford City in round 1. As one Greens fan commented, that was a draw that had all of the difficulty of a league club away and absolutely none of the glamour.

So my advice to fans of those Non League fans preparing themselves for the big night. Dream away, dream long and never lose hope. Strange things happen in FA Cup football, that’s what makes it so brilliant in the early stages. Most of all though, enjoy it while you can because as much as you might want it to, it’s not going to last forever. Good luck to all involved, I hope there are some very happy people around country come 10pm tonight and tomorrow.