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From the Riverside to Wembley: The FA Cup Voyage

For many, the FA Cup begins in early November with the first round proper. For more, it does not begin until early January, when the Championship and Premiership teams enter the tournament. However, for the true lower league fans, the magic of the cup begins early in September. Before we even reach the first round proper, there are four qualifying rounds. The first of those qualifying rounds took place this weekend.

Being a Villa fan, I have to admit that I am no great expert on the true lower leagues. And by lower leagues, I don’t mean League 2. Not even the Conference (or the Blue Square Premiership as it has now been renamed to try and make it sound more professional). No, we are talking far lower. This weekend, an epic FA Cup adventure began. I decided to begin a voyage of discovery through the cup from the lowest levels of football in England, travelling throughout the country until this adventure ends at the home of football, the dream of all clubs entering the competition – Wembley. With almost 800 teams entering, the possibilities are endless.

So how is this adventure going to go? This weekend, I headed down to the Riverside Stadium (no, not the famous one) to see the first FA Cup match of the season – the mighty Thatcham Town taking on their local rivals, Thame United. In the second round of qualifying, I would head to watch the winning team. And so on. Each round, I would travel to see the side that I watched win in the previous round. And with each game, I would experience new grounds, see new teams, and potentially see a whole different side of the beautiful game than that which we see on the television.

The first stop was the Riverside Stadium in Thatcham. The first observation is that the name is a little misleading – there is a small waterway flowing by the stadium, but to call it a river is pushing things. However, despite this, the sun was shining on this early season fixture. The crowd was milling around in the approximately half a stand. Around 100 people had turned out for the fixture – not quite the 42,000 people that pack out Villa Park each week, but it has a certain charm.

The players emerged from the tunnel (despite barely having a stand, there was surprisingly a tunnel) into the bright sunshine and went through the ridiculous ceremony of the photographs and the handshakes. No recognisable names on the team-sheet, but rather the fans shouted to the likes of Will, Hughesy and Chappers, whilst discussing the half-time raffle – a prize of a £25 voucher for the local pub was a tempting prize for only a £1 ticket.

As the teams kicked off the game, the first noticeable thing was that the visitors – Thame United – had a giant of a player up front. A good four inches or so taller than any other player on the pitch, it was not difficult to predict their tactics. As I discovered, Alex Stewart was his name. But it was Thatcham who got off to a decent start, and thought they had taken the lead, until their early strike was ruled out for offside. It was at the far end of the pitch, and unsurprisingly there was no form of replay, so I have no idea whether it was actually offside or not. Another one of the joys of lower league football – there are no replays to prove the officials wrong.

However, the giant number 9 of Thame was causing problems for the Thatcham defence, and he should have given them the lead on 17 minutes, heading wide from a corner. Unsurprisingly, when the goal came, he was involved. A long free-kick was delivered into the area, he used his strength well to bring the ball down on his chest, before a beautiful piece of skill that would not have been out of place on Match of the Day. He flicked the ball over the head of the defender, before volleying beyond the reach of the keeper. Thatcham’s best chance came just before halftime when Cyprus-born sales assistant, Gareth, found himself unmarked in the Thame area, but headed the ball wide of the target.

Other than that, the football was a bit of a midfield battle. Plenty of long balls, but little in the way of quality. Not overly surprising really considering we are talking about the eighth tier of English football. And the happiest man of the day was the lucky chap who won the raffle. But a nice day out in the sun, and I’ll be eagerly waiting for the 25th September, when the next stage of the adventure begins. I’ll be off to see Thame United, but where and against whom is still a mystery.

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