FA Trophy Preliminary Round
St Ives Town v Rugby Town
It’s a long way from Westwood Road to Wembley. Well, not literally. Sixty five miles down the A1 isn’t that far really – with a fair wind and some luck with the traffic you easily could be there in 90 minutes. But in footballing terms, the home ground of St Ives Town and the national stadium are light years apart.
On a bright Sunday afternoon in October, St Ives faced Rugby Town in the preliminary round of the FA Trophy, the main knockout competition for English non-league clubs. Teams entering the competition at this stage would need to win through nine rounds to reach the final next May. From here, Wembley seems very far away indeed.
But that’s why I’m here. My aim is to follow the competition from the earliest round through to the final, sticking with a team until they are knocked out, going to see their conquerors in the next round and so on. As unlikely as it might be, in theory I could follow St Ives or Rugby all the way to Wembley.
While the famous Wembley arch looms over west London and can be seen for miles, St Ives’ ground is hidden away behind the car park of the local leisure centre. If you didn’t know it was there, you, er, wouldn’t know it was there. Even my car’s sat-nav struggled to find it – directing me instead to a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, where I apparently ruined the local residents’ Sunday afternoon by doing a three-point turn outside their homes.
St Ives is evidently one of those places where people don’t like you to do three-point turns outside their homes. I could tell this by the number of “no turning” signs on driveways and by the passive-aggressive curtain twitching that resulted when I chose to ignore them. And there was quite a lot of this going on as I tried to negotiate my way round the town to find Westwood Road without the help of my Tom Tom.
With ten minutes to spare, I eventually found the ground, screened off from the leisure centre car park by trees. I paid my £8 at one of the two turnstiles located next to the Portacabin that houses the manager’s office/treatment room and made my way inside the ground. It was a hive of activity – with raffle tickets and programmes on sale as you enter and a steady stream of supporters wandering back and forth along the pitchside walkway, chatting and jousting with their football pals. The air was filled with a heady mix of Ralgex, hot fat and beer.
On the nearside of the ground was the main stand, basically a building with a small protruding roof that provides cover for the refreshment bar, a small seated area for the directors and the PA announcer. The building also houses the dressing rooms, boardroom and a large bar. The area in front, between the stand and the dugouts, had a small stall selling club merchandise – from badges costing £2.50 to a £40 jacket, as well as a selection of scarves, beanies, polo shirts etc. In the true community spirit of non-league football, these outlets – the food stall, the bar and the merchandise – were all manned by volunteers.
On the opposite side of the pitch, there were two stands. The larger – the Lance Everdell Stand – is a steel and brick structure with corrugated iron roof, painted black and white. It had three rows of plastic seats in a mish-mash of red and blue. (with a bundle of old seats piled up behind the stand). Alongside it was the Mick George Stand (sponsored by a local skip hire firm). Although it was considerably smaller, this was in better condition, with three rows of black and white seats. On the other side of the Everdell stand was a long, timber framed, metal covered shelter where standing fans can keep out of the rain.
St Ives, in black and white stripes, were led out by their captain, Luke Knight, the most hipster footballer I’ve ever seen, complete with beard, top-knot and copious tattoos. You suspect he had a craft beer and a brioche bun loaded with pulled pork and kimchi waiting for him at half-time. Despite all this, he was actually a decent player, an energetic midfield dynamo, whose playing style reminded me (very slightly) of Gaizka Mendieta. And it’s not often you can say that about players at level eight of the English pyramid system.
St Ives play in Division One Central of the Evo-Stik Southern League, which puts them seven stops below the Premier League. Today’s opponents, Rugby Town, are at the same level, Division One South of the Northern Premier League, so you would expect the teams to be fairly evenly matched.
The noisy away fans, gathered behind the goal their team was attacking, had a lot to cheer about initially. Rugby opened the scoring and looked well on top in the early part of the game. But the home team worked their way back into it and equalised through an excellent free kick. A second goal gave them a 2-1 half-time lead and there were plenty of smiles among the home supporters at the interval, although for some of them that may have had more to do with the pungent smell of herbal cigarettes wafting from behind the goal than the actual scoreline.
The match was generally being played in a good spirit, which is why it came as quite a surprise when it all got a bit heated following the half-time whistle. As the teams came off at half-time there was a mild altercation involving a few players, that prompted one brave home supporter, standing close to the tunnel, to yell “angry ginger!” at one of the visitors. The player – who to be fair was both ginger and angry – unexpectedly responded with a less than friendly “I’ll kick your fucking face in.” The fan’s sheepish, and frankly rather feeble, retort (“Oh, very appropriate,” delivered at just the right volume that everyone around him heard it, but the player heading for the dressing room didn’t) suggested that he wasn’t quite as brave as he’d first made out. Ah, the banter.
Drama over, it was time for the regulation half-time pie and Bovril. The drink was fine, certainly far better than the horrible muck I’d sampled at Boston Town a few weeks earlier. But the pie was thermonuclear hot, so much so it literally melted my plastic fork, and was inedible for most of the half-time break.
One of the little things about non-league football that I enjoy most is the PA announcer. Some are lethargic to the point of being catatonic, while others go to the opposite extreme, as if they imagine they are announcing the New York Knicks team at Madison Square Garden. Our host at Westwood Road was one of the latter, greeting each goal with an overexcited, elongated exclamation of the scorer’s name. So when the brilliantly named Charlie De’ath (apostrophe, player’s own) made it 4-1, we were treated to, “Goal for St Ives by… Charlie Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeath!!!!”
His approach was ever-so slightly undermined later, when a Rugby substitution was met with, “Sorry, I’ve no idea who came off.” Then as the final whistle approached he started playing random clips of music during the game. I’ve no idea if this was a mistake or a deliberate ploy to create more excitement. Either way it was annoying.
Meanwhile, Mr Ginger from earlier had clearly calmed down since half-time. As St Ives manager Ricky Marheineke (a dead-ringer for Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode) moaned at the referee about something, the Rugby number eight shouted at him, “Relax man, the game’s over”.
And despite the eight – EIGHT! – minutes of injury time, he was right, it was all over. The game ended 4-2 to St Ives and they were through… to the first qualifying round. There’s a long, long way to go to Wembley.