Third Time Round… and More to Come
I’ve been to three Cup Finals with United at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, winning the Double on each occasion and, whilst I was never blind to the manifest flaws of the decrepit old pile, I am thankful for the experience of taking part in such an historic occasion.
But some of my most memorable FA Cup experiences have been at the other end of the competition, with the non-Leaguer’s Cup Final, the Fourth Qualifying Round and, occasionally, their prize of a place in the early rounds of the Cup proper.
There have been two spells in my life when I’ve been an active, avid fan of Droylsden FC, a long-standing semi-professional club lying to the east of Manchester. From 1969 to 1980, and again from 1995 to 2003, I was a regular at The Butchers Arms ground on Market Street, and for the last five years of that second spell I was the editor and main contributor for the match-day programme. But I’d given up that role, and stopped going regularly (after a bust-up with owner/chairman/manager Dave Pace) by 2008, when the club finally emulated its late seventies success and got through to the FA Cup proper.
It was only the eighth time ever that the Bloods had even reached the Fourth Qualifying Round, four of those occasions coming in a five year spell in the late Seventies, two more in 1998 and 1999, and the most recent the previous season, when Droylsden had been humiliatingly knocked out by a non-League team two levels below them. I’d seen three of those ties, defeats all: on the three previous occasions we’d gotten through to the First Round, I’d been missing (the first time because the game clashed with my 21st birthday, and I wasn’t allowed to miss the party).
I’d been to the five games we’d played in the Cup Proper, and it was saddening that, with the Bloods drawn to play away at Darlington, I was forced to break my record because of the cost of petrol for the trip. But Droylsden achieved a creditable 0-0 draw, and my wife and I were at the replay, which we won 1-0 (though I missed the goal, the Bloods having the bad grace to score it whilst I was at the tea bar, getting refreshments for us). The reward, as we already knew, was an away trip to Chesterfield in the Second Round, the barrier before the opportunity of the highest in the land, the tie to be played on Saturday 29 November.
We set off from Manchester on a cold, misty afternoon, but found cool, clear skies once we had gotten onto the moors between Manchester and Derbyshire. But as soon as we began to descend towards Chesterfield, it was clear that the ground fog was thick in the valley, and we grew increasingly concerned that the fog would be to thick, and the game postponed. By the time we reached the centre of Chesterfield, and were struggling through Saturday afternoon traffic to find Saltergate, it seemed impossible for the match to go on. But once we’d found parking, and walked back, then walked round three-quarters of the ground to find the Away end entrances, the game had started. We found our old mates behind the goal.
The Bloods were defending the Away end. The scene was amazing: we could only see to the half-way line, and if the action was in the Chesterfield half, we could neither see nor hear anything of what was going on. Presumably the referee could see the goalposts at either end from the halfway line, which is, as I understand it, the criterion for starting a game, but it was absurd and surreal that the match should have been played in those conditions at all. Only those supporters sat or stood on the halfway line could have seen any kind of play developing: supporters at either end could only see what went on in their half of the field.
I’ve never seen anything like it when at the football. The only comparable situation, to which my mind flashed back instantly, was an early Seventies midweek European game featuring Leeds, which had been played in conditions of thick fog, during which play had been suspended for 25 minutes in the (realised) hope that the fog would lighten. Before this, the fog was so bad that the TV cameras could not pick up anything beyond a line about ten yards in from the further touchline, leading in turn to the surreal moment when the commentator had to announce, “And the ball’s gone out to Eddie Gray on the Leeds left, at least we assume it’s Gray, we cannot see the player but that’s where he should be…”
The proof of the abnormality of the situation came after 35 minutes, when Droylsden took the lead, and the first we (and our goalkeeper) knew of it was when celebrating players crossed the halfway line on their way back for the kick-off (the goal itself was barely visible on the BBC cameras for that tiny flash on MOTD that night).
At half-time we were still ahead, the Bloods’ goal having been in no real danger yet. The interval was, understandably, quiet, marooned in our little segment of visibility, but initial enthusiasm started to turn to concern when the interval carried on longer than it should have, and talk started to turn to the fear that the match was being abandoned. Then players and coaches appeared out of the mist to tell us that that was indeed the case. Just about visible, in front of the Main Stand in our half, a raging argument was going on between Pacey, the referee and their Chairman, but to no avail. Pacey accused the referee of giving in to pressure to abandon because Droylsden were ahead, that the game would have gone on if Chesterfield were leading. I’ve no doubt but that he was right. The honest truth was that that game should never have been started, that it was being played in conditions that were impossible, especially for the spectators who had paid £10 a head to ‘watch’ the match, but that as the situation had not deteriorated one bit during half-time, if the game was fit to play in the first half, it should have continued.
But there was no arguing: the game was abandoned, and was re-scheduled for Tuesday week, December 9, at 7.30pm. Chesterfield, to their credit, announced that entry to the second game would only be £1.
So, on a cold Tuesday night, we left Manchester as soon as I got home from work, drove through a cold, frosty night, parked in the same car park, walked the same long walk and were inside and joining our mates a couple of minutes after kick-off.
There was no fog tonight, everything was cold, crisp and clear. Unfortunately, as we had suspected would be the case, it was Chesterfield who got on top, and were 1-0 up at half-time. However, a short cross from the left and a superb glancing header put us level early in the second half. Then, with twenty minutes to go, the tie descended into the bizarre again.
Chesterfield player was down inside our half, and our defence, obligingly, put the ball out for a throw-in about thirty yards from goal. Treatment over, play resumed. The ball was thrown to Chesterfield’s no. 9, who I shall not name (but he knows who he is), who took one step with the ball, shaped to knock it to our keeper, then dug his foot under the ball and lofted it over his head into the net.
There was instant fury. We were howling with anger and rage, but our fury was mild and restrained compared to the Droylsden bench, who instantly charged Chesterfield’s bench. It was a mini-riot, and how the entire bench – especially Pacey – escaped being red-carded, I don’t know. I can only assume that the referee took account of the unusual provocation and made allowances.
The problem was, the goal was perfectly legal. It stood. Chesterfield have always maintained it was an accident on their striker’s part but, I’m sorry, there were no visibility problems that night, and I’ve watched enough football to know when someone means something, and that guy meant it.
It was a full five minutes before the game resumed, during which there was much discussion as to what should and would happen. But, credit again to Chesterfield, when the game kicked-off once more in an atmosphere of not-very muted tension and resentment, the ball was rolled forward, Droylsden’s skipper, Steve Halford, collected it and, with the Chesterfield team standing around casually, he jogged down the pitch with it, walked it past the keeper and knocked it into the net. It was only justice, but to actually watch that happen only heightened the surreality of the whole event. No matter how justified it might be, seeing an entire side step back like that felt curiously wrong, as if the very spirit of the game was being overturned.
It ended 2-2, and a replay was duly arranged at the Butcher’s Arms the following Tuesday night, December 16. Sean Newton, the Droylsden left back, received a yellow card during the game. This may seem irrelevant, but bear that in mind.
Surely the game would be completed at the third attempt, and one or other of the two sides would go through to meet Ipswich Town away in the Third Round. The Third Round: that’s what everyone was playing for.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be the Bloods. This time the gulf in quality between Blue Square North and League Two counted. Chesterfield were 2-0 with eighteen minutes to play, and looking far more likely to extend their lead than Droylsden were to cut into it. Then the floodlights failed.
This was the fourth time this had happened to me, although the previous examples included one set of floodlights failing to come on at half-time, and one side of Old Trafford losing all its electricity literally seconds after the final whistle. It’s weird. Your first instinct, strangely enough, is to laugh. one moment, the game is in progress under lights, the next, in utter silence, the world changes abruptly and you can’t see a thing. It had happened once, a few years earlier, away to Ashton United, when we were 2-0 up with thirteen minutes left to play (the game was abandoned and we lost when it was played again).
A fuse had blown, affecting not just the floodlights, but the whole ground: the Social Club were stuffed, the electric beerpumps wouldn’t work! And the game had to be abandoned, with the Chesterfield fans furious, and throwing around accusations that we’d switched the power off to avoid being beaten. Exactly as we’d said about Ashton when the lights went out at Hurst Fold, though it was clear that the entire area had been hit with a power cut.
So a fourth game was now required, to be played at the Butchers Arms, the following Tuesday night, 23 December. It could have been arranged for Monday night. If it had, maybe the strangeness of this whole tie might have ended there.
Until the Police first insisted, in 1992, on having ten days notice before providing the statutory cover for football matches, FA Cup ties had to be replayed to a result. At least every other year, there would be one tie in which three, sometimes four replays were required before one of two exhausted teams, now playing every other night, caved in and lost. In the Seventies and before, all replays after the First had to be on neutral grounds. This tie had assumed the proportions of one of those fabulous dinosaurs, and I don’t know what it was like for fans in that era, who knew this was on the cards, but in the Noughties this was unreal. We seemed to be doing nothing except play Chesterfield, and it was now only days before Christmas, with the Third Round on the first Saturday in January. It had to be settled tonight, extra-time and penalties of needed, but given the history of the tie so far, what else might happen?
The Chesterfield fans turned up super-disgruntled, their complaints abut the probable fraud over the floodlights exacerbated by the fact we were charging £5 for entry at the gate after they’d charged only £1 when it was their turn. You can’t blame them, really, although our economics were different to theirs.
However, they were jubilant about half an hour in when our keeper dallied over a back-pass, allowed that **** of a number 9 to charge the kick down, the ball rebounding into the net. Our despair was short-lived because, within ten minutes, Sean Newton, advancing into their half, drilled home a brilliant thirty-yard daisy cutter into the bottom corner.
I’d taken my wife’s mobile phone along to update her as to developments, so this called for a loud, jubilant call to roar about the equaliser, but it was nothing to the incident in the second half, abut an hour into the game, when there was a foul in the area and we were awarded a penalty. I was on the phone immediately, to give live commentary, with an exultant roar as Sean Newton blasted the ball into the net to give us the lead. And for all Chesterfield’s efforts, we refused to give way, and the final whistle, the very very very long overdue final whistle, we were through to the third Round Proper, for the first time ever in the club’s 100 plus years history. “Are you ready for a trip to Ipswich?” I husked down the phone to my wife, who came from East Anglia in the first place.
At last it was over, after four games or almost-games over 24 days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
We went to bed not that long after I got home. If we’d sat up, and had been on the Droylsden Message Board at about 12.30am, we’d have had the first inklings that this tie was continuing to wreak havoc with everyone’s lives.
Sean Newton’s yellow card, collected a fortnight earlier at Saltergate, in a game that was only being played because of the fog abandonment, was his fifth of the season. Once this was reported, the FA notified Droylsden that Newton was suspended for one match taking place after Monday 22 December, in accordance with standard rules. The Club received this fax on Monday 15 December, checked the first list, acknowledged the suspension and confirmed that this would be applied to the Club’s match on 26 December, away to Vauxhall Motors. The following night, the floodlights had failed and the Club suddenly had an extra match pitchforked into its schedule. Like I said, it could have been played on Monday 22nd or Tuesday 23rd, and, presumably in the interests of extra recovery time from the weekend’s league game, the Club went for Tuesday. The day Newton’s suspension came into effect. In the fuss and bother of arranging yet another meeting, no-one noticed. Until after the match on Tuesday night.
Droylsden had played an ineligible player. What’s worse, he’d only gone and scored both the bloody goals we’d won by.
It was an accident, a calamitous accident, an all-too-easy oversight, but intentions are irrelevant in that kind of situation. The moment I learned of this blunder, I knew that we would be expelled from the Cup, and that Chesterfield would be reinstated and would play Ipswich in the Third Round. Any other outcome was impossible.
A lot of people refused to accept that. It was an accident, we could have played Monday night and he’d have been eligible, we’d already agreed with the FA which match he was going to be suspended for, Chesterfield were trying to cheat us after we’d beaten them fair and square. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair.They were all deluding themselves, unable to accept that, through our own fault, we had disqualified ourselves from this magical, once-in-a-lifetime achievement. One of those was Dave Pace, appealing against the FA’s decision and, of course, losing.
Chesterfield played Ipswich Town at Portman Road on Saturday 3 January 2009, and lost 3-0.
It was the final touch of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot insanity that, given everything that had happend in that tie, we should have seen coming. Winning the tie, in the end, was never going to be the end. It would have been a complete anti-climax if it had been.
I’ve drifted completely away from Droylsden since then. In 2010, they made it to the Second Round Proper again, forcing a replay away to Leyton Orient, and leading 2-0 only to be overrun and lose 8-2, the last six goals coming in extra-time. Currently, they’re second bottom of Blue Square North, have lost their last two home games by an aggregate of 0-12, are nine points from safety having played more games, and being kept off the bottom only by a club under financial restrictions, unable to play anyone other than Juniors. A return to the Evo-Stik (Northern Premier) League is all but guaranteed. It’s a far cry from the year the Bloods technically made it into the Third Round, but when they did, I was there.