Welcome to The Underdog Blog

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog.

Since starting out in the FA First Qualifying Round at the beginning of the 2014/15 season, we’ve seen Phil Neville, missed kick-off while jogging by a canal, visited a Club that no longer exists, missed kick off while jogging through a park, met a Chairman who saved the life of a fellow board member, missed kick off by being on honeymoon and much, much more.

If you enjoy your visit, please click follow to get every new post delivered direct to your inbox. It’s also nice to share, so why not recommend us to a friend or direct people this way via Facebook or Twitter.

You could start at the very beginning or just delve in and enjoy. They’re all here:

The Underdog Blog: An (updated) Introduction (2015/16)

FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round: Penistone Church FC vs Pontefract Collieries FC

FA Cup Preliminary Round: North Shields FC vs Kendal Town FC

FA Cup First Qualifying Round: Glossop North End AFC vs Skelmersdale United FC

FA Cup Second Qualifying Round: Salford City FC vs Curzon Ashton FC

FA Cup Third Qualifying Round: Sporting Khalsa FC vs Spalding United FC (sort of)

FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round: AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC

FA Cup First Round: Gainsborough Trinity FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

FA Cup Second Round: Grimsby Town FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

FA Cup Third Round: Everton FC vs Dagenham and Redbridge FC

FA Cup Fourth Round: Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC

FA Cup Fifth Round: Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC

FA Cup Sixth Round: Arsenal FC vs Watford FC


The Underdog Blog: An Introduction (2014/15)

FA Cup First Qualifying Round: Salford City FC vs Nantwich Town FC

FA Cup Second Qualifying Round: Ilkeston FC vs Solihull Moors FC

FA Cup Third Qualifying Round Replay: Warrington Town FC vs Colwyn Bay FC

FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round: Chelmsford City FC vs Barnet FC

FA Cup First Round: Norton United FC vs Gateshead FC

FA Cup Second Round: Barnsley FC vs Chester FC

FA Cup Second Round Replay: Chester FC vs Barnsley FC

FA Cup Third Round: Tranmere Rovers FC vs Swansea City FC

FA Cup Fourth Round: Rochdale AFC vs Stoke City FC

FA Cup Fourth Round Replay: Fulham FC vs Sunderland AFC

FA Cup Fifth Round: West Bromwich Albion FC vs West Ham United FC

FA Cup Sixth Round: Bradford City AFC vs Reading FC

FA Cup Semi Final(s): Reading FC vs Arsenal FC/Aston Villa FC vs Liverpool FC

FA Cup Final and Season Review


MLS: New York Red Bulls FC vs New York City FC: The First Ever New York Derby


We’ve been a bit quiet recently…

…and with good reason, too. Hello, and welcome back to The Underdog Blog.

If your memory is hazy, we’re the humorous and insightful football website that followed ‘underdogs’ through the FA Cup for a few years. We had a really brilliant time meeting fans, players, managers and even the occasional Chairman on our path through the winding road to Wembley.

Hungry for something more long term, we spent 2016/17 following one underdog in particular – New Mills AFC.

New Mills rose to unwelcome national prominence after several rather unnecessary media stories labelled them ‘the worst team in England’ for their failure to win a single game in the 2015/16 campaign. So, from the beginning of last season, we had full access to follow them as they attempted to bounce back in the ninth tier.

If you’re thinking ‘that sounds like a brilliant idea for a book’ then, firstly, thank you for allowing me to channel your subconscious to link to my next point because, yes indeed, it does.

‘How might I get my hands on such a book?’ I also hear you cry (internally). I’ve got an answer for that as well.

The marvellous team at Unbound also liked this idea and so now we’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign to make Winless: My Year With Football’s Ultimate Underdogs a reality.

There are lots of brilliant pledge levels to get involved in from the entry level tenner to get hold of the Digital version right up to placing a banner advert at New Mills’ Church Lane home for the season! You can also pledge to come along to the book’s launch party, watch a game in VIP with me or have me perform stand-up comedy in your living room.

If you’ve enjoyed our writing for free in the past, I would hugely appreciate it if you might consider making a pledge to help realise this project and bag yourself a beautiful hardback book about a very special football team.

All the details are here.



FA Cup Sixth Round: Arsenal FC vs Watford FC


Arsenal FC vs Watford FC

FA Cup Sixth Round

Sunday 13th March 2016

The Emirates Stadium, London


“It’s five letters with a little comma in the air, he’s got black hair and I think it’s either Sunderland or Southampton,” ponders my seven-year-old son in the passenger seat. We’re an hour down the M1 keeping ourselves entertained with a new game he’s downloaded to his Kindle.

After gently introducing him to the beautiful game over the last couple of years, he’s now an unbridled addict. Narrowing a home jersey down to two is just a glimpse of his newfound footballing knowledge.

Only yesterday, he took a break from the bouncy castle at our goddaughter’s first birthday party to show off his Match Attax cards to the group of Dads. We encouraged him to rejoin the other kids as he began to leaf through two or three Adam Johnson ‘swaps’ he’d presumably acquired from more streetwise collectors on the playground.

“An apostrophe? John O’Shea?” I ask. “YES! I didn’t even have to show you that one!” he replies with delight as the footballing cross between Guess Who? and Hangman rewards him with more points. Developing the ability to identify Irish internationals without even taking your eyes off the road; quite literally life in the fast lane.

Eight teams now had Wembley in sight, making our choice of game ever more narrow. With Everton, Chelsea, Man. United and West Ham all separated by just 11pts, there wasn’t much scope for an ‘upset’ there. With Palace visiting Reading, the only side remaining from outside the top flight following Arsenal’s competent dismantling of Hull in midweek, there was an obvious choice. We had other ideas.

“I’ve just seen someone in an Arsenal shirt,” my son says as I balk at the prospect of paying twenty quid to park half a mile from the ground. I think of the Sky Football trailer where a bunch of cheerful fans plonk their car on a road in view of the Emirates and head towards the floodlights. Whoever wrote it has clearly never been to the football in their life.


“We’ll be seeing a few of those today,” I tell him, as I register the distaste he’s already picked up from me via osmosis. “Try not to pull that face when you see one or we’ll end up getting our heads kicked in.”

Committing to go to every round of the FA Cup is a ridiculous thing. To do so for a second season, after your most fearsome rivals lift the trophy twice in a row, is a form of self-harm. With Tottenham’s promising route to Wembley abruptly halted by an out-of-form Crystal Palace, the BBC PR Department’s ‘anything can happen’ was in full effect. A shame we couldn’t have found a few more upsets since the Extra Preliminary Round, then.

Having turned down a Villa ticket to effectively complete our FA Cup journey, there was plenty of motivation for getting behind today’s visitors. Watford are a side I’ve always quite liked without ever really having a connection to. Growing up with mates of every London club from Arsenal and West Ham to QPR and Brentford, there was that sense of guarded kinship that football rivalry brings from an early age. Not so much with the Hornets, whose M1 exit we pass some half an hour before arriving in actual North London.

Also making the short trip to the Capital is Mike Parkin. A host of popular Watford podcast From The Rookery End, he’s just the chap I need to get the inside view on Watford’s impressive first season back in the top flight:

“We moved down to the area when I was 8 or 9,” he tells me, while making a cup of tea early on Sunday morning. “My Dad’s actually a Geordie but, on the basis that we never moving back up there, we started supporting Watford as a family. My first game was an FA Cup replay against Walsall that ended 4-4 in 86/87. It’s not difficult to see how me and my brother got hooked. Unfortunately, our next game was the semi-final at Villa Park where we got thumped 4-1 by Tottenham. That’s almost 30 years ago and we’ve been season ticket holders for most of the time since.”

I quickly discover Mike and I have something in common. Keen to turn his football addiction into something creative, he became involved in the ‘…Rookery End’ podcast six years ago.

He continues: “We spend a lot of time watching it, talking about it with mates and getting annoyed about it so I thought it might be quite cathartic to have the opportunity to talk about the game and your feelings rather than the usual football fan thing of letting them fester away and taking it out on other people.”

It’s an interesting observation, and also something I recognise in myself without having realised it before.

“Watford were in the doldrums financially when we first set it up,” he adds, “so it gave us something else to think about. It’s nice to take your mind off things when it’s going a bit crap! We shared a couple of episodes with the Club and they really liked it. From an early stage they could see we weren’t there to take the piss or make the players look silly. There’s people who work at Watford who care very deeply for the Club and know what it means to the community.

“We started out with just an iPhone; I don’t know how many other Clubs would let three middle-aged guys loose with their players and an iPhone! We’ve looked at the Academy, the Ladies’ Team, spent a day with the Club photographer. We’ve had sit-downs with players, managers – including Gianfranco Zola which was unbelievable. He just had that special aura about him. The guy’s played with Maradona for heaven’s sake!

“But the best thing about it has been the people we’ve met – not just Watford fans but opposition supporters too. From a social side of things, it’s been incredible.”

Mike’s praise for his local team seems to fit with my perception of Watford as being a Club that’s maintained a healthy relationship with the fans through good times and bad. It’s certainly a lesson a few of their Premier League rivals could learn from.

He continues: “A lot of teams call themselves a family club but at Watford that was woven into the very fabric of the organisation. They’ve gone through lots of different guises since Taylor and Elton John were steering things but, whoever’s been in charge since, the one thing they’ve recognised is that they can’t balls up that link between the Club, the community and the supporters.

“Even the guys they’re signing now from La Liga and Serie A are still expected to do the community stuff. Watford is a small place, 90,000 people, and 9,000 are going to Arsenal today. 10% of the population. We’re very proud of our little club, because that’s what we are.”

And that loyal fanbase has had plenty to cheer about since Watford lost just one of their final fourteen Championship games to seal automatic promotion last May:

“It’s been magnificent,” Mike tells me. “As Watford fans, we thought we had a decent chance of staying up. We knew it would be a battle and a fight but it’ll be interesting now to see where we end up. There was a bit of concern about the change of manager with Jokanovic not starting the season. Sanches Flores had done well, winning the Europa League and was well-respected. He made us tough to beat and defensively solid very quickly which was our main concern last season.

“Deeney and Ighalo have managed to get that partnership going for most of the season but it’s been extraordinary. It’s very difficult to keep things in perspective because it’s happened so quickly for us. We’ve gone from almost being bankrupt four years ago to being a decent Premier League side. It’ll be interesting to see how Watford fans keep a lid on their expectations, but also how far we can go.

“The Pozzo’s have an extraordinary scouting network that takes in places other Clubs don’t go. Alexis Sanchez is the poster boy for that after they took him to Udinese. The future looks really bright and exciting.”

Finally, I ask what a day like today means to fans like him who’ve perhaps seen more rough than smooth over the last few decades – can Watford beat Arsenal?:

“Whatever happens, if you take 9,000 football fans to a match, it’s gonna be a good day even if we lose 4-0. We’ve achieved our main aim this season so now everything is a bonus. People say ‘The FA Cup’s lost a bit of its magic’ – well the FA Cup always loses its magic when you’re knocked out of it! If you’re in it and you’re invested in it then you’re excited by it. I’ve been looking forward to it since the draw was made.

“I’ve learnt in my time watching football that there’s more than just the result. If we have a good old sing-song and we enjoy it, I know it’s a cliché, but that’s a win. I just want to see us go for it. There’s a boycott by some Arsenal fans, they’re not happy with the management so there might be some pressure there. They’ve not lost an FA Cup game for about a billion years but if it’s 0-0 after half an hour then they might start to feel that.”

He continues: “If we reach an FA Cup semi, brilliant. But there’s a bigger picture for Watford fans at the moment. We’re in no rush to enjoy ourselves because I think we’re pretty confident there are some good times ahead.”

We leave things open-ended on meeting in a pub near Highbury House later. As I hand over £20 to park my car after an unsuccessful lap for an alternative, we find a nearby McDonalds for lunch. Parking Jacob on a chair while I queue for a Happy Meal surrounded by dozens of Gooners, I keep a close eye to ensure he doesn’t starting flicking the v’s at anyone dressed in red.

There’s little argument that the Emirates Stadium is an impressive sight as we approach. Most commonly spotted in the background of viral rants by home supporters on Arsenal TV for anyone outside of N5, it has the influence of some of Europe’s top stadia with a healthy dose of traditional nostalgia thrown in. The ‘Brothers in Arms’ of some of Arsenal’s greatest players is impressive, although I’m pretty sure David Seaman’s best days were pre-ponytail.


There’s a few nice touches too. A temporary sign at the Clock End bearing the Watford crest welcomes visiting supporters, while the security checks many football fans have become accustomed to are oddly less intrusive than usual. That said, I’m caught off-guard when a steward gestures enthusiastically towards my semi-zipped coat and I ask him: “Up or down?”

A quick pre-match loo break introduces us to our first chant of the day, and one we’d be hearing plenty more of throughout the afternoon: “We’ve got Capoue, Etienne Capoue, I just don’t think you understand…”.

Jacob smiles and we both join in. Given that the Frenchman was one of the few players offloaded by Tottenham in the summer that I’d like to have kept, I’m happy to sing along.

One former Spurs favourite (of sorts) I won’t have the opportunity to cheer on today is Heurelho Gomes, replaced in the line-up by Cup ‘keeper Costel Pantilimon. A cult hero for a while at White Hart Lane, I’ll never quite be able to disassociate the Brazilian with a long-awaited Champions League away day at the San Siro. His rash charge and subsequent red card as Spurs went 3-0 down to Inter Milan inside 15 minutes was thankfully forgotten by most thanks to some lad called Gareth restoring a little pride later on. Gomes, too, has restored his reputation as a solid custodian at Vicarage Road.

I’m not a big fan of the rise of the Cup goalkeeper. It’s a position where ‘resting’ isn’t really an issue and confidence is more of a factor than match fitness. Wheeling a different bloke out to guard the goal in a knockout game seems an unnecessary risk for me, but maybe it’s a contractual thing these days. With Pantilimon having recently joined from Sunderland, though, there’s no doubting Watford’s strength in depth between the sticks.

Finding our seats near the front of the Lower Tier, I take in the view behind us. A Club Level around the whole stadium, containing more than a few smart suits and tourists, splits us from the Upper tier where thousands more visiting fans create a sea of yellow. Given Arsenal’s infamously inflated ticket prices, I imagine these are the £100+ seats that cause such consternation among the old Highbury faithful concerned by the corporate direction of their Club.


Worse still, the perceived lack of recent success to match their ever-increasing personal investment, despite two consecutive FA Cup wins, continues to sour what once seemed an unbreakable bond between Wenger and the home fans. By contrast, Watford have subsidised their allocation considerably to ensure no visiting fan pays more than £36.50.

As the teams head out, we’re invited to swap our seats on the fourth row for the first by an enthusiastic bunch of fans who’ve already got flags waving and a sing-song orchestrated. We take them up on their offer so Jacob can sit down with an unobstructed view and they’re great company for the rest of the game.

“They haven’t been in our half much,” he observes as we reach the 20-minute mark. An offside goal aside, it’s a fair observation as Arsenal dominate possession but toil to penetrate the Watford defence despite the occasional promising flash.

“S**t Tottenham Hotspur, you’re just a s**t Tottenham Hotspur!” sing the Watford fans. Jacob flashes me a grin and I nod my approval while indicating that he’s not to blow our cover or join in, all in one facial expression. It’s one of those special skills Dads have alongside a Jedi power for identifying John O’Shea.

A half-hearted chant of ‘Arsenal’ midway through the second half receives an ironic cheer as another blast of Capoue’s name echoes out from the Clock End. Beyond that, the home fans whistle in protest at Pantilimon’s ‘relaxed’ goal-kick style that eventually sees the Romanian booked for time-wasting.

A nasty looking challenge causes uproar in the 29th minute as Gabriel and Deeney crash into each other. As Deeney writhes on the floor, Andre Marriner waves away the furious protestations of the Watford players. Replays suggest the Arsenal man was lucky to stay on the field.

A couple of blasts over the bar from Elneny later and it’s half-time. Embracing their corporate tag, an ad break plays out over the big screen before a couple of players from Arsenal Ladies are interviewed on the pitch. For their faults, Arsenal’s investment in the Women’s game to create a professional side is to be applauded.


Our new friends meet former England international David James.

We pass the remainder of the break by reading the signs around the ground. There are nods to the famous league win of ‘89, the Invincibles side and a couple of mentions of White Hart Lane, thank you very much. Jack Wilshere appears more times on the hoardings than he has on the pitch this season.

“Can you be quiet please? This is the Emirates. We’re trying to watch the football,” announces a new friend to our right as the second half gets underway. It might be loud enough to be picked up in some areas of the home end.

The game explodes into life in the 50th minute. Deeney’s knock on from a throw-in takes half the Arsenal back-line out of the game with one touch before Ighalo, who’s looked low on confidence so far, takes care of the rest with a swift turn and shot into the bottom corner. Our view of the goal couldn’t be much better, and plenty more have joined us within seconds as the whole stand goes crazy.

I look down to see Jacob screaming with delight as the players celebrate in front of us. A few lads stood on chairs are forcefully pulled down by stewards who look as happy in their work as Wenger does in press conferences. They remain in the seats to our left for the remainder of the game.


It’s not a bad spot to witness Ighalo almost double the lead in the 60th minute as his outstretched foot comes close to connecting with Ake’s cross from the left. It doesn’t take long for another chance to materialise though.

Winning back possession in midfield, Watford swarm on the ball and play it forward to Deeney who holds up superbly once again. Holding off Mertesacker, he plays the ball for Guedioura who blasts the ball from the corner of the box. It’s the kind of connection that might have found Club Class on another afternoon – but not today.

As the ball flies into the top corner beyond the static Arsenal defence and the helpless dive of Ospina, it’s delirium in the away end. Someone hugs me from behind and a few fans threaten to spill over the advertising hoardings while others hold their heads in disbelief. There’s not much about my reaction that suggests we’re ‘neutral’ either.

As Arsenal trudge back to the halfway line, players remonstrate with each other. It’s a world away from the selfless display of Flores’ men who committed three players to winning the ball back before turning defence into attack, in no small part down to the tireless work of Deeney.

The singing goes up a notch as the Watford end bounces in delight. Meanwhile, Wenger throws on Welbeck, Iwobi and Walcott to chase the game. It almost works.

Arsenal kick into gear in the final ten minutes. A succession of wasted chances is eventually halted in the 88th minute as their passing takes on long overdue urgency. Ozil’s backheel releases Welbeck who finishes smartly. The joy in the away end is quickly replaced by unbearable tension.

From then on, it feels like wave after wave of Arsenal attacks. As the board showing injury time is readied, Pantilimon makes a reaction save that spills the ball out into a melee of players before Welbeck turns and somehow fires over with the whole right side of the goal seemingly at his mercy.

“Please no! Don’t do this!” says the lad next to me. He’s actually got his back to the game, having Facetimed several Arsenal-supporting mates since the second goal asking them what their plans were for Wembley. See what I mean about that kinship through rivalry?

Watford hang on. Wembley is booked. I ready Jacob for the reaction at the final whistle and it’s really something as the players celebrate in front of us. Deeney throws his boots into the crowd, presumably because they’re below the legal tyre tread given his running throughout.


We chat to a man with a tin foil FA Cup as we queue to get out. Reliving the game in disbelief, it seems Welbeck’s missed chance is the main talking point. The fans cheer the goals for a second time on the big screen.

“Another magnificent day delivered by a magnificent football club,” is Mike’s summary post-match. “Beating Palace in the semi and Everton in the Final would go some way to making up for previous Wembley heartache. This is a special club that keeps delivering more special occasions than we have a right to expect.”

Listening to Tottenham close the gap on Leicester and West Ham coming close at Old Trafford, we pass the journey home by naming as many Spurs players as we can, interspersed with the occasional rendition of the Capoue song and a curious game called Goat Simulator that reduces him to tears of laughter.

Like last season, I’m hopeful, if not optimistic, about my chances of getting Wembley tickets next month. If it is to end here, though, so be it. I’ll take victory at the Emirates with a little boy who joined me at Penistone Church FC back in August as a fitting way to wrap things up. It’s a connection with Watford we won’t forget.


The Underdog Blog record 2015/16:

P 11 W 3 D 3 L 5 F 8 A 17 GD -9


Arsenal FC vs Watford FC

FA Cup Sixth Round

Sunday 13th March 2016

The Emirates Stadium, London



Arsenal FC                                           1              –              2                              Watford FC

Welbeck 88’                                                                                        Ighalo 50’; Guedioura 63’


Arsenal: 13. Ospina; 21. Chambers, 4. Mertesacker, 5. Gabriel, 3. Gibbs; 35. El-Nenny, 34. Coquelin, 28. Campbell, 11. Ozil, 17. Sanchez, 12. Giroud

Substitutes: 14. Walcott, 18. Monreal, 20. Flamini, 23. Welbeck, 24. Bellerin, 45. Iwobi, 49. Macey.

Watford: 18 Pantilimon; 2. Nyom, 5. Prodl, 15. Cathcart, 16. Ake; 8. Behrami, 23. Watson, 29. Capoue, 17. Guedioura; 24. Ighalo, 9. Deeney.

Substitutes: 1. Gomes, 4. Mario Suarez, 7. Jurado, 10. Oulare, 11. Amrabat, 21. Anya, 22. Abdi

Referee: Andre Marriner

Attendance: 58,436

FA Cup Fifth Round: Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC

FA Cup Fifth Round

Sunday 21st February 2016

Ewood Park, Blackburn, Lancashire


“Where are you going?” my wife asks sleepily.

“Just popping downstairs to chat to a bloke in Texas I tweeted earlier,” I reply. It’s just past midnight on Saturday night.

The man in question is Chase Hoffman, a 36-year-old American and Blackburn fan based in Austin. Having discovered on Friday evening that I’d been generously granted a media pass by Rovers for Sunday’s match, I’ve been on the lookout for a supporter to talk to and his sounds like a particularly interesting story.

As we reach the last-16, Underdog potential begins to wane. A few all-Premier League ties, a third consecutive meeting between Hull and Arsenal and, of course, Shrewsbury Town, the lowest ranked club remaining, facing a Louis van Gaal side that are beginning to make David Moyes look like Matt Busby. That, as well as West Ham at Ewood Park.

As fate would have it, I missed Blackburn’s 4-1 win over Stoke last season as I couldn’t get a ticket. By virtue of not being on the Rovers database, I instead ended up at The Hawthorns where the final nails were hammered into Sam Allardyce’s Hammer-shaped coffin. What a difference twelve months makes.

For Rovers, a fairly miserable season hit a rare bright spot as their convincing 3-0 victory at Oxford in the last round gave hope of another run towards the last eight of the FA Cup. For West Ham, a side transformed under cult hero Slaven Bilic, a promising cup run is adjacent to their excellent league form that’s left them handily placed in seventh going into the final third of the season.

As the dog follows me to my desk, equally confused as to why I’m back up so soon, I scribble a few notes down to ask Chase. First up: with an array of Premier League sides aggressively marketing themselves to the growing U.S market, how does a Texan end up supporting Blackburn Rovers?

He says: “In 1999, I was at the University of Texas in Austin and had the internet for the first time. I made friends with a guy called Neil and he would not shut up about Manchester United. Just to needle him, I looked at the standings and picked the second worst team in the Premier League – I figured the worst team would be cliché – and so I started reading up about the Club to be able to talk about it intelligently.

“I learned about Uncle Jack, how’d he’d won the Premier League and that he was a local boy done good as well as the 1800’s with the three-in-a-row FA Cup wins. I just fell in love with the team.”

By my reckoning, Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic might have also been vying for Chase’s attention as Blackburn dropped out of the top flight just five years after lifting the Premiership trophy.

He goes on: “That was 17 years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. One of my kids is named after Brad Friedel – his name is actually Bradley Walker Hoffman. Not sure how I got that past my wife but it happened!” he laughs. It was that or ‘Tugay’, I suppose.

“In 2008 I was lucky enough to win an auction to hit a guy in the head with a fish in Trafalgar Square,” he tells me, flippantly, as I try to work out if he’s kidding and some of the humour has been lost in translation. “It came with free airfare to the UK. I’ll send you the Youtube link,” he continues (which he did, and it does need to be seen to be believed)

A trip to London is one thing – but did Chase take advantage of his UK visit to make the long trip north?


Memories of recent success greet visitors to Ewood Park.

He says: “I went up to my first, and to date only, match which was also Allardyce’s first game in charge after the disastrous Paul Ince era. We won 3-0, Benny McCarthy scored two. I got to go down on the pitch and meet Pedersen and Danny Simpson and have my photo taken. We even did some charity work for the Club for a few years while I was still single and before I had a house payment!” he laughs.

“There was a big debate on the forum about those who couldn’t go to games every week being criticised as ‘plastic fans’. We pooled our money together, bought a number of season tickets and got Rovers to convert them into match days. We then gave them out to charities around the Blackburn area; mostly to kids to help build our fanbase.”

It sounds like a nice way to stay connected to his side. And, this weekend, with the FA Cup warranting international coverage, it’ll be a rare opportunity to see them play.

He says: “There’s one bar in town showing it so I’m going to go and sit with the twelve West Ham fans in there and try not to kill each other! BEin Sports broadcast one Championship game a week and it’s almost never Rovers. There’s a nice soccer culture here despite not having much of a team. The Arsenal and Chelsea fans have a bar in town which they congregate in. The Manchester United and Liverpool fans another. I, as a Rovers fan, am looked down upon with great laughter,” he jokes.

Before we wrap up our chat (despite my two-hour journey in the morning, it doesn’t seem much given Chase’s ‘local’ side FC Dallas are based 200-miles away), I ask him what the FA Cup means to him.

He says: “To me, it’s the greatest club competition in the world. It’s a source of wonder. My favourite memory was Benny McCarthy’s 95th minute winner against Arsenal to reach the quarter finals. I was at a conference in Georgia refreshing my screen in a hotel room and going completely crazy. The hotel called to see if I was ok! I just hope that we don’t look like idiots on national television. A nice 1-1 draw and a replay at West Ham to bring some money in would be good.”

As I leave Derbyshire on Sunday, I tune into Radio 5 Live. Mark Lawrenson discusses Man City’s supposed injury crisis, while the subjects of Chris Brunt’s coin to the face and whether FA Cup replays should be scrapped are also covered. It’s an engaging discussion that includes Lawro using the words ‘cojones’ and ‘midgets’ in separate segments.

I head up to the media box and find my seat. I’ve been to Ewood several times as a visiting fan, and have actually sat in this general area of the ground before too. Once, as a guest of former sponsors Crown Paints, I had the pleasure of sitting in the Ronnie Clayton lounge and meeting him in person. A Blackburn legend with 581 league appearances and 35 England caps, the great man passed away in 2010 and now has a stand named after him.


A quiet Ewood Park half an hour before kick-off.

I feel a tad out of place, in truth. I’ve been in media boxes before, although only in a radio reporting capacity. With just a laptop and an opening paragraph about talking to Texan man I met on Twitter, I’m feeling self-conscious. Surrounding me are an array of journalists with laptops, notepads and one man with a basic-looking touchscreen smartphone with a retro-looking Tetris-style app that’s probably compiling stats.

The pre-match video shows a highlights reel that focuses predominantly on the Premier League winning side of 1995. There’s a real feeling of those former glories as you enter the ground too. Images of Shearer, Dalglish and Walker haunt the entrance to Ewood Park, and more recent glory too, like the Worthington Cup Final in 2002. It was a match I went to, and I wince as Andy Cole’s goal creeps in at the Millenium Stadium.

The game gets underway with a strong start from West Ham as a nervous clearance from Elliott Ward leads to the first telling attack of the game. A resulting free-kick from the pressure that follows is dealt with.


Named after a true Blackburn legend, the Ronnie Clayton Stand.

Ben Marshall opens the scoring on 20mins. As the ball reaches him from a West Ham clearance from a corner, he feints to shoot on his right before cutting inside the attempted block of Payet to find the back of the net on his left foot. There’s a massive reaction around us and I momentarily almost join in, forgetting I’m in the ‘professional’ area despite there being fans just a couple of seats to my left.

The lead doesn’t last long. On 26mins, Victor Moses picks the ball up on the edge of the centre circle and turns towards the Blackburn goal with pace. As the home side fail to close down the Nigerian international, he takes just seven touches to reach the edge of the opposition box and fire a powerful shot beyond Jason Steele. It’s poor defending, in truth.

West Ham begin to dictate play with their rediscovered brand of expansive and attractive football as more than 7,000 visiting fans hit full voice with the reverb of an East London Male Voice Choir.

“COME ON TAYLOR! It’s not bed time!” screams one fan as the midfielder is dispossessed. His attempts to make amends lead to a free-kick in a dangerous area and a booking. Payet steps back and places it over the wall and into the far corner with stunning accuracy. It’s the kind of goal that probably does have a market value of £125k a week these days if the rumours of his new contract are true. You get the feeling the travelling support would happily chuck a tenner in each as they celebrate their hero’s majestic right foot.

Payet appears to be the topic of conversation with a few in an otherwise quiet media room at half-time. I grab a portion of fantastic pie and veg and notice Times journalist Henry Winter across the room. I wonder if he talks to men he met on the internet in preparation for games too.

It’s a good start to the second half as Elliott Ward comes close to levelling things. Soon after, though, Taylor is involved again as he fells the advancing Moses and gets a second yellow. He looks distraught as he leaves the field to a mixed reaction from the fans around us. As he covers his head with his shirt, the Hammers fans sing ‘He’s gonna cry in a minute!’ somewhat uncharitably.

From this point it looks like West Ham could run riot. Antonio comes close and Emenike has a goal ruled offside that looked tight. Emenike does get on the scoresheet soon after, though, as West Ham lay siege to the Blackburn goal and he slots in at the far post.


The West Ham end – an impressive sight.

I think of Chase surrounded by Hammers in a bar in Texas. You wait all this time for a live game and then this happens.

The noise from the West Ham end is impressive – they remained vocal while getting battered at West Brom last season when the outlook was much gloomier. Now, as Bilic hugs every substituted man as he leaves the field, you can feel the spirit he’s created within this West Ham side and the fans have every reason to sing his name.

The game threatens to swing back the other way in the 74th minute as Kouyate gets a straight red for bringing down Adam Henley on the edge of the box. The decision that he was the last man is correct, although Henley might have needed to be Usain Bolt to have caught it. The free-kick comes to nothing.

There’s no resting on their laurels from the visitors. A procession of chances with both sides down to 10 men are thwarted but it’s largely a succession of last ditch challenges, saves and luck keeping Rovers two adrift and in with a chance. West Ham are clearly looking for the fourth rather than holding onto what they have.

Emenike, clear on goal after another masterful ball from Payet, puts the game out of sight on 84 minutes as the home fans begin to stream out. He hits post in the 86th for a hat-trick he might have already had after Payet once again plays him in, and then puts the ball in the back of the net again. The goal is disallowed for a much clearer offside this time.

Despite the competitive first half, by the final minutes, it’s like watching a weary heavyweight taking too many punches. On this showing, the eventual fate of Rovers had it remained 11 v 10 is worrying. The visitors sing loudly of Wembley.

The PA announces that Peter Jackson’s Man of the Match is Ben Marshall, as the former Huddersfield manager and director of Lord of the Rings has his say. Meanwhile, Payet responds to fans singing his name with a mazy run from his own half that leads to West Ham’s fifth. It’s a piece of individual brilliance even the fans to my left applaud.

“Embarrassing!” screams one man in the media box’s direction as he attempts to get others to boo with him. The reaction is fairly angry, if partly resigned. Where to draw the line between Blackburn’s efforts and West Ham’s brilliance – particularly Payet’s – is hard to judge, although the final minutes were a mauling. Payet, and later David Gold, both make their way to celebrate with the away fans.


Hammers fans celebrate as the various members of the media section get to work.

As I head down into the media room for a cup of tea, a familiar face stands beside me to watch the early stages of what would turn out to be a drubbing for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.

“You wouldn’t want to commentate on this,” he says, gesturing towards City’s line-up of youngsters. It’s Mark Lawrenson. We repeat a conversation quite similar to the one I’d listened to a few hours ago, before he turns to chat to a newcomer to the media room. While it takes me a second to recognise his face, the unmistakeable accent gives it away. I leave discreetly as Lawro takes up conversation with ’95 Premier League winner Kevin Gallacher. It’s a surreal end to quite a surreal weekend.

“A bird shat on my 94/95 kit while I watched under a covered patio,” is Chase’s summary as I pass the banner showing Ewood’s former glories. As Rovers go back to their bid to survive in the second tier, it feels like those halcyon days of Gallacher and co. are even further away than Austin, Texas.

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

The Underdog Blog record 2015/16:

P 10 W 2 D 3 L 5 F 6 A 16 GD -10

Blackburn Rovers FC vs West Ham United FC

FA Cup Fifth Round

Sunday 21st February 2016

Ewood Park, Blackburn, Lancashire


Blackburn Rovers FC                        1              –              5                              West Ham United FC

Marshall (20’)                                                                                                                    Moses (26’)

Payet (36’, 90+1’)

Emenike (64’, 85’)


Blackburn Rovers: Steele, Marshall, Duffy, Ward, Henley, Akpan, Lenihan, Taylor, Bennett, Conway (Jackson 59), Brown (Watt 78)

Subs not used: Kilgallon, Hanley, Gomez, Evans, Raya

West Ham United: Randolph, Antonio, Collins, Ogbonna (Oxford 78), Cresswell, Noble (Song 73), Kouyate, Obiang (Lanzini 67), Moses, Emenike, Payet

Subs not used: Adrian, Henry, Parfitt-Williams, Browne

Referee: Jonathan Moss

Attendance: 18,793 (7,185 away)



FA Cup Fourth Round: Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC

FA Cup Fourth Round

Saturday 30th January 2016

Kassam Stadium, Oxford, Oxfordshire

It’s 5pm on Transfer Deadline Day. It’s a time for the buzz of fax machines and recycled images of Colin Kazim-Richards getting into a car. It’s a time for Jim White to convince us all it’s not just a hideous construct created by Sky Sports that offers ever-diminishing returns on which his career relies upon.

It’s also a time for me to sit down and relive a weekend so ridiculously busy, it’d make Saido Berahino’s agent blush. Here’s a brief itinerary:


Friday 6pm:        A quick chat with Oxford United fans Joe Nicholls and Joe Citrone. The fact they’re both called Joe was a coincidence rather than a requirement.

Friday 8pm:        Performing comedy at Long Eaton Rugby Club. Down the road, BBC commentator Steve Wilson claimed the iPro Stadium was “the only place to be tonight in the East Midlands” which around 100 rugby-loving comedy fans would have probably refuted. Which brings me to…

Friday 11pm:      A quick scan of Derby County’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United with a glass of wine from the comfort of my own sofa having successfully avoided the score. Richard Keogh, a bone of contention in the heart of Derby’s defence for several of my DCFC supporting friends appears to be more solid than usual but it’s difficult to tell when you watch most of the game at six times the actual speed.

Saturday 10am:                Not much of a lie-in as we freeze on the touchline of my son’s under-7s game in the bitter wind chill of a hilltop near Matlock. Drawing 1-1 with an equaliser on the stroke of half-time following a goalmouth scramble (it’s the perfect time to get a goal, Alan…), they go on to lose 7-1. One annoying, aggressive Grandad supporting the opposition team continually shouts instructions at a young lad called ‘Kieran’ and spends most of the game two steps over the touchline. Several are in tears by the end thanks to the Arctic conditions and I warm my son’s hands up in my pockets while congratulating his efforts.

Saturday 1pm:  To the soundtrack of Tottenham vs Colchester on TalkSport, I head south to meet my mate Ket and his lad Ben near Northampton. We drive several miles in search of a spot to leave his car in, plumping for Tiffield, a village that’s received no through traffic since the street party for Charles and Diana.

Saturday 2pm:  We arrive in the general vicinity of the Kassam Stadium. After deciding against parking in a marked bay for ‘R.Kemp’ on a business park, we leave the car nearby. It seems a safer bet than to risk upsetting either one of the Mitchell Brothers.

I could go on, but this is an FA Cup blog. At the heart of my weekend was a potential giantkilling in the form of Oxford United vs Blackburn Rovers. That I had to be back in Derbyshire to host an 8pm gig via Tiffield on the way home, or that Sunday evening included another gig in Melton Mowbray (if I ever finished the tax return I’d been avoiding…) is neither here nor there. You didn’t come here to read about my imminent breakdown.

“Is he mad?” is the response of Ket’s better half Kerry as he recounts my weekend schedule over the phone on our walk to the ground. “I haven’t finished yet,” he tells her. “He’s gigging tonight and tomorrow as well!”

I’ve known Ket for a few years now. A couple of stag dos, a few dozen shared hours in the pub and a previous Underdog Blog visit to Craven Cottage later and, despite living about 100miles apart, we’ve struck up a strong friendship. Joining us is his 13-year-old Ben who is coming along for only his second ever game – a recent goalless draw at his hometown team Peterborough doesn’t appear to have fazed his enthusiasm.


As the Kassam comes into sight, we discuss the distinct lack of a stand on the West side of the ground, which was apparently never built as a cost-cutting measure by former owner Firoz Kassam. The small fence protecting the goal is reminiscent of more than a few of the non-league grounds we visited during the qualifying rounds.

I’m a sucker for an award-winning pie and indulge in a Steak and Kidney that lives up to expectations as we get into the ground. It’s an impressive stadium from the outside with a large, glass exterior near what appears to be the main entrance and club shop. It’s where many fans have been purchasing tickets over the last few weeks as Oxford’s three-pronged attack on silverware has gathered pace.

With Millwall visiting the Kassam Stadium this coming Tuesday hoping to overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat in the Southern Final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, Wembley could already be on the horizon. The opportunity to lift their first silverware since winning the 2010 Conference play-off final has coincided with great league form, too. Oxford stand a real chance of returning to the third tier for the first time in a decade and a half during a period that saw them spend four years outside the Football League.

I ask Joe Nicholls, a 35-year-old fan who represents the Yellow Army, an online fan’s collective that keeps supporters connected with Club, on what the key to their recent success has been:

“I put that mainly down to Michael Appleton,” he tells me. “He’s been able to build his own side and backroom staff. It’s all come down to the manager’s hard work.

“We’d been on a downward spiral for quite a while. Even when we were in the Conference, winning every game, it never felt like we captured the county’s imagination. There wasn’t that same passion and spirit as there is now. People didn’t seem excited about Oxford United.”

17-year-old fan Joe Citrone has also been there through recent darker days in the Conference. He’s similarly upbeat about the future:

“It all feels a bit strange to be honest, like any moment I’m going to wake up and it’s all been a dream. Top three in the division, good chance of Wembley and a possibility of making the last 16 of the FA Cup. And we’ve done it all whilst playing exciting, expansive, free-flowing football.

“I’ve supported Oxford in our darkest hours. I was there when we lost 5-2 away at Histon on the coldest day in the history of the universe. From that moment, I’ve just thought ‘well at least things can’t get any worse than that’ and thankfully I was right! It’s just nice to be able to look back on those moments and laugh because we’ve seen how far we’ve come and we know that we are never ever going back to that place again. The club is going in the right direction and the only way is up.”

From an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be a brilliant grassroots feel to the way Oxford communicate with their fans. Their online presence is responsive in what’s been a busy few weeks for the ticket office and there seems to be a great camaraderie between the Club and fans – I even engage with Sue Currill, who works in the ticket office, via Twitter before the game. She’s unable to chat to me on the phone due to a throat infection she picked up cheering the Yellows to victory at Portsmouth last weekend.

Joe N continues: “The Chairman took over a couple of years ago. What he’s instilled in the Club, with the togetherness, has made a massive difference. We’ve got a Chairman who’ll drink with the fans in the pub, travel with us away. The man right at the top is one of us. He’s a very good businessman and runs the Club well but he wants to bring everyone together and I think that helps massively.

“It’s brilliant and we’re all determined to get promotion. That’s everyone’s ambition, from the players to the fans. The Cup runs are great but, ultimately, we all know what the main aim is. There’s no pressure – if we lose, we lose. There’ll be no despondency. We’re just looking forward to 3pm tomorrow.”

Joe C agrees: “There’s a buzz around the place at the moment and there is a real connection between owner, manager, players and fans. We all feel like we’re playing a part and that’s a special feeling.  It says a lot about our season that getting into the last 16 of the FA Cup is probably our third priority.”

And how does the allure of the FA Cup differ between two different generations of fan? I asked Joe N, a fan of my generation, what he thought?:

He said: “I think the magic of the FA Cup is lost because of TV companies putting on Premier League sides. But when you’re involved in a football club, it’s still as big as ever. It still feels magical. We’ll wake up in the morning excited like a kid again. That’s what the FA Cup does; there’s nothing that really beats it.”

Surely the same can’t be said for a new generation of teenage fan brought up on Champions League football and a saturation of Premier League action?:

“I think the FA Cup is just as special as it’s ever been,” Joe C tells me. “It certainly is very important to me anyway. There’s nothing more exciting than a Third Round cup draw. For my Dad, it does mean more because he’s had to put up with much more FA Cup disappointment than me!”

We finish our chat, but he’s got another tip for me for tomorrow. “Watch out for Kemar Roofe. He’s given us some great moments this season. He’s smashed in a 40 yard strike at Brentford, won us a crucial game at Bristol Rovers live on TV through another wonder goal, scored both goals as we crushed arch rivals Swindon in the JPT and dismantled Premier League Swansea. So, he’s not bad…”

Ben is eager to take his seat in the East Stand behind the goal as we finish off our pies and beer. Large flags wave at the top of the packed ‘Kop’ end and a tremendous noise greets the two sides on their way out.


“Gonna win all three! Gonna win all three! Gonna win the league and the FA Cup and the JPT!” sing the fans, clearly revelling in an unlikely bid for their very own treble.

It’s a cagey opening quarter of an hour but Blackburn’s game plan is noticeable as they’re quick to close down Oxford and press them in possession. It’s an intelligent tactic against a passing side high on confidence and seems to be effective in preventing the Yellows from building momentum.

Simeon Jackson, who leads the line for the visitors in place of Middlesbrough-bound Jordan Rhodes, draws the ire of the home fans inside 15 minutes by winning a soft foul on the right wing. He’s booed for the rest of the game and is happy to milk their frustration.

Sercombe comes closest for Oxford in the first half but, in a game of few clear cut chances, it’s Jackson at the centre of the action again in the 35th minute as he runs into the box and across fullback Skarz who brings him down. Replays are fairly inconclusive but it looked particularly soft from where we’re stood and infuriates the home fans further. Ben Marshall steps up to give Rovers the lead from the spot.



Buster and Co. don’t react well to the penalty going in

Blue smoke rises from the away end in celebration as I point out the Blackburn tradition of sacrificing a Smurf after every goal to Ben.

“Kick his f***ing legs off!” screams a Buster Bloodvessel-type fan in front of me. He’s been screaming obscenities for most of the game so far despite having a kid of around six with him. His latest suggestion in the direction of Simeon Jackson would surely result in a booking at the very least.

Blackburn get their second on the stroke of half-time. After testing Sam Slocombe soon after the goal, debutant Tony Watt robs possession in Oxford’s half before slotting a low and accurate shot across the face of the ‘keeper into the bottom corner. It’s a cruel blow for Oxford, and feels decisive given their general lack of threat so far.

The teams leave the field to the tune of Mr Blue Sky, a contrastingly cheerful ditty given the general booing in the direction of the referee and Jackson from the home fans.

“If we’d kept it at one we’d have had a chance,” says one supporter to another as I queue down the stairs during the break. “It’ll have made us a few quid at least,” says his mate. An Austrian under-18s team perform a crossbar challenge during the interval, which I presume is linked to Oxford’s pre-season tour of Austria. They’re off to Spain next summer; another great way of linking in with the fans.

The frustration in our stand grows in the second half as referee Andy Davies continues to award soft fouls in Blackburn’s favour.

“Blackburn are a bunch of divers,” Ben observes. “They belong in the sea!” he adds, with heart-warming innocence considering there’s a bald bloke stood directly in front of him calling anyone in studs the ‘C’ word.

“I reckon that might be Kieran’s Grandad, ya know,” I tell Ket as we both begin to tire of his constant shouting.


Oxford slowly build a few good moves in the first half, demonstrating their passing style that’s clearly easy on the eye, but with Blackburn’s stranglehold on the game tightening and the continued nullification of Kemar Roofe, it’s hard to see a way back in.

Blackburn wrap the game up with a great freekick from Ben Marshall in the 76th minute. It provokes an oddly angry reaction from a small number of fans around us who get up to leave. A couple of idiots throw a programme in the direction of the pitch and are roundly booed by all who witness it. In front of us, Buster has seen enough and drags half the row out with him.

“We’ll see you again next time we draw a big team!” shouts a man behind us. We’re clearly not the only people who’ve noticed him today as, presumably, these season ticket holders have spotted the fairweather fan a mile off. Buster laughs it off as he heads for the exits.

The remainder of the ground sing about being loyal fans and Oxford ‘til they die as the minority sneak out.

“Just get a goal! For me!” shouts a despondent Ben as he enters his 180th minute as a football fan without witnessing his team of choice find the back of the net. Even he’s tempted to leave just before the final whistle, as the balance between blind dedication and general common sense remains blurry in these early days.

We head back to the car and in the direction of Tiffield (via a half hour diversion we’re fairly convinced we’re going to be stuck in for all eternity) having enjoyed our day. It’s nice to be a part of a new young fan’s early experiences of football and Ket’s Leeds team are through to the last 16 too; a tempting prospect for the rounds to come.

In case you were wondering, I made the gig in Derbyshire. I also filed my tax return, entertained the good people of Melton Mowbray and managed to finish this post just before the transfer deadline.

Berahino still plays for West Brom, Colin Kazim-Richards remains one of the biggest stories of the day and I’d still prefer to spend an all-inclusive fortnight for three with Kieran’s grandad and Buster Bloodvessel than spend another bloody minute listening to Jim White.

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16

P 9 W 2 D 3 L 4 F 5 A 11 GD -6


Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC

FA Cup Fourth Round

Saturday 30th January 2016

Kassam Stadium, Oxford, Oxfordshire


Oxford United FC                          0              –            3                             Blackburn Rovers FC

Marshall 36’ (pen), 76’,

Watt 45’


Oxford United FC: Slocombe, Baldock (Kenny 86), Mullins, Wright, Skarz (J Evans 77), MacDonald, Sercombe, Lundstram, O’Dowda, Roofe, Bowery (Hylton 63). Subs: Buchel, Ruffels, Ashby, Dunkley. Booked: Mullins, Baldock, Kenny.

Blackburn Rovers FC: Steele, Marshall, Hanley, Ward, Spurr, Bennett, Lenihan (Taylor 71), C Evans, Conway, Watt (Lawrence 61), Jackson. Subs: Raya, Henley, Kilgallon, Duffy. Booked: Spurr, Jackson, Lenihan, Conway.

Referee: Andy Davies.

Attendance: 11,647 (1,485 away fans).

FA Cup Third Round: Everton FC vs Dagenham and Redbridge FC

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


Everton FC vs Dagenham and Redbridge FC

FA Cup Third Round

Saturday 9th January 2016

Goodison Park, Liverpool, Merseyside


We’ve all been there. You’re travelling on public transport at 9.20am minding your own business when three blokes park up on the next table with a lager. They’ve listened to the government warnings, considered the recommended units per week with adequate rest days and have still decided to wash breakfast down with a lightly chilled alcoholic beverage.

As our train pulled out of Chesterfield station, the Underdog Blog’s three-strong contingent of me and my two best men Hadders and Warin (so called as they share the same first name – it just makes things easier admin-wise) were that group. Reunited as a trio for the first time in several months, we caught up on Warin’s impending house move, chatted about interest rates and discussed the finer points of the financial advantages of having equity in property (OIOI! #ladzladzladz).

One woman, so threatened by our rampant and aggressive masculinity, asked us to watch her bag while she nipped to the loo. As a fresh band of beered-up brothers in arms boarded the train at Sheffield en route to Old Trafford, we ordered another three cans of Stella (the 4% stuff. We’re not animals.)

Inadvisable day-drinking aside, we’ve got an exciting afternoon in prospect. Headed for Goodison Park, a ground none of us have visited before, we’re realistic about League Two strugglers Dagenham and Redbridge and their chances against one of English football’s most famous names. With Warin making his long-awaited Underdog debut, though, there’s hope of a new lucky mascot at least.

Third Round weekend normally tends to throw up the most dramatic gulfs in the league ladder. Opening the weekend was a tie that demonstrated that perfectly as Liverpool made the 500-mile round trip through Friday rush hour to Exeter in front of the BBC cameras.

An entertaining 2-2 draw demonstrated much that’s good about this old competition but it was marred somewhat by a borderline third-string side on Jurgen Klopp’s FA Cup debut. When Jerome Sinclair equalised Exeter’s early opener for his first Liverpool goal, it was worth noting he wasn’t even born when Eric Cantona volleyed a late winner through a crowded penalty box to lift the 1996 trophy.

White suits

Jerome Sinclair wasn’t even born when this happened. He thinks this is a picture of The Beatles just after John left.


Passing Old Trafford and the Etihad on our way to Merseyside, we find a pub near Lime Street for food and Wycombe vs Villa – a match ripe for an upset – before a taxi ride to Goodison. Our driver is a die-hard Blue and drives us past Prince Rupert’s Tower, perhaps only known outside of Merseyside as featuring on the Everton club crest, explaining it was once used to house lost livestock and local drunks and criminals overnight.

He drops us off for another drink at The Abbey pub, in view of Goodison Park and largely filled with travelling Daggers today, as we cram ourselves through the door and attempt to find a space at the bar. Two Everton fans, one of whom has ordered himself two pints of Guinness despite there being just half an hour to kick off (“Years of following Everton,” he tells us), discuss the lineups with us as they wait for drinks.

We’re slightly deflated to see a stronger looking XI than that named by their old rivals across Stanley Park the night before and our new friends are surprised to see names including Steven Pienaar making a rare First Team appearance.


As we drink up and make our way past the statue of Dixie Dean and into the away stand, we discover what our tickets meant by Restricted View. Goodison is a fine example of a characterful old British ground that’s been developed to keep pace with the Premier League era. The low ceiling and large stanchions are a constant obstruction from our seats, though, and it must be even worse in the rows behind us. Our reasonably priced £14 ticket softens the blow.

Perhaps I’m too romantic, but I like to imagine the famous games that took place in traditional old stadiums. I can’t help imagining the crowd bobbing their heads from side to side to watch Franz Beckenbauer’s decider book a place in that fateful World Cup Final as West Germany beat the Soviet Union 2-1 half a century ago.

One man with a slightly better vantage point in the media box opposite is BBC Radio London’s Stuart Smith, who I chatted to at the beginning of the week. With a decade and a half following the Daggers around the country, the experienced broadcaster seemed like the perfect man to discuss the Essex team’s unlikely rise out of non-league to become an established Football League side. He starts by telling me how he came to cover Dagenham:

“I started covering various different teams, going to Southend games and working the studio. I started covering Daggers around the 2001/02 season. Getting promotion into the Football League in 2007 was a highlight during that time. It was something that nobody thought would ever happen.

“When we got promotion there was an open top bus tour of Dagenham. I was on top of the bus with the players with a radio mic going back to the studio! You can’t say there were thousands out on the streets but there were quite a few hundred there. It was a great time, the Club were a very personable Club, the players knew the fans and the fans knew the players. They were almost on first name terms with each other. It was fantastic spirit and a big new adventure moving into the Football League,” he tells me, almost wistfully.

Even by the Club’s admission, they’re perhaps punching above their weight in maintaining League Two status. Almost a decade since promotion, which would later be followed by a very competitive but ultimately unsuccessful year in League One, they’d struggled to a paltry 11 points before Christmas with no home win to their name. A change in manager, however, reinstating Club legend John Still, has seen an upturn in fortunes and two consecutive wins away from home.

Stuart tells me: “Wayne Burnett tried ever so hard and was working his socks off but things were getting worse week by week. With John Still losing his job at Luton and becoming available again, I suppose it was quite simple to say ‘Come on back and do what you can’ (for a third stint in charge). He’s a former Daggers player and a Daggers fan. Even when he was manager previously, his phrase was ‘every season Dagenham and Redbridge play League football is a miracle’. And it is, because of the resources.

“Before he officially started there was a win at Stevenage and then the win at Exeter which was John’s first official game back in charge. They’re still waiting for that first home win which they haven’t had all season which is incredible really. They say there’s no easy game in football for goalkeepers but there is at Victoria Road up to now – some of them could have gone and done their shopping at Lakeside!”


He continues: “The Everton game is a distraction which is a wonderful thing for the Club to celebrate and enjoy. Financially it’s a big thing too as it’s obviously going to be a big input to the coffers. In a way, the success of getting through to Everton has probably given the Club the money to sack the manager. Without that money, they perhaps wouldn’t have been able to.”

Stuart speaks highly of the hardcore fanbase who trekked to Exeter and Morecambe recently, as well as enduring a dire display to limp past Whitehawk in a Second Round replay, but acknowledges it’s difficult for sides like Dagenham to pull a crowd given the competition on their doorstep – especially when results aren’t going your way:

“Where Dagenham play you’ve got West Ham – thankfully most of their home games are on opposite weekends to Daggers – and you get a few West Ham fans come down to watch. You’ve got Orient, Spurs, Arsenal round the corner, Chelsea across London. There’s a lot of top class-ish football available a short tube ride away so if you’re going to spend £20 or £25 going to Dagenham and Redbridge, you might spend £30 or £35 going to West Ham.

“They want to see players giving it their best and see the ball going forward. There’s been passing without purpose. You’ve got to get it forward, that’s happened in the last week or two and as a consequence they’ve got a couple of victories. There’s still three teams in the mire and a little gap between them and the next one up. To bridge that gap is the next target.”

With the bookies offering odds around 15/1 for an away win, our chances of an upset are optimistic at best. We ask Stuart for the insider’s view – could they really do it?

He says: “The formation has changed slightly and it looks a lot more solid. You feared what might happen at Goodison Park had they played the way they have been playing but it looks a bit better now.

“Can it happen? It’s a very slim chance! Who knows? Daggers get a goal, Everton get four men sent off and you’re in…!” he laughs. “You have to remember Daggers don’t pay for players and they don’t pay the players very much. Everton have paid, what, £28m for Lukaku? That sort of sums it up really.

“It’s 11 against 11 and I hope someone has a really good game. If they can come out of it with their heads held high then they can go into their next league game. We hope they do well, put on a show and everyone has a great day. Decent performance against Everton, attract a few more fans and get the first home win of the season the following week. Fantastic.”


The teams head out…


…as we dodge the stanchions to get a better view.


A huge roar from the 1,883 travelling fans greets the sides as they head out to the tune of Z-Cars. We notice a bit of boo-ing for Pienaar and Lennon from the away end as their names are read out, suggesting a slight West Ham bias in our pocket of the crowd at least. This continues throughout the game.

“He’s got no hair but we don’t care, Johnny, Johnny Still…” sing the fans, as the first man to manage the merged Dagenham FC with Redbridge Forest back in 1992, who later returned to the Club to guide them into Football League, takes his place in the dugout alongside Roberto Martinez.

A huge cheer greets Dagenham’s first corner in the 14th minute – a rare foray into the opposition half in the opening quarter of an hour – in a chance that comes to nothing.

“Funes Mori’s wearing leggings,” observes Warin, on what is a fairly mild January afternoon. There’s a famous horse race not far from here where that sort of thing is acceptable but the FA Cup Third Round isn’t one of them.

“Tottenham reject!” shouts a fan behind me with venom as Mirallas takes a corner. “That’s not Pienaar,” says his mate. “Oh! Wanker! Wanker!” he responds, combining incisive wit with remarkable recovery skills.

Arouna Kone gives Everton the lead in the 32nd minute with a simple close-range header from a free-kick won by Aaron Lennon. It’s a rare clear cut chance in a game the home side have dominated despite only really testing Cousins once so far with an acrobatic save.


Former Watford and Sunderland veteran Nyron Nosworthy, a man mountain marshalling the backline so far, generates a big cheer midway through the first half as he shows great skill to turn out of trouble on the ball and clear danger. It might just make Soccer AM’s Showboat feature. Not bad for a 35-year-old centre half.

Everton devote half-time to the whole ground wishing 12-year-old Noah, a young fan with a life-limiting illness ‘Happy Birthday’ (an online campaign for fans to bring the youngster birthday cards to the disabled bay he watches every home game from generated a huge response) as well as screening a video of two young boys who are guests of honour today.

Seeing 10-year-old Kyle Fay break down in tears on Christmas Day as he discovers both he and his nine-year-old brother Denver, the sibling he’s supported through 15 brain operations, are going to meet their heroes is enough to get a lip wobble going with even the most hardened football fan. The Dagenham crowd applaud as Everton Football Club truly demonstrate their class.


A massive well done to Everton Football Club and their commitment to their supporters.


“Pub team from Essex! We’re just a pub team from Essex!” sing the travelling support as Everton continue to make hard work of breaking them down in the second half. In truth, Dagenham offer little in return as they defend stubbornly in numbers. The introduction of Jamie Cureton and Jodi Jones, a player who warranted 47 scouts at a recent game according to Stuart, gives fresh impetus but little end result.

In the final quarter of an hour, we’re treated to two pitch invasions. The latter is a fairly standard affair as a young fan races down the pitch towards Cousin’s goal before being firmly halted by Roberto Martinez on his way back up the touchline, leaving a floored match steward in his wake.

The first has since gone viral as a black and white cat made its way across the pitch before freezing in terror at the travelling hoardes of Daggers chanting his name.

“The cat’s offside!” is one of the first references to the frightened feline as Everton camp out in the opposite half. By this point, most of the away fans have stopped watching the game as all focus turns to the cat.

“Pussy is a Dagger, Pussy is a Dagger…” soon follows before several more less publishable chants are rounded off with a simple but effective ‘Who are ya?’. Joel Robles attempts to creep up on the cat fail miserably and are met with the level of ridicule that only a British football crowd can muster.


One fan was particularly pleased to see Everton’s cat make an appearance…


…while others just sang to him.


Everton wrap up the game with the cat actually on the pitch. During the excitement, a tired lunge from Nosworthy brought down the quick feet of Mirallas in the box, who then stepped up to convert the penalty and finish the tie. Despite 74% possession and eight shots on target to zero, Everton would finish the game unable to break down the stubborn Daggers in open play.

The home fans applaud both the Dag and Red team and supporters as John Still’s men thank the travelling faithful. It’s been the performance Stuart had hoped for and will have surely won them a few more through the gates as they look for that first home win of the season.


We trudge back in the direction of Liverpool Lime Street and share a taxi with two fans who’ve also jumped on the Daggers bandwagon. We spend an equal amount of time discussing the performance as we do the pitch invaders.

The young fan who sprinted the length of the field in the final minutes will now probably get a stadium ban while the cat went on to make a brief appearance on Match of the Day and has now replaced Ian Wright with immediate effect. The FA Cup Third Round provides unlikely winners and losers once again.

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16

P 8 W 2 D 3 L 3 F 5 A 8 GD -4


Everton FC vs Dagenham and Redbridge FC

FA Cup Third Round

Saturday 9th January 2016

Goodison Park, Liverpool, Merseyside


Everton FC                                          2              –              0                              Dagenham and Redbridge FC

Kone (32), Mirallas (85 Pen)


Everton: (4-2-3-1) Robles; Oviedo, Jagielka, Funes Mori (Pennington, h-t), Galloway; Besic, Gibson; Lennon (Rodriguez, 89), Mirallas, Pienaar (Osman 77); Koné.

Dagenham & Redbridge: (3-5-2) Cousins; Worrall, Nosworthy, Dikamona; Passley, Labadie, Muldoon, Raymond, Hemmings (Connors ,75); Doidge (Cureton, 66), Chambers (Jones, 62).

Referee: Paul Tierney

Attendance: 30,918

FA Cup Second Round: Grimsby Town FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

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Grimsby Town FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

FA Cup Second Round

Monday 7th December 2015

Blundell Park, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire


I can’t lie. It’s been a bit of a rough week.

Last Second Round weekend I was at Oakwell watching Chester FC earn a well-deserved replay in my grandmother’s hometown of Barnsley. We visited her pre-match to find her listening to Daniel O’Donnell and watching the UK Snooker Championships in what would become one of my favourite entries. Last Tuesday, she died.

As passings go, she had a good one. Pain-free and surrounded by family after a visit from the vicar, she couldn’t have asked for more unless O’Donnell himself had been passing Barnsley Hospital on Monday evening following a reasonably healthy 94 years.

There were more echoes of that weekend last December. Once again, Hartlepool United would be battling for a place in the Third Round draw against non-league opposition live on the BBC. Trevor Sinclair’s hat collection would again get an outing; this time, a festive combination of Del Boy and Tiny Tim.


Only Fools and Horses would turn out to be a theme for the evening…

Unlike last year, Hartlepool would at least salvage a draw this time as the Beeb’s cameras somewhat controversially chose Moor Lane for a second consecutive Friday fixture. In a largely uninspiring draw, Grimsby’s home tie against Shrewsbury was perhaps the next best bet.

Following the Groundhog weekend pattern, it seemed fitting to be heading to Lincolnshire for a second time in two rounds exactly a year to the day of that visit to South Yorkshire. Shrewsbury’s narrow victory over Gainsborough Trinity thwarted a potential Lincs derby but offered me a return trip to a ground I haven’t visited in a decade.

In September 2005 I took my girlfriend (now wife) to Cleethorpes for the day. It would begin with fish and chips for lunch and a trip to the arcades. It would end with JP Kalala’s 89th minute winner knocking a Tottenham side containing Paul Robinson, Ledley King and Robbie Keane out of the League Cup.

I can remember being among the visiting fans applauding the home side as most of Blundell Park spilled over onto the pitch to celebrate. I also recall those same fans trying to filter out of a tightly packed stand as quickly as possible to begin the long journey back down the A1 on a week night.

Also there that night was Grimsby fan Trevor Hewson. I say ‘there’ – he just happens to have been the first fan on the pitch to celebrate with Kalala following his late winner. I wish I could say I remembered this specifically but I probably had my head in my hands at the time.

He says: “I was sat in the Pontoon Stand with my brother and dad. Somehow I managed to swerve the steward, got my arms around Kalala and was giving him a bit of love! A colleague of mine was on holiday in Tenerife watching the game. He told me he’d gone thousands of miles to get away and still saw my ugly mug on the telly.”

Following something of a journeyman career that included 7 caps for Congo DR, cult hero Kalala retired from football in 2012 aged 30. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, he’s back in Nice where he began his career and now owns a beauty salon.


JP Kalala pictured about ten seconds before he met Trevor Hewson.

When he’s not watching the Mariners, Trevor’s weekends are usually taken up with another long-time passion. Following our chat on Saturday morning, he’ll be refereeing at Oakham Town.

He continues: “I qualified on the night Cantona jumped into the stand (against Crystal Palace). I was listening to that on the radio while cycling home from my Ref’s exam.

“I share a season ticket with my brother. We take my dad so I get to about half of the games at home. I ran the line for a Grimsby friendly down at Boston United once. I’m actually down to ref a charity match at Blundell Park in the near future.“

After 40 years supporting Grimsby, Trevor has seen his fair share of promotions and relegations over the years as the Mariners made their way up and down the leagues several times. Like so many fans at this level, though, he talks just as fondly about life in the lower half of the league ladder.

He continues: “I’m originally from between Louth and Grimsby. My first game was against Watford in the mid to late-Seventies…and at the time, we were doing alright!” he laughs.

“When I first started going they went through the leagues and were sitting pretty in the old Second Division with some pretty decent gates and bringing some of the 1940s glory back. I’m pragmatic enough to enjoy it whatever level they’re at. I’ve seen us win at Anfield, Goodison and also against Tottenham on a particular night,” he jokes.

“But it’s not necessarily different if you’re winning at Barnet or Eastleigh. We create a bit of an atmosphere and I actually enjoy the football now more than then. There’s not the buzz of being at Anfield and turning round to see the Kop behind you but the football is maybe more honest and you can enjoy it for what it is. It’s real. It’s a different experience.”

That hasn’t stemmed the ambition of the fans, though. A supporter campaign called ‘Operation Promotion’ raised £100,000 over the summer after another near miss. While some fans online seem split over Paul Hurst despite being well placed in the play-off positions, Trevor seems to still favour the Manager of five years. He’s proud to have been a part of the push to get back into the Football League, too.

He says: “It was a fantastic response to losing in the play-offs which were pretty painful and the fans backed the Club. Mr Hurst is a dour guy, he’s a Yorkshireman with a very monotone voice. He’s very controlled and perhaps media savvy so he’s not the warmest but he’s adapted the style of play somewhat. Last season it was percentage football but it’s been a little more open this year and better because of that.”

He’s level-headed about the ambitions of the Club, too, acknowledging the difficulty of getting out of the National League:

“We’re a big club in that league,” he continues. “But I would argue we’re only as big as Tranmere and Wrexham. We haven’t got the biggest budget despite the money that the fans put in. Forest Green put a lot of money about the place, so do Eastleigh. Tranmere and Cheltenham have similar budgets so we’re probably ‘par’ even though fans remember being up in the Championship. There’s a massive desire to go up and a little bit of expectation but I think some of that expectation is unrealistic.”

And, while the investment of the £100,000 hasn’t necessarily been seen in one bumper signing, Trevor says there’s been a noticeable difference in the quality of players coming in through the door.

He says: “We’ve got Padraig Amond who’s a decent finisher and something we probably lacked last season. We’ve also managed to retain some of our better players. Shaun Pearson had the opportunity to go to Barnsley, McKeown had the opportunity to go to a Championship club as a number two but we’ve managed to keep those players at the Club.”


Blundell Park – Home of the Mighty Mariners.

And that quality, he tells me, should cause Shrewsbury more than a few issues:

“They’re two leagues above so it’s going to be a challenge but if we play to our best, we’ve got a chance. We’re a good footballing side, we knock the ball about and we’ve got a goalscorer. If we play as we can then Shrewsbury are going to find it very difficult.”

With the Third Round draw now a Monday night showpiece event for the BBC, both sides will go into the game knowing who they’ll face. While Trevor thinks Hurst will be smart enough not to tell them, he has his own preferences on which ball will precede number 53.

He says: “I’ve seen Town at around 130 grounds. I’ve not seen us at Old Trafford. It would be Man United really because we haven’t played them since 1945/46. We played them twice over Christmas and beat them twice. It’d be nice to play them for the money it would bring it to the Club and that would pretty much buy us promotion.

“We have the record attendance at Old Trafford against Wolves in the 1939 FA Cup semi-final, you know? I would be having a banner with that on if we went through – we’ve got more fans than you!”

As the draw gets underway, I’m sat in the passenger seat with my Best Man Mark ‘Hadders’ Hadfield – he last joined me at Craven Cottage last season when we missed kick-off. Tonight we’ve found the ground and have arrived in plenty of time but find ourselves reversing down a gridlocked street just outside Blundell Park after a standoff between two cars going in opposite directions ahead of us.

“You’ve got the balls,” announces Mark Chapman to testicular cancer survivor John Hartson as Hadders does a sterling job of not collecting several wing mirrors.

We eventually park up in the knowledge that tonight’s winners won’t be heading to Old Trafford. It’s the slightly less juicy carrot of Cardiff City away. It’s a source of conversation between two blokes at the urinal shortly before kick-off.

“Helluva long way,” comments one chap. “Was a bit disappointing last time we visited,” agrees another, in reference to the League Two play-off final defeat to Cheltenham Town that ended their giant-killing League Cup season.

We make our way to seats in the Lower Findus stand; I paid for the tickets while Hadders is buying the post-match chips.

“Is it kids for a quid?” he quips at my generosity. It is, actually, although we’re probably pushing it giving his impending 40th birthday.


Hadders wasn’t impressed with the outfit he had to wear to take advantage of Kids For A Quid night…


…as Uncle Albert fired up the Findus Stand.

We’re seated right on the halfway line offering a superb view of the action; a far cry from the restricted views offered for triple the price in the Premier League. As the game gets underway, Grimsby start on the front foot, having a decent chance within the first minute before winning a foul on the edge of the box that earns Junior Brown a booking.

“Ayup! Foam! He’s got bloody foam!” announces the man behind us at the sight of the referee marking out the wall with an aerosol. His excitement drew a laugh from those nearby while the friends he was with made a mental note to grab him a festive Lynx set for Christmas.

We’re immediately impressed by the Mariners in what is clearly a proper cup tie from the off. With full-blooded tackles and a high tempo, Grimsby look the better side as we discuss the difficulty in spotting the gulf in league places. Shrewsbury’s several attempts to counter attack are dangerous enough to suggest they have more than enough pace and quality to punish the National League side though.

“Referee! Where’s he going?” screams the Gillette-enthusiast behind as visiting fullback Grandison gains yards up the touchline before launching a surprisingly delicate throw-in back into play for a second time. The frustrations of the touchline fans aren’t helped when Seb Stockbridge blows to remind a Grimsby player where he should be taking a throw from not long after.

The best chance of the first half comes in the 28th minute when John-Paul Pittman’s chip into the box was met by Padraig Amond on the turn. His volley bounced off the top of the crossbar, robbing him and us of one of the goals of this season’s FA Cup (it’s well worth a look at around 30 seconds on the BBC website) that rouses the crowd in support of their side’s dominance.

The game comes to an unwelcome halt in the 39th minute when Conor Townsend’s break into the box is halted by Jayson Leutwiler. The crowd screams for a penalty as the visiting ‘keeper brings the Hull City loanee down but it quickly becomes clear the big Swiss stopper has sustained a serious facial injury in the process. He’s eventually stretchered off to warm applause with a badly broken nose, concussion and facial lacerations.

“Thought it was a pen,” Trevor texts from the Pontoon end to my left at half-time. “Right in front of us as well.” TV replays suggest he’s right.

We notice a few advertising hoardings during the break. There aren’t many places other than Cleethorpes where you’ll see world renowned beer brands advertised alongside the local fish market. Meanwhile, the local optician is doing a roaring trade.


Heineken and Haddock. A match made in heaven.


“I can read the top line but the one below it is blurry…”


Shrewsbury start the second half with renewed vigour and look more threatening in the opening five minutes than they did for much of the first period. We notice some discontent around us, which comes as a surprise – rather than encouraging the team, it feels a little disgruntled which seems unreasonable given the domination of a side two divisions above them during the first 45 minutes. An example of the reality check required among some that Trevor mentioned, perhaps.

“Happy Birthday to Pete Ramsden on your 60th birthday,” booms the stadium PA in the 60th minute, as an image of Pete beams out on scoreboard. Inexplicably, he doesn’t look a day over eight years old on the black and white image. Must be the Lincolnshire sea air.

Grimsby almost take the lead again in the 62nd minute with Townsend’s cross-cum-shot bouncing off the face of the crossbar. It’s followed by a free header for Shrewsbury’s Collins eight yards out that is tamely guided into the ground and the grateful arms of McKeown as both sides push for the opener.

“What are you doing ref?” screams a man in winter wear, leaving his seat in the final ten minutes to charge towards the pitch as frustrations with the match official grew. Hadders lets out a chuckle:

“How can you take a man being aggressive in a bobble hat seriously?” he ponders as ASBO Compo sits back down.


This bloke watched the entire match on an oversized Smartphone. What a plonker.

“Tonight’s attendance is 3,366,” announces the PA. “Including 75 visiting supporters.” A small snigger is quickly drowned out by applause which seems to be directed to the second part of that announcement. There’s a genuine acknowledgement that 75 fans have braved the six-hour round journey for a match moved from a Saturday to a Monday for television. Like Trevor said: This is proper football.

Superbly named sub Omar Bogle almost breaks the deadlock within minutes of coming on, beating his man before opening his body to curl a left footed shot just over the far upright. Further chances follow in the final minutes and I point out the clock to Hadders in the 89th…the moment a certain Congolese barber broke the deadlock in 2005.

“Come on Town, we deserve this!” shouts the man next to me, and he’s right. It’s not to be this time, though, and the ref brings the game to a close to warm applause across the ground.

We catch Trevor outside the Club Shop on our way out of the ground. He seems pleased that we’ve enjoyed the game in a full-blooded match that saw 30 shots and 29 fouls despite the lack of goals.

“The Slade thing gives it a bit of an edge,” he says on the potential of a trip to Cardiff City, referring to former manager Russell rather than festive frontman Noddy. The man who masterminded that Tottenham win still divides opinion here.

Trevor continues: “He produced a relatively successful side but threw in the towel and buggered off to Yeovil before the playoff game. He’s not on my Christmas card list. As for Cardiff, it’ll be so tough but if they underestimated us then you never really know.

“I’d be torn to go or not as it’d be another club to tick off but it’s a bloody long way and I always get terribly drunk in the Welsh capital. As ever, if we do get through, it’s all about the money into the Club and there are lots of places where we’d not get as much of it as Cardiff.”

With that, we bid farewell and head off towards his recommendation of a chippy. Unfortunately, it’s closed for the night so Hadders is buying the poppadoms as a local curry house takes our custom. We wash down the Chef’s Special with a couple of Cobras. It’s the perfect end to a rough week.

Finally, after more than a decade, I can associate Grimsby Town with Baghdad Duck instead of the Congolese coiffeur from Cleethorpes. Redemption, at last.

Blundell Park

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16

P 7 W 2 D 3 L 2 F 5 A 6 GD -1


Grimsby Town FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

FA Cup Second Round

Monday 7th December 2015

Blundell Park, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire




Grimsby Town FC                             0             – 0             Shrewsbury Town FC



Grimsby Town FC: McKeown; Tait, Nsiala, Gowling, Townsend; Arnold, Disley, Clay, Monkhouse; Amond (Alabi 86’), Pittman (Bogle 77’).

Subs: Robertson, Brown, Pearson, Jones, Henderson.

Shrewsbury Town FC: Leutwiler; (Halstead 45’); Grandison, Gerrard, Knight-Percival, Brown; Kaikai, Lawrence, Ogogo, Whalley; Vernon (Akpa Akpro 80’), Collins (Barnett 80’).

Subs: Sadler, McAlinden, Clark, Smith.

Referee: Seb Stockbridge

Attendance: 3,366 (75 Shrewsbury fans)

FA Cup First Round: Gainsborough Trinity FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


Gainsborough Trinity FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC  

FA Cup First Round

Sunday 8th November 2015

The Gainsborough Martin & Co Arena, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire

It’s 1am. Salford City are about to kick off the second half of their FA Cup First Round tie against Notts County. Danny Webber is 20 seconds away from giving them the lead. I’m about to almost wake up my entire house.

As the BBC dedicated another couple of hours to the Class of ’92 owned Club – much to the chagrin of the type of people who write into Points of View about their being an Old Trafford bias in recent weeks – there could be no doubting the choice of broadcast was vindicated.

Friday night tends to be a gig night for me, meaning I’d be ignoring anything FA Cup related until returning home from hosting Buxton’s monthly comedy night at the Pavilion Gardens. While Salford City were playing their League Two visitors off the Moor Lane pitch, I was attempting to weave comedy magic from a girl called Jade about her favourite fireworks. Wiggly Worms, if you happen to be a connoisseur.

With Saturday’s fixtures also out due to work commitments, there’d be no opportunity to see Barnsley slump out to National League opposition or see if Worcester City could work their magic for a second year running against seasoned underdogs Sheffield United. In a word, no.

Scanning Sunday’s fixtures, one seemed to stand out. With 71 places separating Conference North’s Gainsborough Trinity and League One Shrewsbury Town, it looked like the perfect place for me and my six-year-old son to get our weekend’s football fix before the North London derby.

Dashing across to Lincolnshire following his Beavers’ duties at our village Remembrance Service, I pass the Gainsborough Trinity Arts Centre which I vaguely recall gigging at in my early days as a stand-up. The details are sketchy in my mind which, just like North London derbies, suggests it possibly didn’t go well. I tend to be able to recall every kick/punchline on the memorable nights.

We park around half a mile away from the ground and make our way through the terraced streets. There’s a traditional feel to its location that reminds me of the approach to Anfield, right up to turning the final corner where newer housing is being built. Jacob points out a small wall by someone’s house over which the pitch is situated and we discuss how many free footballs they must accumulate on matchdays courtesy of any wayward shooting.

On entering the ground, I keep my eye out for Chairman Richard Kane. We arranged a quick pre-match chat over Twitter and I’m keen to meet the man behind the profile picture; he’s certainly been active on social media since the Fourth Qualifying Round win at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground drumming up interest for today’s game.

Trinity warm up on a chilly November afternoon in Lincolnshire

Trinity warm up on a chilly November afternoon in Lincolnshire

Dressed in a sharp blue suit to match his side’s shirts looking busy as kick-off approaches, he makes his way back to the touchline to chat warmly with supporters seated in the large main stand behind the dugouts. I catch him for a brief chat and ask him what being in the FA Cup First Round means to a Club like Gainsborough:

“We’re enjoying it,” he says with a big smile. “It’s a carnival atmosphere as you can see. Financially it’s a massive boost for the Club – we don’t get these paydays very often. Whatever the result, we’re still going to come out financially better off.”

While more glamorous potential visitors might have been available at this stage of the competition, the gulf between the two sides in the league ladder is considerable, with both sides coming into the game in lower midtable of their respective divisions in the third and sixth tiers.

With Trinity capitalising on this by promoting the game as David vs Goliath, there’s a buzz about the place that an upset could well be on the cards.

He continues: “Our lads are up for it, it’s the FA Cup and anything can happen. We’re going out there to try and win it and we might get another upset! There’s been a couple already this weekend and hopefully we’re gonna be the third one.”

And what about watching Salford, who overcame similar odds to book their place in Round Two? That must give renewed hope, I ask:

“Oh, absolutely it does,” he agrees. “Salford City are in a different position to us with the Class of ’92 and some serious money behind them. We haven’t got the same financial clout but financially for us, today is superb.

“But it’s also for the town,” he continues. “We don’t get days like this where we can celebrate Gainsborough and it’s great for that.”

Trinity's angry looking mascot looking for some bite in midfield

Trinity’s angry looking mascot looking for some bite in midfield

The people of Gainsborough have certainly responded to the heavy marketing the Club have invested in around the town. With over 2,000 fans still piling into the ground as we chat, there’s no doubting the game has ignited local interest – and it’s something Richard is keen to build on.

He continues: “We’ve really pushed the boat out so that people think I’ve enjoyed my afternoon, I’m going to start going along for league games.

“Our average gate is six to eight hundred on a normal day. Gainsborough’s not a massive town anyway so if we can get a few more to come through the gate off the back of this, fantastic. The lads are up for it so we’re just gonna go for it and see what happens.”

Finally, I ask him if he’d take a replay now or is it all about getting the job done today?: “Let’s try and win it today – take the stress away! I can’t cope with anymore,” he laughs. “It’d be nice to get a result today. If we get a draw, it’s another cash boost but I’d prefer to get it over with to be honest. I still fancy Sheffield United in the next round but bring them all on – we’ll have the David and Goliath flags out all over again.”

With that, he’s dragged away in a different direction; there’s no doubting his enthusiasm for the Club and the occasion, as a Shark mascot approaches from the opposite direction bearing Kane’s company name as the shirt sponsor.

The Gainsborough food hut where there are no boundaries to your order

The Gainsborough food hut where the only boundary to food orders is your imagination

Jacob and I share a tasty steak pie, chips, mushy peas and gravy and stand near the far corner of the end Gainsborough will attack in the first half. Behind the opposite goal, a shallow, open terrace is slowly filling with visiting fans from Shropshire.

Behind us, a group of lads also enjoy a pre-match snack. The boggling array of alternatives at the food hatch has been taken advantage of by their group – one of them is tucking into an unusual combination of chips, cheese and mushy peas. It must be a Lincolnshire thing.

A release of red balloons marks an impeccably observed silence before the game gets underway with the Football League visitors, sporting an Argentinian-style away kit, looking confident in possession during the opening stages.

The Two Ronnies briefly in shot as balloons are released during a period of silence

The Two Ronnies briefly in shot as balloons are released during a period of silence

Two men stood beside me discuss Trinity’s chances during this period of play:

“I just hope they’re still in it at half-time,” says one. “Be positive!” says the other.

“I am!” he replies. “You’re not,” replies his mate. “You said ‘in it’, not ‘win it’.”

“Same thing!” he says. “It’s not,” his mate replies. “I hope they’re winning at half-time.”

With that, they agree to disagree and focus back in on the game after what quickly descended into a cross between a marital dispute and a Two Ronnies sketch. Another man behind them chips in with “as long as it’s not a rugby score!” and I briefly fear it might all begin again.


It takes nine minutes for Trinity to get the ball into our half of the pitch with real purpose, winning a freekick which is dangerously floated into the box. The packed terrace behind the goal responds, as they do again for the first shot on target after 15 minutes and corner in the 19th.

“Referee, throw-in!” shout Ronnies A and B as a deep cross floats out of play and back in again before coming to rest in front of us. “It was a goal-kick, that, mate,” they say to Shrews’ defender Dominic Smith as he jogs over to take it. He smiles and nods in agreement as he launches the ball back into play.

While Shrewsbury have the better of the opening 45 minutes overall, the best chance of the game falls to Trinity in first half injury time. Marc Newsham’s looping header beat the Shrewsbury ‘keeper Leutwiler but not the far post as it bounced square off the woodwork and back into play. The whistle follows seconds later as the players leave the field to warm applause.

A packed terrace show their appreciation for the home side

A packed terrace show their appreciation for the home side

We head for the main stand behind the dugouts to watch the second half. Tired six-year-old legs, the threat of rain and the occasional drift of concentration to Premier League Collector Cards from my little wingman suggest it might be our best bet.

It was a good vantage point to see Abu Ogogo’s unnecessary kick on Brogan after the ball had gone on 55 minutes that incensed the Gainsborough player and bench. Missed by the referee, it was only deemed worthy of a talking to in a competitive game with more than a couple of strong challenges. It was the first example of Shrewsbury showing signs of frustration, although the balance was restored soon after when Jonathan D’Laryea picked up the game’s only booking for a more innocuous looking challenge.

Despite looking more equal to their opponents after the break, Gainsborough struggle to carve out the same number of clear cut chances as the first half. Nathan Jarman’s deflected shot causes chaos in the box as Leutwiler punches away and is fouled in the process, but beyond that chances are few. In the 70th minute, it would cost them.

Under pressure, Jake Picton’s attempted tackle, clearance and slip sees the ball robbed by Shrewsbury who advance at speed into the space created. James Collins’ fine shot into the bottom corner breaks the deadlock and, with it, the hopes of so many packed in behind the goal. They come close to adding a second just a few minutes later, hitting the crossbar.


“How long is left?” asks Jacob, somewhere between being engrossed in the game and enquiring about his post-match McDonalds. “10 more minutes mate,” I reply. “There’s one more big chance in this, just wait…”

A raft of substitutions, including Player/Assistant Manager Darryn Stamp’s introduction soon after, prove only enough to muster one more clear cut chance in injury time – and what a chance it was. A short period of head tennis advances the ball into the path of Brogan who controls the ball and shoots narrowly wide in injury time. The chance is gone, and Trinity are on their way out.

As the Shrewsbury players head for the dressing room on the final whistle, they’re given warm applause by the fans in the stand. It’s a small but sporting gesture that seems to be appreciated and is perhaps a little rarer within the more hostile surrounds of League One.

The game received just 16 seconds coverage on the BBC’s Sunday evening highlights package; Collins’ goal deemed the only moment worth noting in what had been a fairly entertaining tie. Unlikely we’ll see a documentary commissioned about Trinity just yet, then, but more extended highlights are available online.

The Trinity players head inside following a debrief on the pitch, with Chairman Kane there to greet each of them. His combined congratulations and commiserations are a reflection of what his side has accomplished tinged with the disappointment that it’s over for another year.

Chairman Richard Kane shows his appreciation for each of his players

Chairman Richard Kane shows his appreciation for each of his players

Chairman Richard Kane shows his appreciation for each of his players

As the last of the players trudge towards the dressing room, Darryn Stamp is approached by two young lads aged about eight:

“Can I have your shin pads?” one asks. The other, almost in unison, requests his boots. “Are you joking?” he laughs. “It’s not the Premier League, you know. I need these for the rest of the season! Or are you trying to tell me something?”

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16

P 6 W 2 D 2 L 2 F 5 A 6 GD -1

Gainsborough Trinity FC vs Shrewsbury Town FC  

FA Cup First Round

Sunday 8th November 2015

The Gainsborough Martin & Co Arena, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire


Gainsborough Trinity FC             0       – 1             Shrewsbury Town FC


                Collins (71)


Gainsborough Trinity FC: 1. Budtz, 3. Lacey, 2. Roma, 6. Picton, 8. Brogan, 7. Russell, 4. Binns (14. Bignall 76’), 5. D’Laryea, 10. Jarman, 9. Newsham (12. Stamp 82’), 11. Drury (16. Yates 83’).

Substitutes:  15. Davis, 18. Rigby, 19. Bemrose, 21. Hedge.

Shrewsbury Town FC: 1. Leutwiler, 31. Smith, 13. Gerrard, 4. Whitbread, 3. Sadler, 17. Ogogo, 6. Black, 29. Cole (19. McAlinden 74’), 22. Clark (16. Vernon 62’), 9. Collins, 12. Brown (10. Whalley 45’).

Substitutes: 7. Lawrence, 23. Barnett, 28. Patterson, 33. Rowley.

Referee: Darren Bond

Att: 2,180

FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round: AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC  

FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round

Saturday 24th October 2015

Kellamergh Park, Warton, Lancashire

When Ipswich Town trudged off the Old Trafford pitch after their Premier League record 9-0 defeat, there can’t have been many pats on the back in the dressing room. After Wigan shipped nine at White Hart Lane, it’s unlikely Roberto Martinez congratulated each of his players individually for their efforts before handing them a Chomp or maybe a Freddo.

On a cold, wet and thoroughly miserable morning on the edge of the Peak District, though, that’s exactly what my son’s U7s team got as they left the field sodden with heads held high.

Regular visitors might recall his fledgling team shipping more than twenty goals against Matlock Town a few short months ago against an incessant wave of child-sized footballing robots. This morning, while perhaps more of a psychological victory than an actual one, our team of miniature heroes played their soaked socks off to more than halve the scoreline of that rather miserable Saturday morning.

As we set off for the Lancashire coast with the promise of fish, chips and illuminations following a quick bath, his happy demeanour would have been in stark contrast to the last FA Cup visitors of our destination.

AFC Fylde of the National League North is a team on the rise – just ask Coleshill Town. Despatched to the tune of nine goals without reply a fortnight ago, the Midland Premier League side would have probably taken a cuddle from their mum and the promise of a pack of Match Attax cards as they left Kellamergh Park.

Having devastatingly missed 3QR due to the inconvenience of a honeymoon, I was eager to get to Fylde in the hope of an upset. Daniel Agnew, recently recruited Head of Media from Blackburn Rovers would be my guide. Having been dropped off by my wife at what Google Maps suggested was the ground, I set off in search of floodlights via Kirkham town centre.

AFC Fylde's impressive Club shop. Not to be confused with the stadium.

AFC Fylde’s impressive Club shop. Not to be confused with the stadium.

AFC Fylde’s recent rise through the divisions has been impressive. Founded in 1988, they spent the first two decades of their existence as Kirkham and Wesham. Winners of the West Lancashire Premier League for seven out of eight seasons between 1999 and 2007 (a run that incorporated a 21-month unbeaten run), they were eventually accepted into the North West Counties League in 07/08. An FA Vase, three promotions and a name change later, I find them top of the sixth tier National League North. Well, I say I find them…

“Scuse me mate, are you local?” asks a man pulling into Morrisons car park. “Looking for the stadium?” I ask, with a shake of the head. I ask the same question to a passing woman.

“It’s just up there,” she said, pointing in the direction we’d driven. I qualified this by checking it was the stadium they were playing in and she nodded with confidence.

To cut a long, breathless and embarrassingly unfit story short, it wasn’t. It was about three miles away and Google Maps had helpfully directed me to the (admittedly impressive) Club Shop. The lady in question had pointed me towards AFC Fylde’s new stadium which remains under construction ahead of a move in the summer. I’ve no idea if the two Barrow fans made it and would love to hear from them if they happen to be reading this now.

The actual ground. Not to be confused with...oh never mind.

The actual ground. Not to be confused with…oh never mind.

I collect my match pass, head into the ground and nestle myself in today’s makeshift home team press box – they’ve been moved this afternoon to make way for two separate radio teams from Cumbria.

Flustered and red-faced, I introduce myself to the assembled team. Among them is Jack Connor, a volunteer media officer for the Club, and Daniel himself.

“Have you managed to chat to anyone?” he asks, helpfully. I admit that I’ve actually been for a light jog in the town centre. They’re quick to make me feel instantly at home with Jack in particular coming across as the dyed in the wool AFC Fylde fan.

He says: “The first game I ever went to was the FA Vase Final at Wembley. I was 13 at the time, first visit to Wembley and I’ve never forgot it. I went to see them a few times a year after that and my affection for them has just grown and grown.

“We’ve been very lucky (to see so many) promotions through those years but as you get higher and higher it becomes more difficult. The Club’s progressing really quickly, we’ve got the new ground coming next season and I think ten years ago if you’d have said we’d be playing Barrow, Stockport and Boston then people would have said you were mental. It’s been a privilege to be a part of.”

And how has the relationship with neighbours Blackpool developed given the level of dissatisfaction at Bloomfield Road and ever-closing gap between the two clubs?:

“I think a lot of the Blackpool fans are quite supportive,” he says. “We do get quite a lot of fans coming from Blackpool, Fleetwood, Preston. The main rivalry is with Chorley, FC United and since last season, Barrow actually. Our fans don’t exactly see eye to eye and they’re quite feisty games.

“There hasn’t really been a rivalry there with Blackpool but who knows? Maybe over the next few seasons there might be. I’d love to get Blackpool here. Last season in the First Round at Plymouth it was a great experience and I’d love to do that again.”

There’s no denying Jack’s enthusiasm for the Club as we chat. “Sometimes it’s difficult to separate being a fan and a media person,” he tells me. “I sometimes get funny looks cheering the side on at away games!”

The teams head out approximately 10 minutes after I arrive.

The teams head out approximately 10 minutes after I arrive.

The Barrow fans are in fine voice at the opposite end of the field as they chant loud and proud about their status as reigning National League North champions. It comes with extra bite today given the growing rivalry between the two sides.

Expecting consolidation after a second promotion in three seasons, Fylde defied the odds again last year to push for the title. 85 points was only enough to be runners-up though; despite doing the double over Barrow, it was the Cumbrians who sealed promotion to the fifth tier as Fylde fell in the playoffs to Guiseley.

Exacting revenge is just another incentive for former FA Cup underdog hero Dave Challinor’s side as they attempt to reach the First Round for the third time in his four and a half seasons in charge. The Barrow fans find repeated energy to remind the hosts of their superiority in the league ladder before turning their attention to Fylde midfield Danny Rowe.

“Danny Rowe is a wanker, is a wanker!” they chant to their former player as the teams get ready for kick-off.

“We’d like to remind all fans to remember to be respectful to both sides, each other and match officials,” says stadium announcer Brian stood just in front of us. “In other words, stop swearing at our players!” he adds, off-mic.

To describe the opening half hour as ‘cagey’ would be being complimentary. With the two sides perhaps sensing each other out in the months that have passed since they last locked horns, the media team collectively counted a shot each off target in the opening 25 minutes. My notes on the game largely consist of observations about the sheep in the field adjacent to the stand we’re sitting in. Dan sits beside me trying to find crumbs of action to add to his match report.

An old matchday programme from the Kirkham and Wesham days. Useful reading during a largely action-free first half.

An old matchday programme from the Kirkham and Wesham days. Useful reading during a largely action-free first half.

I ask him whether the match highlights are recorded. “We do for the management team,” he tells me. “They don’t go online though. You have to put them up in the level above but otherwise you’re just giving free scouting to other Clubs.”

“If Danny Rowe scores, I hope he does the full Adebayor and slides in front of them on his knees,” says Jack, as another chant strikes up at the Barrow end.

We almost find out as Rowe lines up a free-kick in the 29th minute before firing it into the wall. Barring a run and overhit cross down the right flank for Barrow soon after, it’s almost all the first half has to offer.

“You could call that a deep, seeking cross?” I suggest to Dan, helpfully, as we watch the ball bounce over the far side wall into a tree. “Or a sheep-seeking cross,” adds Jack, more accurately.

I find out a bit more about Dan’s role at the Club at the break and how he came to join after a decade at Ewood Park:

“It’s basically to raise the profile of the Club,” he tells me. “Things are going well and the Chairman is very ambitious so they looked to bring someone in with experience from a higher level. There are quite a few differences but it’s a nice change really. You get to see the grassroots side. The game is the same although perhaps the facilities are a little different.”

As if asked to inject drama during the break by the two opposing managers, for the sake of entertainment if nothing else, the second half begins with a bang. Just a minute after the restart, Dan Pilkington’s two-footed lunge right in front of our media box is as clear a red card as you’re likely to see. Referee Adrian Holmes doesn’t hesitate and, suddenly, the home side have a one-man advantage.

A game changing red card just a minute into the second half.

A game changing red card just a minute into the second half.

They seek to take advantage with a freekick in a dangerous area in the 49th minute. Danny Rowe steps up and blasts the ball high over the wall, goal and into the car park to the jeers of the visiting supporters at the opposite end.

“I dunno what they’re cheering about,” says stadium announcer Brian, stood on the concrete in front of us. “He’s just taken a window out on their coach.”

Barrow remind the home side of their threat in the 55th minute with a header going just wide but it’s not long before Fylde put the home supporters nerves at rest.

On 59 minutes, lively winger Dion Charles attacks down the right hand side after a threatening first half on the left saw him well shackled by the Barrow fullback. Jinking into the box, his shot takes a deflection and flies past the ‘keeper on his near post.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!” screams Jack beside me, doing little to hide his enthusiasm for Fylde as the players celebrate in front of us. “Sorry about that,” he says, as he takes his seat beside me at the restart. “I just really don’t like Barrow.”

Dion Charles celebrates the game's opening goal.

Dion Charles celebrates the game’s opening goal.

The game enters a strange period following the goal. Fylde appear to be comfortable in possession, inviting the 10-men on to them to force the game. Barrow, meanwhile, look a little leggy at times as if lacking the energy to chase their opponents down in the search for an equaliser.

“I don’t like this!” says Jack, as Barrow begin to find a rhythm in the closing quarter of an hour. “I don’t like this one bit!” He has reason to be nervous, as a fine shot from Grimes that looks destined for the top corner is acrobatically pushed out by young Matt Urwin.

“What a save!” I say aloud as the lads in the media box concur. It’s at this point the lady sat beside me for the whole game, a very pleasant neighbour who is perhaps in her early seventies, leans towards me.

“I’m glad they’re saying nice things,” she confides. “Although I wouldn’t say anything if they weren’t.”

I discover I’ve been sitting next to the AFC Fylde’s ‘keeper’s grandmother all along. Beaming with pride, she tells me a little more about the home team’s custodian and how he’s keen to impress after joining recently.

I reassure her that his performance has been excellent, and it has. In a game of few clear cut chances, he’s dominated his box at set pieces and pulled out a superb save in a half in which he’d otherwise been rarely troubled.

It’s as if my words curse him as, minutes later, a Barrow corner is fumbled as Urwin ventures out of his goal to unsuccessfully punch before his defenders clear their lines. Thankfully, he claims a second corner with great confidence sooner after.

In the knowledge that Matt’s grandmother and possibly parents are sat in the three seats to my left, the game takes on new significance. I kick every ball with the family as Barrow push for a late leveller and can honestly say it’s the most stressed I can remember being at a football match in a while. It’s hard not to share their pride in those final moments as I imagine them just a short decade or so ago cheering on from the sidelines at their own junior football match as I did earlier this morning.

There’s a bit of unsavoury afters between Ashley Grimes and the more diminutive Matty Hughes in injury time (“Leave him alone, ya bully!” screams the adorable Nanna Urwin) and I clearly hear Grimes taunting his opponent by repeatedly telling him that he plays for Fylde. Clearly last season’s double has slipped his mind…

As the final whistle blows, it signals a third consecutive victory for the home team over Grimes and co. and another venture into the First Round proper for the National League North leaders. A massive cheer goes up as Brian announces that the Coasters will be ball number 50 in Monday’s draw.


As the players gather in the bar for sandwiches and the odd bottle of Sol, I’m fortunate enough to be part of Dave Challinor’s post-match interviews in a portakabin labelled Managers Office.

“It’s a great competition for all non-league clubs,” he says when asked about what the FA Cup means to him. “Even as a player you wanted to try and get to the Third Round and try and draw a Premier League side. I was lucky enough to do that with Tranmere and progress to the quarter finals twice.

“The aim (was) to get to the First Round proper,” he continues. “It’s swings and roundabouts as to whether you want the lowest ranked team at home or a Sheffield United away. Players would probably want to go and experience that but whoever we play, it’s an opportunity to show what we can do on a national stage.

“I suppose you look at ex-Clubs but Tranmere (would be) a nice one. You look at Fleetwood and Blackpool as potentially really big games. Even last year, getting Plymouth was a massive tie. To go there, play in front of 7,000 people and get applauded off was great for our lads. It’s great to be where we are and we can enjoy the draw now.”

The manager's office...

The manager’s office…

The manager's office...

…where Dave Challinor shares his views after yet another win for the Coasters.

I catch up with Dan before leaving Kellamergh Park in the direction of Blackpool Tower.

“It’s a big achievement for a Club like this,” he says. “With the move to the new stadium, moving into a higher league is what we want but this is an added bonus. To get a Football League club would be fantastic…preferably Blackpool! I think that would be the fan’s choice,” he smiles.

With the possibility of just a division between the two sides from as early as next season, the wait might be over sooner than anyone anticipated.

The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16

P 5 W 2 D 2 L 1 F 5 A 5 GD 0

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


AFC Fylde vs Barrow AFC  

FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round

Saturday 24th October 2015

Kellamergh Park, Warton, Lancashire


AFC Fylde                               1               – 0             Barrow AFC


Charles (59)


AFC Fylde: 1. Urwin, 2. C. Hughes, 3. Whittle, 4. Baker, 5. Hannigan (c), 6. Collins, 7. Charles (12. Lloyd 79’), 8. Rowe, 9. Blinkhorn, 10. M.Hughes, 11. Wilson.

Substitutes: 13. Hinchliffe, 14. Sumner, 15. Barnes, 16. Mullen, 17. Hardy, 18. Sloane.

Barrow AFC: 12. Dixon, 23. Symington, 3. Ashton, 5. Livesey (c), 17. Williams, 2. Cowperthwaite, 15. Mellor, 7. Haworth (20. Newby 75’), 10. Cook (26. Van Den Broek 68’), 14. Wilson (18. Grimes 32’), 11. Pilkington.

Substitutes: 1.Taylor, 6. Grand, 16. Fofana, 8. Harvey.

Referee: Adrian Holmes

Att: 901

FA Cup Third Qualifying Round: Sporting Khalsa vs Spalding United (sort of)

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Before we begin, a small confession about why this round’s blog is a little different. In July, I got married to my long-suffering partner (and now wife). It was a wonderful day filled with lots of fantastic people we care about including our two beautiful children.

After the wedding, we headed off to Disneyland Paris with the kids for our ‘honeymoon’ and had a fantastic time with Mickey, Minnie (both big FA Cup enthusiasts) and Goofy (more of a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy man). We did, however, promise ourselves a more adult-themed break without the kids once autumn came.

My wife loves me. She appreciates and adores my every fault and foible. She understands and appreciates my commitment – perhaps obsession – with football, the FA Cup and more recently non-league. She was not going to plan our honeymoon around the fortunes of Droylsden, Whitley Bay or Bamber Bridge.

There was a potential reprieve for a while in the shape of Marine vs Northwich Victoria. I can say with some confidence that I was probably the only person on the island of Crete with a vested interest in the outcome of the delayed Third Qualifying tie ending in a draw.

With our break covering both the weekend and midweek’s fixtures, Tuesday’s match represented the brief window of opportunity for a replay on my return until Josh Amis’ injury time settler made it 4-2 to the underdogs and helped Vics progress into the Fourth Qualifying Round. Bugger.

Had I been in the country, though, it’s possible I wouldn’t have spotted the actual story of the round. Sporting Khalsa, of the 9th tier Midland Football League, moved within one game of the opportunity to face Coventry City, Sheffield United and half of the Football League for the first time in their short history with a 2-1 replay win over Spalding United.

Ahead of their historic game against FC United of Manchester, we caught up with Media Officer Mat Danks for a quick chat to find out more about their journey so far and the aspirations for the rest of the season:

Underdog: Mat, ahead of Sporting Khalsa’s biggest ever game, how has this week differed from the average?

Mat: We’re expecting perhaps 50 times more than an average crowd so it’s all hands to the pump. The Aspray Arena is brilliant and the facilities excellent for this level, but we’re going above and beyond on this occasion. We’re putting up marquees, bringing in more staff, going the whole hog.

U: You’re now the lowest ranked side left in this season’s FA Cup – can you go one step further and beat FC United on Saturday?

M: Miracles happen in football. We know it’s going to be tough. Really tough. But we prepare and we have to believe. The lads have done brilliantly and it’s going to mean topping all of that once again to succeed.

U: What does a run like this do for a Club like Sporting Khalsa? And how much would it mean to reach the First Round and land a tie with a Football League side?

M: It would be huge– we’ve only been at this ground for six years and a lot of people don’t even know what we’re about. They’ve certainly not seen the massive investment and work that’s been done here. So, we’re making new friends all the time. That’s the important thing going forward.

U: It’s been an incredible rise for a small community club formed less than three decades ago to now be just one game away from the FA Cup First Round – can you tell us a little more about the Club’s history from inception to this point?

M: The lads formed the club in the early 1980s from the Sikh temple in Willenhall as a Sunday side. It’s grown from there. The Sikh influence is there but this is all about diversity and football. After moving around a bit they finally settled at the Aspray about six years ago.

U: Tell us about the moment Simeon Townsend’s winning header went in against Spalding?

M: It was bedlam. We rode our luck a little but these lads don’t know they’re beaten.

U: What aspirations does the Club have for the future?

M: There’s a view that the infrastructure exists to push for Conference football but it’s all about organic growth, little by little, season by season.

U: Can you tell us a little more about your involvement with the Club?

M: I’m the club communications drone. I do comms for a living so writing, doing match reports and all that stuff come natural. This has been great over the last few weeks as it means I can really add value to the team and club.

U: If you were to dare to dream of the First Round, who would be your ideal draw and why?

M: Walsall. I think everyone here would go into meltdown over that!

U: And finally, why is the FA Cup special to you? What’s your favourite memory?

M: I’m 37 so the Coventry v Tottenham final is the special one for me. What a day that was and won by a goal of true quality. You’d just not see something like that these days!

U: Thanks for your time, Mat. Best of luck for Saturday.


Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.


FA Cup Second Qualifying Round: Salford City FC vs Curzon Ashton FC

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Salford City FC vs Curzon Ashton FC

FA Cup Second Qualifying Round

Saturday 26th September 2015

Moor Lane, Salford, Greater Manchester

We’re 3-1 up. There’s ten minutes to go. The ball breaks to the diminutive number 6 on the edge of the box who controls it and…drags his shot just wide of the post. It was close to being the greatest moment for the Jones family since the first-half brace I scored on my Primary School team debut two decades ago.

Since a baptism of fire a fortnight back, my son’s U7s team led 2-1 at half-time before losing 3-2 last weekend before spurning that chance to make it 4-1 this morning. It turned out to be crucial as the opposition found two late goals to draw 3-3. We’re basically following the plotline of every great sporting underdog story ever told.

Undeterred, and rightfully proud of his performance, my son had other engagements after he’d washed the mud from his legs and chocolate from his mouth. I’d be making the trip north with the second of three important games on 5 Live for company. Having sat through every minute of Tottenham’s recent capitulations against Manchester City, (and seen more than a few 3-1 leads surrendered down the Lane, too) that one was pretty sweet.

Matchday at Moor Lane.

Matchday at Moor Lane.

More than a few fans are enjoying the early televised kick-off as I arrive in the Moor Lane clubhouse to catch the second half. A handful of Curzon Ashton fans with head in hands appear to be from the Blue half of Manchester in more ways than one, while two United fans aged no older than seven discuss the likelihood of the Red Devils going top of the league later. It’s endearing to see how unaccustomed they seem to the prospect.

It’s been a successful 12 months for Salford City since our visit at the First Qualifying stage last season. 30 wins and 92 goals were just enough to pip Darlington 1883 to the title and secure promotion to the seventh tier at the first time of asking since their high profile takeover.

Standing in their way today would be Curzon Ashton. Struggling towards the foot of National League North following two consecutive promotions, the visitors offer an opportunity for the Ammies to test themselves against beatable opposition from the division they hope to be a part of next season.

As the final whistle blows at White Hart Lane, I head outside to meet Salford City Chairman Karen Baird. We grab a quick chat outside the Clubhouse.

“I got involved a couple of years ago,” she tells me. “I knew the old chairman and he asked me to help out with the accounts. I’ve got five accounting practices so that’s what I do in my ‘spare time’! They then asked me if I’d become treasurer which I’d only been doing a few months. The Chairman had to step down due to his business and being so busy and that was at the end of that season. And now we’re here.”

It’s a familiar story at this level, where a passionate and committed individual is promoted to the top job in reward for their skills. It’s fair to say it’s been an exciting couple of years for Karen, too, incorporating a takeover from the Class of ’92 and promotion as champions last season. The rollercoaster ride of the last 12 months in particular isn’t lost on her.

She continues: “It’s mad. There’s a proper buzz around the place. It’s really good. The plan was always to hopefully get promoted. With us and Darlington it was back and forth, back and forth. I really didn’t want play-offs because anything can happen in the play-offs. Luckily, we won it.”

The League title came as a result of Darlington’s failure to beat Warrington Town in April – a result that meant there was no catching Salford at the top of the league.

“I thought it might be an anti-climax because it was a Tuesday night and we didn’t play,” Karen says. “But we all got together in the local Indian and it was brilliant. I was on the phone to the Warrington chairman and he was giving me the results and it just erupted when we found out.

“We took over the whole place and then Ryan (Giggs) and Gary and Phil (Neville) came down. Scholesy couldn’t because he was in Barcelona. It was a really good night.”

And how has the involvement of the Manchester United legends affected things down at Moor Lane?:

“Phil got involved an awful lot so it’s a shame he went to Valencia. Scholesy comes down and does stuff with them. Gary and Scholes come to the most games. Gary’s had to go to United today so he’s devastated; he’s always liked Curzon as well so he would’ve liked to see how we play against them.

“It should be a good game although we’ve not won at home and they’ve not won away! We’re like a different team away but hopefully it’ll come at home. The thing is, when you’ve lost a couple and drawn a couple the fans can get on your back a little bit more and you get it in your head: ‘we can’t win at home’. There’s no reason why we can’t though and it’s a massive game in the FA Cup.”

And beyond the Cup? Is consecutive promotions the goal?:

“Definitely,” she says, without hesitation. “I know it’s going to be a lot tougher and all the teams are a lot more organised. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed at this level. We’ve not won at home but we’re only three points off the top. If we get our home form right, anything can happen.”

And, thinking ahead, is there anyone she’d like in the next round?: “You’d normally say anyone at home but it’s funny really; I don’t mind if it’s home or away at the minute!” she laughs.

Finally, I ask her about the under-representation of women in football and how refreshing it is to see a woman at the forefront of such an exciting Club on the up:

“I’m not sure everybody would agree!” she laughs. “It can be hard at non-league level. There are a lot of men who are maybe stuck in their ways. I just get on with it. I’m an Accountant so I’ve always been surrounded by men all my life. It doesn’t faze me! I’m used to it.”

Ready for kick-off.

Ready for kick-off.

We wrap up our chat and she confirms Gareth Seddon (who scored on our last visit here on his way to becoming top goalscorer for the season) is out injured today and would be up for a chat. I catch up with him just before kick-off after somewhat embarrassingly introducing myself to his fellow injured team mate Scott Burton.

Sporting a bandaged knee, the 35-year-old striker is chatting in the Clubhouse. I ask him what the problem is and the differences between nursing an injury at Pro and semi-pro level.

He says: “I landed funny about three weeks ago and think I opened of my medial (ligament) a little bit. It’s not too painful anymore, it just feels a bit weird. I’m gutted not to be playing today. I’ve just got to build it up this week but the physio thinks I’ll be ready next Saturday.

On combining an injury with a day job, he says: “You’ve just got to deal with it yourself! Get down to Morrisons and get your bag of ice!

“It was different obviously when I was full-time, you’d go in every day and the physio would look after you, tell you what to do when. Here, I did it three weeks ago and I’ve seen the physio twice. If something was serious then obviously I’d get a bit more attention but it’s just one of those injuries where it’s just time more than anything.”

And how has the decision to take a couple of steps down the league ladder been for the former Bury, Fleetwood and Rushden man?:

“I’ve loved it. It was a big step for me to drop down and come here but I wanted one last challenge in my football career. I didn’t want to just dwindle away. I made the decision to come here and, to be honest, I shocked myself last year. I wouldn’t have thought I’d score 30 goals. I mean, flippin’ ‘eck, I even scored an overhead kick at my age!

“Little things like that, I shocked myself, and then winning the league was amazing. And especially when you’ve got the Class of ’92 there watching and sending you messages of support. That just makes it a bit more special, doesn’t it?” he says, with boyish enthusiasm. I ask him what it’s been like mixing with Old Trafford legends:

“Scholesy always asking me for advice,” he laughs. “It’s inspiring. I’ve always been a United fan so growing up those guys were my heroes. I admired Gary Neville because of his passion for Man United and even his passion now with Salford is exactly the same. I find it weird that he’s played at such a high level for such a big team and he’s got the same passion now for little Salford. For us as players, though, it’s brilliant to see that and it makes us try that little bit more.”

And that extra effort, according to Gareth, will take them places this season:

“Everyone says let’s keep our feet on the ground but I think we’re the best team in the league. Results haven’t gone for us yet. I’ve been out for three weeks, we’ve had two central midfielders out, we’ve had a defender out and we’ve ended up losing three games that we should have never lost anyway. I think once we start getting all our players back, we’re to sort of team that can go on a 10 or 15-game unbeaten run.

“Even though we’ve had such a bad start by our standards, we’re still only three points off the top and we haven’t won a game at home yet. As soon as we get two or three wins on the bounce we’ll be top of the league and we’ve every chance of getting promoted again.”

He confesses it’s difficult to enjoy the game from the sidelines – but he’s already got an eye on the First Round proper:

“I don’t like watching football when I’m not playing! Whether it’s on telly or it’s even worse when it’s live like this and you can’t do anything about it. I’ve got quite a good history with the FA Cup so I’m gutted because we’ve got a good chance of progressing and you never know, we might even end up in the First Round.

He continues: “I’m just hoping they can win today without me and then I can play in the next round! I think it’d be good to get someone like Bury and go back to my old club. It’s local as well so there’d be great support. That’d be good.”

The teams are already lining up as he heads for towards the sidelines for kick-off. Karen is taking her place up in the busy main stand behind me as I grab yet another excellent non-league peppered steak pie with peas and gravy for £2.50. Combined with my ticket, a programme and a cup of tea, I’ve spent just over a tenner.

Curzon start a little better than Salford in the opening minutes and they’re almost ahead following a defensive mistake in the 8th minute. Combined with a couple if misplaced passes, it draws the ire of the man I’m stood next to. I wouldn’t call him a ‘boo boy’ but clearly his patience is already thin.


The ball runs out of play on our flank but isn’t spotted by the ref as play continues. His Assistant running the line in front of us attempts to gain his attention to the flag:

“Billy! Billy! BILLY! Billy! Billy! BILLY!…” he bellows. Eventually, ‘Billy’ hears the combined shout of the linesman and the fans on the touchline, but not before everyone has the opportunity to reimagine the famous Alan Partridge ‘Dan’ scene.

Another mistake at the back is punished shortly afterwards. Captain Lynch’s short backpass is pounced on by Warburton who slots the ball in at Jay Lynch’s near post. The man beside me is beside himself. The pressure of Moor Lane that Karen mentioned is visible.

They don’t have long to wait before winning back the patience of the home support as neat play in the 22nd minute works the ball to the left where a whipped cross from O’Halloran left Danny Webber with an unmissable header to level things.

James Poole, the former Hartlepool striker, comes on for the injured Moses late in the first half. Scorer of a hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Whitby in the First Qualifying replay, he looks to be playing a slightly deeper role today, albeit a little further upfield than the man he’s replaced.

He makes an impact almost straight away, bursting through into the box in another fluid move to square the ball for Webber who created space to finish well. The Curzon goal had seemed to rouse the home team after conceding so early, but the Ammies have dominated the game since the equaliser as the visitors wilted under pacey attacks.

I catch Karen on the way to the Clubhouse at half-time. “Going well so far!” she says. “Fingers crossed.”

Salford attack from a corner.

Salford attack from a corner in a setpiece known as ‘Spot the Ball’.

I head for the stands to watch the second half. It’s a good vantage point to see the continued waves of attack from Salford as they continue to dominate the game. Danny Webber’s direct run is eventually thwarted by a good save, although the former Sheffield United man might have been better using his partner in attack rather than opting for glory himself.

Substitutions at the right times look key for Salford as they introduce fresh legs from the bench. Elliot Kebbie in particular offers pace and athleticism against tiring Curzon legs desperate to find a way back into the game.


A double substitution from Curzon wasn’t enough to get them back into the game.

The Ammies hold on for victory fairly comfortably in the end, although there remain a few shaky moments. A few half chances combined with the occasional scare are the best the remainder of the second half has to offer as the pressure of the result seems build. A great cheer goes up at the sound of the final whistle as Salford end their unusually long winless home run at last.

“Anyone at home now!” is Karen’s verdict at the end of the game. “I think we tend to play better against sides higher up. We raise our game more.”

It’s the second victory in as many seasons for me at Moor Lane as Salford are now guaranteed to equal their best ever FA Cup run with the First Round Proper slowly coming into view.

“You can come again!” she laughs. I won’t rule it out.

Thanks for visiting The Underdog Blog. If you enjoy this article, I’d be extremely grateful if you might consider supporting my crowdfunding project for my first book, Winless, which follows New Mills AFC. Details here.

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Salford City FC vs Curzon Ashton FC

FA Cup Second Qualifying Round

Saturday 26th September 2015

Moor Lane, Salford, Greater Manchester


Salford City FC                         2               – 1             Curzon Ashton FC


Webber (22, 39)                 Warburton (16)


Salford City FC: 1. J.Lynch, 2. Smalley, 3. O’Halloran, 4. Moses (12. Poole 34’), 5. Howson, 6. C.Lynch (c), 7. Hardcastle (14. Mwasile 78’), 8. Clark, 9. Webber (15. Kebbie 66’), 10. Hulme, 11. Allen.

Substitutes: 16. Itela, 17. Dootson.

Curzon Ashton FC: 1. Burton, 2. Atkinson (17. Hampson 70’), 3. Guest, 4. Hunt, 5. Flynn, 6. Eckersley, 7. Payne, 8. Brown (c), 9. Cummins (14. Wright 70’), 10. Warburton, 11. Tomsett.

Substitutes: 12. Grayson, 15. Shaw, 16. Watson, 18. Mason

Referee: William Smallwood

Att: 309