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National Cup Fever
By Mike Love
For many people, the 'Sunday League' conjures up images of overweight blokes, in ill-fitting 'Bukta' strips, huffing and puffing around a muddy field somewhere, and smoking a couple of fags at half-time of a 6-6 'thriller'. Whilst, probably, there are still pockets of this clichéd scenario dotted around, the reality is rather different.
The FA Sunday Cup is the Holy Grail of all those that pull on a kit on the Sabbath. Many have sought it, but very few know what it's like to reach the Anfield final, each April, and lift that trophy in front of a three-sides-empty ground, but a reasonably full Spion Kop. In actual fact, Liverpool's ground has only hosted for the past 5 or 6 years and, before that, winning semi-finalists would more than likely find themselves stepping out at, say, Stafford Rangers or Wrexham's grounds (although in 1986, Birkenhead's Avenue Victoria Lodge won the thing at St Andrew's as did, I vaguely recall, The Seymour, a year or two later).
Merseyside teams have, it has to be said, a fantastic record in the tournament. In the last thirty years, or so, the likes of Nicosia, The Lobster, Dingle Rail, Fantail, and the aforementioned Avenue and Seymour have all claimed the coveted silverware, and given the County FA bragging rights at their various cross-boundary events and meetings. It would be unfair to say that a lot of the success was down to the 'Mersey Gob' syndrome, but it would be naive to think that it was solely the quality of the football that gave local sides the glory on a national scale. I have, in fairness, seen a number of quality visiting teams freeze, over the years, when playing at, say, The Dockers Club in front of a 200-strong crowd of Breck Road's finest.
But that was then, and this is now, and here we are at the superb Liverpool Soccer Centre at Walton Hall Park, with a pitch that would do credit to the Premier League, for the quarter-final of this year's competition. The home side, Croxteth's finest, The Oyster, are up against comparative new kids on the block, all the way from Wearside, Witton Park Rose and Crown. In the previous round, the visitors had trounced Liverpool's Canada 5-2; a result totally unexpected, given that, season-on-season, Liverpool's top Sunday side (arguably) are amongst the favourites to win the cup, but never do (they reached the final, in 2006, but were kicked out for fielding Tony Gray - then of Bangor City - in the semi's).
As expected, there was a healthy turn-out, covering all demographics. You had your Crocky types, head-to-toe in North Face; there were the likes of me, who watch a load of amateur footy and wouldn't have missed this even for an Everton game; and there were my favourites, the Groundhoppers. The latter need an article in their own right, as, each week, they are at some godforsaken ground or other, butties and a flask in a Kwikky bag, moaning about the referee at Prestatyn Town, or the lack of a connecting train from Shepshed Charterhouse. I am not worthy, as I won't venture out of Liverpool to catch a game (give me some credit, won't you), but, one day, just you wait and see, I intend to find out what it's like to join the 80-or-so gate at, say, Rhyl vs Newi Cefn Druids. Oh, and Witton Park brought two coach loads of supporters and, it's fair to say, the atmosphere was certainly a bit tasty come kick-off time . . . .
Bit of background. The Oyster are writ large with the Rooney family. Uncle Richie is the manager, brother Graham and cousin Thomas are in the squad, and Wayne Rooney senior and junior are listed amongst the sponsors in the rudimentary match programme. They won the Sunday Prem, last season, and will also win it this term, and have usurped the Canada as the top dogs locally. And it showed. From the kick-off, The Oyster were straight into them, with Thomas Rooney giving Park's centre back (the fantastically named Daryl Hall) a torrid time. Wing-wizard Dean Forshaw was also tearing the back out of them and, when he was chopped down for a clear penno, Rooney stepped up confidentially (he had netted from the spot in the last round, against previous winners Coundon Cons), but saw his placed effort well saved by Michael Sanderson. That could have been the cue for heads to drop, but not a bit of it. Within five minutes of Rooney's aberration, James Smith strode forward to unleash a thunderbolt, and give the Oyster a 1-0 lead at half-time.
The second period was much of the same, with Rooney and Forshaw leading the Witton back four a merry dance. Oyster's problem, if they had one, is that their commendable commitment to playing it on the deck, even under pressure, meant that they often appeared to be trying to walk the ball into the net, and were unable to add to their goal despite Witton failing to test the Oyster keeper on a single occasion that I can recall. Until, until . . . .
Deep into stoppage time, and you could smell the tension. An opportunity for The Oyster to take it into the corner was spurned (total-football again), and Witton Park broke away. A speculative cross was met full on the volley, and time appeared to stand still as the ball headed for the back of The Oyster's net. With a 'thwack' that must have been heard as far away as the Showcase Cinema, and a communal 'gasp' that registered audibly in Kirkby 'Townie', it crashed against the upright, and rebounded almost to the halfway line. Immediately, the ref blew for time, and The Oyster were through to the semi's.
We're on the march with Rooney's army.
Postscript - On 22 March, The Oyster beat Fforde Green Brazil, 3-2. at Guiseley Town FC, in the semi-final. The final is at Anfield on April 26. SWINE will, of course, be there.
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