The most famous trophy in club football was on display today as the 2008/09 FA Cup kicked off at Wembley.
This was no multi-million pound stadium, however, but the humble surroundings of Vale Farm, home of Wembley Football Club.
Sitting in the shadow of the world famous archway, Wembley FC have the shortest road to Wembley of all the 762 teams who have entered this season’s competition – 2 miles to be precise – but they also have the longest road possible at the same time.
The Combined Counties Premier Division side’s tie with Hertfordshire’s Royston FC was one of 203 Extra Preliminary Round ties taking place this weekend.
This meant two wins were required to reach the official First Qualifying Round, which itself is four rounds long just to reach the competition proper.
With a further seven rounds to negotiate to reach the final itself, this meant that Wembley FC were only 13 wins from the Wembley. Surely a journey of two miles has never felt so long.
It was maybe this curious story that attracted FA Chief Executive Brian Barwick to Vale Farm, along with TV crews from ITV and Setanta, both broadcasters making the most of their recently acquired rights to FA Cup matches.
With extensive coverage of these early rounds of the competition, the new TV deal provides a shot in the arm for grassroots football in England and will no doubt open the eyes of football fans across the country as to how long the road to Wembley actually is.
That road appeared even longer for Wembley FC once today’s game kicked off, with Royston having much the better of the opening period. Chances were at a premium however and, as is always the case in tight games, set pieces proved the most likely source of an opener for either side.
And so it proved on the stroke of half time as Luke Robins opened the scoring with a beautifully struck free kick. His left foot effort was bent expertly round the defensive wall from all of 35 yards but, when a regulation catch seemed likely, the ball slipped through Wembley keeper Richard McCabe’s grasp and in under the crossbar. I guess not everyone at the game will be eagerly anticipating the highlights of the tie being posted online on Monday.
It was the only mistake of the game for McCabe, however, and his teammates had not exactly covered themselves in glory with a lacklustre first half display.
The half-time team talk must have been worth a watch – Setanta viewers will be able to take a look on Monday – as Wembley came out a different side in the second half. With half-time substitutions adding more pace to their flanks they looked far more threatening as the second period began and were rewarded seven minutes after the break.
Paul Shelton wriggled free from his marker in the left hand channel and fired a cross from the by-line past Royston keeper Damion Williamson. Wembley substitute Shane Sinclair read the situation perfectly and ghosted into the six yard box to level the tie.
The Lions could not capitalise on their early dominance however and, as the half wore on, Royston regained the ascendancy. Wembley centre back Andrew Walker received a second yellow card in the dying minutes but, despite a couple of late scares, Wembley held on for the draw.
The replay will take place at Royston’s Garden Walk ground on Tuesday evening, meaning that Wembley’s road to Wembley has become even longer still.
As the Wembley players left the pitch in the shadow of Lord Norman Foster’s magnificent archway, the stadium up the road could never before have felt so near but yet so far.