Monday, 22 August 2011

10. Cove FC

Oak Farm is built on a disused sewage works.
The last FA Cup match I attended was at Wembley. I gasped and groaned along with 23,000 other Pompey fans as our team narrowly lost to Chelsea in the 2010 final. Chelsea hit the woodwork five times; both sides missed a penalty; New Caledonian Frederic Piquionne nearly scored a freak goal. I think it was a good game for the neutral, unlike most FA Cup finals. But then, I wasn't a neutral. I wore my lucky pants, sucked on my lucky mints, and I sang my heart out for the lads until my lungs were fit to burst and my kidneys ached with all the fruitless effort. We waved our flags and loved it all, as we knew it might never happen again. After years of spending leprechaun gold on already-rich footballers, it was all over for Pompey, and it was nearly all over for my love of football. I had a few months off from the game after the cup final and missed last season's FA Cup entirely.

Thus, my next FA Cup game was last Saturday at 7, Squirrel Lane, Cove, Farnborough. Wembley, it is not (although they do play in the same league as Wembley FC), but it was an enjoyable game nevertheless.
Cove's ground is at 7, Squirrel Lane.
Cove FC (0) 0 v 2 (1) AFC Portchester
FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round
Saturday 20th August 2011
Attendance: 50-60
Entrance: £6
Programme: Free, included two Sudokus for half-time entertainment
Colours: Yellow/black/yellow v Tangerine/white/tangerine
Club shop: No, but Cove t-shirts for sale behind the bar
National Grid reference: SU8656
An empty Ron Brown Stand at half-time. There is a covered standing area on each side of the seats.
Cove play in the Combined Counties League Premier Division (step 5); AFC Portchester are one step below in Wessex League Division One. Thus, the home side were favourites to progress.

You would think that Cove were the younger club of the two (Portchester is an old Roman town, after all), but that's not the case. They have been around since 1897, which means that they are one of the oldest clubs in the Blackwater Valley - far older than their near-neighbours Farnborough FC (the original Farnborough Town club only forming in 1967). They have long been overtaken in size by the Conference South club, who are only a 15 minute walk away (I know that, because I wandered up there in a torrential downpour to have a look at their stadium).

Cove's Oak Farm ground sounds idyllic until you know that the "farm" in its name was actually a sewage farm. They infilled the disused area with waste from the building of the M3. It's a nice, flat pitch, but there were a few minutes in the first half when I thought I could smell the old farm - probably just imagined it though!
Celebrating Portchester's first-ever FA Cup goal.
Did I mention that it rained on Saturday? Did I mention that I was stupid enough to spend half an hour walking up and down the Farnborough suburbs getting drenched? Whilst doing this, I wondered how Cove could attract more spectators, as they tend to average only around 40 per match. I thought of their name, and how it sounds like they ought to be near the sea. I then thought that they could produce a postcard of riddles in the manner of the well-known "Six Wonders of the Isle of Wight" (Needles that you cannot thread; Newport that you cannot bottle, etc). The whole of the Blackwater Valley could join in...

How about... The Blackwater Valley, where you can find: a Cove without a beach / Ash with no fire / Fleet where there are no naval ships / Seale that you cannot train to balance a ball on its nose / Hale where there is no ice storm / and Blackwater where the water is transparent?

Written down, that doesn't look as poetic as it did when I was wiping the rain out of my eyes. Shall we just say that it could do with some work and leave it at that?
It rained before the match. The sun eventually came out ten minutes before kick-off.
I arrived at Cove's ground just as the rain stopped, and just in time to order a beer in the clubhouse. The bar was heaving with Portchester supporters (or "Portchy", as they call themselves). It was their first-ever FA Cup tie, and they had rented a coach for the day to bring along around 30-40 fans, all of whom seemed to be having a fine old time in their host's watering hole. Indeed, it didn't fully empty until well after kick-off.
Forza Portchy! Cove's clubhouse in the background.
It was a close game. The home team went into it possibly expecting to win, but their lower division opponents surprised them with their excellent teamwork, spirit and no little skill. Despite Cove having a couple of good chances well saved by Portchy's keeper, the better team took the lead after around 30 minutes. A skidding cross came in from the right which was missed by the entire Cove defence. The Portchy inside-left was all alone on the edge of the six-yard box to slide the ball underneath Cove's keeper for his side's first-ever FA Cup goal. Big cheers from the majority of the crowd.
Did I already mention that it rained? Beyond the puddle, Portchy celebrate their second goal.
The second half was similar, with chances at both ends, but Portchy were still the more disciplined side and doubled their lead with ten minutes remaining. A corner from the right...a bullet header crashing down off the crossbar and over the line...and then bouncing right up again to hit the top of the net. I swear that if there was such a thing as perpetual motion, that ball would still be bouncing even now. A truly great headed goal.

As is often the case at non-league grounds, there were small boys kicking a football around behind one of the goals. Back when I were a lad in the mid-1970s, we would have taken on the identities of famous players or clubs during our kickabouts. In my day we were invariably players from Derby County or QPR or Leeds United. Kevin Hector v Stan Bowles v Billy Bremner or somesuch... The small boys at Cove were playing Manchester City v Barcelona whilst Portchy were scoring their second goal. This is for information only, and is not supposed to mean that we were in any way better in the 1970s. If I were seven, I too would probably support Man City or Barcelona now.
A rusty old roller at Cove FC.
So, just five more rounds to go until the first round proper of the FA Cup. Will Portchy be in the draw in November? Unlikely, but they will take on Newport (IW) in a fortnight, dreaming, still dreaming...

There's always next year for Cove.

Incidentally, if you would like a virtual tour of Oak Farm, go here.

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