Tuesday, 4 October 2011

13. Whitchurch United FC

The day of the big match at Whitchurch United.
More FA Cup magic.

My three previous cup games this season had produced surprising results of varying magnitude. It was the sort of fun that I couldn't easily let go - immediately post-Hartley Wintney, I was feeling like a normally docile domestic cat let loose in a garden full of high-grade catnip. Thus, I was looking forward to the draw for the 2nd qualifying round. It turned out that the choice was going to be between Whitchurch United v Gloucester City and Havant & Waterlooville v Sholing. As I grew up in Havant, I didn't want them to lose (after all, I had deluded myself into believing that I had become a lucky charm for the underdogs so far), so it had to be Whitchurch. Anyway, it was probably the biggest day in the club's history, whereas at Havant, it would be just another match for the home side. It wasn't a decision I regretted.

The friendly megaphone mums relaxing at half-time.
Whitchurch United FC (0) 0 v 2 (0) Gloucester City AFC
Saturday October 1st 2011
FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round
Attendance: 300-350
Entrance: £6
Programme: £1 (plenty of interesting articles relating to the two clubs)
Club shop: No
Colours: Red and white stripes / Black / Red v Sky blue / Dark blue / Sky blue
National Grid reference: SU4647
Video highlights: Yes!

Football clubs often share their facilities with other sports. Whitchurch are no exception.
The last time I had visited Whitchurch was on the way home from a miserable day out on nearby Watership Down. I had taken my young son there to look for rabbits, having spent the preceding days reading him the eponymous book (one of my all-time favourites). We saw no rabbits whatsoever on a day that started off downcast and grey, then turned successively drab, dreary and humdrum on the lonely old hill. Thus, we weren't in a particularly good mood when we stopped off in Whitchurch, which coloured my expectations of the place in the days leading up to the match.

How much better things look in the sunshine! As has been mentioned many times over the last few days, it was unseasonably hot for October on Saturday. The sun was sparkling on the River Test, which was alive with ducks, frisky fish and the greenest of green river weed. Just lovely.

Flying the flag for Whitchurch United FC.
Whitchurch United FC is a twenty minute walk from the rail station, which is situated on the north side of town - not that there were any trains on Saturday - it was "replacement rail" buses between Basingstoke and Andover. My bus journey started off rather alarmingly when a wild-haired old gent got on, waved his wheeled shopping trolley around in front of him, and declared "This is not a weapon! The driver can't throw me off for bringing this on!" And then, unnervingly, "I'm going to Whitchurch!"

Oh dear. It turned out he was quite harmless, but eye contact was avoided anyway.

Whitchurch attack in front of their packed stand.
I needed a pint of real ale to, um, calm my nerves, so it was reassuring to find a hand-pump in Whitchurch's busy clubhouse, which was oddly decorated with Crystal Palace shirts (the barman's team, it transpired).

There were also a large number of Tigers in the bar. These hadn't escaped from the zoo, but rather had travelled down from Gloucestershire for the day - The Tigers being Gloucester City AFC's nickname (the AFC distinguishing them from the more popular RFC, or rugby club). Scattered amongst the Tigers were a few local Jam Boys - no, not a Paul Weller tribute band, or even a euphemism for something that only happens behind the most metrosexual of closed doors, but the nickname for Whitchurch United fans.

How in bejeeber's name were the Jam Boys going to make the Tigers toothless today? After all, there were four gigantic steps separating the two clubs - Whitchurch being only one of six sides from their level to qualify for this stage of the cup (the others being Hebburn Town, Bodmin Town, Cadbury Heath, Barrow Town, and our very own Hartley Wintney). An excess of extra sugary jam might make a tiger toothless eventually, but slipping a banana skin into the recipe might do it quicker. Everyone knows that banana skins are what scare big clubs the most (especially "potential" banana skins).

Penalty to Gloucester City!
Could small beat big? The underdogs' best friend was in attendance, rooting for the home side, who certainly didn't lack support - I haven't seen an official crowd figure, but there must have been at least 300 people in the ground, with a few more watching from beyond the perimeter. A group of mums had a megaphone, loudly urging the lads on whilst their children played in the field behind the top goal. The old stand was packed solid in a squeeze that would have made a sardine feel uncomfortable, with another hundred or so fans watching from in front of the clubhouse.

Gloucester City had a drummer and plenty of cheery chants, well-honed from their travels around the steppes and tundra of the Conference North. What an atmosphere for this small ground!

From the get-go, it was plain that the semi-pros of Gloucester were the quicker, fitter, more skilful side. But Whitchurch had zest, zeal and potential banana skins to wave in front of their opponents if they became too cocky.

The Tigers rattled the bar early doors, but hadn't had a shot on target until around the thirty-minute mark, when Whitchurch's keeper was adjudged to have brought down an onrushing forward for a Gloucester penalty. It looked harsh from where I was stood, a hundred yards away - I thought he'd knocked the ball away and the forward had fallen over him. However, there are match highlights on Youtube, filmed by three lads going under the name of Tigers TV (see the link in the "details" above), which show that perhaps the ref was right - although it still looks inconclusive as the cameraman twitched at the moment of contact.

Whether correct or not, the decision stood...the keeper dived to his left...and saved the day for Whitchurch!

And so it remained 0-0 at half-time.
Famous residents of Whitchurch have included Watership Down, Shardik and The Plague Dogs author Richard Adams, Carl Barat of The Libertines, and Leslie Schofield, an actor who has played (amongst many other roles) the French detective on Chucklevision. I did consider surreptitiously dropping in to this report either the occasional Richard Adams book title, the odd Libertines album reference, or a Chucklevision quote or two, but decided against it on the grounds of the idea being either too highbrow or too lowbrow - one or the other. But, just to see if the idea would have worked...Whitchurch went 1-0 (Watership) down early in the second half. To me, to you, went the Gloucester forwards as the ball bounced over the line from a close-range shot, which left the Whitchurch team seriously up the bracket...yes, yes, I knew there was a good reason why I didn't go ahead with that - terrible idea!

A few minutes later and it was game over as Gloucester scored a second. Their superior fitness in the heat prevailed. The only other real moment of note was a stupendous save near the end by Whitchurch's keeper, who didn't put a foot wrong throughout the match. Seventeen minutes of match highlights have been saved forever for anyone who was there to relive the day, so I don't need to describe any more on this occasion.

The empty stand after the match. The Visiting Committee had all retired to the bar to celebrate their victory with real ale and cider.
So, my status as the underdogs' best friend came to an end at the fourth attempt. Whitchurch were up for it, but the four giant steps between them and Gloucester were too steep for them to climb in the end.

I'd like to carry on catnipping with the FA Cup in a fortnight, but my options are becoming tinier with each round, so we'll see what happens.

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