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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Third Round, 04/01/03
Darlington 2(2)
Team: 22. Chris Potter 3. Simon Betts 4. Craig Liddle 30. Stuart Whitehead 2. Ryan Valentine 16. Neil Wainwright 18. Clark Keltie 25. Ashley Nicholls 15. Richard Hodgson 8. Ian Clark 27. Richard Offiong
Scorers: Nicholls 13, Clark 37
Farnborough Town 3(2)
Team: 1. Tony Pennock 2. Micky Warner 5. Nathan Bunce 6. Barry Laker 3. Justin Gregory 20. Gary Holloway 16. Danny Carroll 7. Steve Watson 19. Gary Butterworth 18. Ken Charlery 22. Rocky Baptiste
Scorer: Baptiste 10, Carroll 19, 60

Referee: G. Salisbury
Crowd: 4,260 (official)
Conditions: Very cold, sunshine, more than a scattering of snow underfoot

Entry: 10 adults, 6 concessions
Programme: - sold out -
Refreshments: Tea/coffee 1.00
Distance travelled: 499 miles (includes a detour to see the Brick Train and new stadium)

"A dark cloud descends"
By Baz Barry
 
At four minutes past one, last Monday lunchtime, a dark cloud descended on our FA Cup Trail. I'm not sure it's going to shift. Granted, we always knew we would at some point hitch up with one of the Big Boys but we're not ready yet. It's too soon. We've been too busy enjoying the kaleidoscope of experiences from our journey through roots football and ideally we want it to continue on a gradual path through the Divisions before landing a big club.

Having visited Darlington twice, we've been sucked in by the charms of the place and want more. Prior to this jaunt, the closest I had got to Darlington was the legendary relegation party at Middlesborough two seasons ago. What a mad day that was, encompassing all that was good about being a Watford fan. But aside from the party, my memories from that day are of the cold, depressed, industrial surroundings. I had never seen so many pawnshops in one place; in fact, I'd never seen a pawnshop before except on TV.

So we couldn't help our expectations of Darlington, fifteen miles inland from Middlesborough, being tarnished by such an experience and we've been more than pleasantly surprised by the contrast. What you get is a charming and characterful Yorkshire town, dominated by the huge train station on the hill, with plenty of greenery and an impressive centre packed full of decent looking shops and countless hostelries. And instead of pawnshops we spotted a single porn shop nestling amongst the boutiques and bistros. It has the feel of a place where you belong.

Dave and I both felt instantly at home and if, as we're led to believe from repeated references on the FA web site, we are all part of the "family of football", then Darlington would be a favourite grandparent who used to let us stay up late drinking pop and teaching us how to cheat at cards. So that would make Long Buckby a distant country cousin who we only see at the bar at family weddings and funerals, Stevenage is a monosyllabic and spotty adolescent nephew who's reached the grunting stage we've all been through and Grays Athletic is our sister's latest boyfriend from Essex.

But I digress. After our first visit, there was talk of having a Third Round weekend in Darlo but it was too close to Christmas to pull that one off. Instead we left earlier so we could have a longer mooch around before the game. First off was a trip round the ring road to find the Brick Train. No wonder Morrsion's Supermarket is trying to take over Safeway because they obviously have some spare cash to flash. Armed with various grants from various bodies they seem to be the largest player in the 760,000 that was spent in 1997 on creating a life size sculpture of the Mallard steam train, made from bricks. 185,000 of them taking twenty-one weeks to be laid. It was worth the visit and looked impressive in the snow, but why put it at the end of an out of town ultra-modern industrial estate? An industrial estate that has its own police station.

From there we scooted back round the ring road to the new stadium, which will be ready for next season and where an uninformed security man chaperoned us inside. It makes an impressive sight, entirely symmetrical and on a scale and proportion that feel right. It'll be a shame if only 3,000 of the 25,000 seats are occupied but I suspect and hope Chairman George, who is on site all day every day, has a cunning plan to fill it.

For lunch, we made a return visit to the Falchion, which must be a word that's appeared on Call My Bluff and judging by the pub sign outside is an unusual name for a Saracen's sword. There we feasted again on those special toasted sandwiches that are served still oozing from their thick cellophane wrapping, a portion of chips to share and a few beers. All for under 10. Marvellous.

Suitably refreshed, we glided down to the ground just on the edge of the town centre and joined the procession around the cricket pitch. There must be few grounds where all the home fans arrive the same way. The away fans have a completely different entrance which entails a good ten-minute walk around the houses and past a Sainsbury's, should they arrive at the wrong gate. Sadly the programmes had sold out but that allowed us to keep one of the stewards occupied for most of the first half whilst he tried to trace a supply elsewhere in the ground.

Apart from the penalty areas, which had been covered with plastic sheets, there was a thin layer of snow for the players to contend with. It didn't seem to affect their performances. After a ten-minute preamble, the game jumped into life when Farnborough realized the centre of the Darlo defence weren't at all dominant in the air. Their first goal came from a near post header from Baptiste, who's scored in every round or something, and the second was headed in by midfielder Carroll, who we've since learnt is a teacher. Both goals came from excellent crosses whipped in from the right. The Quakers goals also came from headers, the first from a free-kick by the unmarked midfielder Nicholls and the second on thirty-seven minutes from Nick Wright look-alike Ian Clark, who celebrated with a belly flop in a pitch-side pile of snow. In between times the snow flurried and the sun set, spectacularly. That left ten minutes for Darlo to bombard the Boro' goal with the woodwork coming into play at least four times. It had been a cracking first half.

Sadly, the second half was the proverbial damp squib. (Did you know a squib is a small firework?) Darlo badly missed Barry Conlon, their experienced leader of the line, who was suspended for being sent off against Carlisle. The ball rarely stuck when played forward and the Darlo forwards dropped deeper and deeper trying to rectify the problem. Offiong, the star from the previous round, couldn't cope, rarely combined decisively with Clark and had an anonymous game. He was not alone, as any coherent Darlington play disappeared once Farnborough strangled the game, and particular after Carroll scored what proved to be the winner.

At the final whistle the Boro' players rightly celebrated amongst the four hundred or so travelling fans. We had seen a "giant killing" and Farnborough had deserved to win, but not with the expectation bordering on arrogance that manager, Graham Westley, voiced whilst being interviewed on the radio after the game. As it happens, Westley is also the owner and Chairman of the club, which is a handy position to be in when you give yourself a vote of confidence, and his company AIMITA, sponsors the stadium and team. I had expected AIMITA to be some kind of fast track City institution making pots of money on selling future bonds or something, but no, it's an office cleaning operation. Where there's muck there's brass.

So, as the whole country knows Farnborough Town (distant young nephew with attitude) have drawn Arsenal (arrogant, snooty aunt who lives in a mansion with stone cladding). The past two weeks have seen the prospect of the game staying at Farnborough and being shown live on SKY and worth 265,000 disappear. The tie was switched to Highbury for safety reasons with Boro' getting 50% of the gate, which should be a tidy sum at 26.50 a ticket. Outrageous. Westley has been accused of money grabbing and the six thousand tickets for Boro' sold out within thirty-six hours, with a great many followers (I can't call them fans) left angry and disappointed.

Nevertheless, the prospect of watching the Gooners for five games fills us with dread. Admittedly it doesn't have to be five games because Farnborough could win. They looked a decent team and will cause problems with their collective height, particularly if Wenger carries out his threat of playing his entire reserve team. Our only hope is that should they win, we get the trail back on track with Arsenal being drawn away to the likes of Rochdale or Walsall or Stoke.

We'll be there.

(I can't be bothered with the rest of that tread.)