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FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup Second Qualifying Round, 28/09/02
Grays Athletic 1(0)
Team: 1. Melvin Capleton 2. Steve Robinson 3. Jason Broom 4. Peter Smith 5. Owen Coll 6. Dave Collis 7. Adam Miller 8. Mark Stimson 9. Andy Douglas 10. Aaron McLean 11. Dany Hayzelden
Scorer: Hayzelden 92 mins
Marlow 0(0)
Team: 1. Garry Randall 2. Grant Goodall 3. Michael Floyd 4. John Beale 5. Luke Evans 6. Alex Rodrigues 7. Tim Cook 8. Simon Goodram 9. John Issacs 10. Nicky Ryder 11. Sam Sheppard

Referee: I Jones
Crowd: 237 (official)
Conditions: A dry, warm and sunny autumnal afternoon

Entry: 7 adults, 4 concessions, free for Under 11s accompanied by an adult
Programme: 1.50 for 20 page full colour outer on gloss + 28 page b/w photocopied inner on matt, with one staple
Refreshments: Dave bought them and can't recall the prices
Distance travelled: 149 miles including an extra circuit of the Grays one-way system

"Rancid milk, no sugar"
By Baz Barry
This must be as good as it gets.

The ultimate encounter, a thrilling match that ebbed and flowed as each team rose to moments of frightening ascendancy only for the opposition to counterpunch convincingly. Most players performing at the peak of their abilities, a few struggling but clearly giving it their all. Two teams locked in a gripping combat producing nerve jangling drama at every turn. It was compulsive viewing and the crowd took the occasion to a higher level with their passionate, noisy backing. And just when we thought the favourites had weathered the storm and would use their apparent class to steer to victory, the underdogs unexpectedly, rightly, conclusively powered through to victory and claimed the spoils. For the first time since Watford won at Wembley (and the Birmingham Play-Off before that) there were tears in my eyes. Europe had beaten the Americans.

In complete contrast to the joys of the Ryder Cup, Grays Athletic v. Marlow was a lumpy custard of a game and a somnambulant sporting wake. Where we had champagne flowing on Sunday, on Saturday we were served the equivalent of lukewarm, weak coffee with rancid milk and no sugar.

From the off, it was clear Marlow had settled for a draw, placing nine players behind the ball at every moment, sitting back and soaking up the pressure. The Bucks Free Press had warned of "a traditionally long injury list" including the regular goalie who broke his arm in a match earlier that week. Goal machine Nicky Ryder was back but was totally ineffective, probably because his usual tall and muscular foil, Robert "Gibbo" Gibson, had started a seven-match suspension for being sent off for fighting in consecutive games. Once again, Marlow seemed to rely on causing havoc from monster throw-ins, but they were few and far between as Marlow rarely ventured into the Grays half.

Despite facing such a rearguard action, Grays showed enough class to explain why they're in a league above. A strong proportion of their players seem to have had full league experience of one form or another, with midfield duo Player/Manager, Mark Stimpson (Newcastle, Pompey, Spurs, Orient) and Adam Miller (Ipswich youth and Southend trials), catching the eye. Unfortunately, Grays didn't help the entertainment stakes, playing into Marlow's hands by fielding two lightweight strikers who were dominated by Marlow's large and fearless back three. One Grays striker, McClean, was on loan from Leyton Orient, the other was a chap called Andy Douglas who had just returned to the team after recovering from a life-threatening stabbing incident. An unusual injury for a footballer and a little research later revealed it was the same Andy Douglas who came off worse when he and Paolo Vernazza were attacked last October. Small world.

My notes from the first half are two entries. The first was an injury induced Marlow substitution after nineteen minutes and resulting in even less attacking options. The second was after thirty minutes when a back pass fell short and Douglas had a chance to lob the rookie goalkeeper only to fail dismally. That was it.

Still, it gave us time to check out the crowd and the ground. There seemed to be even less Marlow fans, down to about eight in the "Behind Both Goals Gang". Apparently one was on holiday and his best chum never went to games on his own. We learnt this from Alan who we met having his brunch at the tea-bar. No need for him to visit the local "brew" pubs on this trip because the Grays Athletic Club Bar is the only football venue to appear in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.

For the first time on this FA Cup Trail there was a knot of home fans who were prepared to sing now and then. And we saw our first Burberry hat. The rest of the crowd seemed be West Ham fans enjoying the sunshine and the chance to watch a victory.

Dave was there again, having flown back the night before from a ten-day holiday in Arizona and Las Vegas. Teenager Harriette came along to spend some time with her Dad and experience the "fun" of the FA Cup Trail. I'm not sure she'll return. And where Harriett goes my girl Megan follows in a stupor of adulation. H baby-sits for M and in return she has inherited a five-year-old shadow. The last in our party was the boy Sam, back on the Trail no doubt because all his skateboarding mates were occupied elsewhere for the afternoon.

The Grays Athletic ground had a comfortable familiarity about it, being sunken below road level just like the Vic. Only this time the main road is behind where the Rous stand would be and you enter the ground from the equivalent of the big screen corner. Instead of a Rous stand there are four blocks of flats, with one immediately adjacent to the ground and housing the changing rooms and tea-bar at pitch level. Behind the goal (Vic End) is a large warehouse-like brick building housing the club bar and an indoor football pitch. Opposite the flats is a covered stand with a small club shop (pencils 40p), seating in the middle and an area for standing at each end and adjacent to the penalty boxes. Behind the other goal (Rookery) is a single unopened turnstile and three steps of uncovered terracing.

At the very beginning of the second half Grays hit the post in the middle of one of those mad goalmouth scrambles. Nothing else happened for the next forty-five minutes. The sun shone. We sat on the terraces. The kids ate their sweets and crisps and drank their pop. Megan drew a picture of the ground. Sam went to the loo. Alan re-appeared and asked about the first half. It transpired that he'd spent the entire forty-five minutes in the club shop updating his collection of non-league progammes. At the end we made our way towards the exit for something to do. In what seemed to be the fourth minute of injury time, Grays scored when Hayzelden was on the end of a right wing cross that the Marlow defence failed to clear. There was still time for Nicky Ryder to hit his first shot on target.

It was sad to end the loose attachment we'd made to Marlow as they go back to the mid-table mediocrity of the Rymans League Division One North. Grays Athletic, 7,500 better off, entertain Hayes (also of Rymans League Premier Division) in the next round.

We'll be there. Come and join us. It can only get better.