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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
FA Cup Trail:
FA Cup First Round, 16/11/02
Stevenage Borough 1(1)
Team: 1. Mark Westfield 2. Simon Travis 3. Stuart Fraser 6. Robin Trott 9. Kirk Jackson 12. Richard Howell 17. Jude Stirling 20. Jack Midson 24. Michael Blackwood 27. Richard Scott 28. Gary MacDonald
Scorers: Howell (6)
Hastings United 0(0)
Team: 1. Dave King 2. Steve Yates 3. Nick Hegley 4. Tommy Osbourne 5. Tony Burt 6. Adam Flanagan 7. Stuart Playford 8. Duncan McArthur 9. Landry Zahani-Oni 10. Danny Simmonds 11. Chris Honey

Referee: T. Kettle
Crowd: 1,821 (official)
Conditions: Cold, foggy (occasionally thick)

Entry: 8 adults, 5 concessions, free for youngsters (Megan) lifted over the turnstile
Programme: 2.00 for 40 pages full colour throughout, with two staples
Refreshments: Tea/coffee 60p, jumbo hotdogs 1.60
Distance travelled: 99 miles (including small diversion to Sainsbury's at London Colney)

"Famous people from Swindon"
By Baz Barry
 
I was recently challenged to name five famous people who came from Swindon. Not that such a task is an indication of the exciting life I lead, but I was chuffed to come up with three quick answers. Andy Partridge from XTC (at least to me he's famous), Willie Carson, Melinda Messenger and Billy Piper. I know, that's four, but my argument was the latter two are one and the same being. Have you ever seen them together? Exactly. As it happens I asked the same question to someone who's lived in Swindon all their life and significantly they could only name two others. Diana Dors and Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues. Not the most inspiring of lists but entirely appropriate for a place like Swindon and a lot stronger than could be said for Stevenage.

For although Stevenage as a place seems to be proud to have been "designated as Britain's first New Town", in 1946 no less, one inherent implication of being so young is there is little time to build a portfolio of associated famous personalities. The best Dave and I could come up with was that Nick Faldo comes from Welwyn, which is the next town south, and Chas'n'Dave once supported Led Zeppelin playing at Knebworth, which is even closer.

And because it's a New Town, it made sense to the planners of the time to locate the football club on the outskirts of town leaving little chance for visiting fans to get a feel for the place, particularly when you're late.

So with both Megan and Sam in tow, and having scooted round the M25 (again) we found ourselves leaving the A1(M), to be immediately confronted by one of those out-of-town Americanized retail parks, a roundabout with a brown sign that teasingly proclaimed "Tourist Attractions" but without letting on exactly what they were and then we were there. No sign of a pub, no sign of houses, no real shops, and no personality. Just a car park on one side of a dual carriageway and a football ground on the other. The contrast with the sleepy, farming town of Long Buckby, the uncomfortable East London toil surrounding Leyton and Grays Athletic, tucked in the suburban Essex hinterland, was extreme.

Languishing second from bottom in the Conference, Stevenage Borough are about a dozen places apart from Hastings, who were sitting in the midtable of the Dr Martens Premier Table, and a dozen places from Grays with the Rymans Premier league also feeding into the Conference. But you wouldn't be able to tell they were that close because the difference in facilities and set-up was another extreme contrast. Whereas before we've experienced what appears to be the noble efforts of a determined and loyal group of fanatics providing the best hospitality they can, but with limited success, on Saturday we seemed to make a huge jump into the fruits of professionalism.

At Stevenage we got proper turnstiles and proper stewards, professional programme sellers selling professional programmes, an extensive tea bar serving an extensive menu, and a decent PA system playing decent music. There were squad numbers and names on the back of the shirts, ball boys and press photographers. There was also a scoreboard above the away end, which looked like the long lost son of the one that used to be behind the Vicarage Road terrace, and was refreshingly used to great effect. Not only did we get an informative potted history of Hastings and a compelling FA Cup quiz to while away half-time but the odd "Goal Flash" appeared from the Premiership whilst play went on below.

The ground is also understandably impressive, being heralded as one of the best outside the league. Randomly we found our way into the home part, which consists of a covered terrace down the whole side of the pitch and with the Stevenage crew (who 'ate Woking) congregating on the half way line. A cunning and lazy tradition that means they don't need to change ends at half time. And whereas at Grays we seemed to be amongst West Ham fans, at Stevenage we were obviously amongst Spurs fans. And I excitedly spotted a chap in a Watford tracksuit, which caused great indifference amongst Dave, Sam and Megan.

There was free access to a smaller (four steps), partly covered terrace behind the goal. Opposite the home terrace was a seated stand also the length of the pitch with what looked like corporate boxes at the back (it was foggy) and behind the other goal was covered seating for the Hastings fans. We'd like to report there were 1066 of them but we counted seven coaches and a minibus in the car park which, allowing for the same number travelling independently, meant they probably numbered about half that.

Stevenage came into the game in poor form with an apparent injury crisis and a pair of suspensions. They had lost all three games since the Grays tie including a thrilling 3-4 home Cup defeat to local rivals Luton in the LDV Trophy and were missing Richard Pacquette and Louis Riddle who had been both sent off in a previous game. With Hastings thumping Kettering 5-0 away in the replay of the previous round, not for the first time we looked forward to a goal fest and not for the first time we were disappointed.

Following a scoreboard announcement that Southampton had gone one up against Newcastle and with a Stevenage striker off the field being treated for a bad head wound, the home team took the lead when Howell headed in at the far post from a "free-kick". Dave wondered if the scoreboard at Highbury flashed the "Stevenage 1 Hastings 0" score, but we will never know. As it happens, and because it is the First Round Proper, that night the BBC showed the goals from all the games and it was then I learnt the "free-kick" was in fact a long throw by Jude Stirling.

Young centre-back Stirling caught the eye in defence and, like Marlow, his impressively long and fast throw-ins caused the most panic in the Hastings penalty area. The other player that caught the eye was Simon Travis whose lightning runs down the right flank caused all sorts of problems. Until he was substituted at half time, that is. Hastings looked tidy enough but were restricted to long-range shots and never got the ball into the box to work the Stevenage goalkeeper. The only other highlight of the first half was a mad goal line scramble that was seemingly caused by Hastings' Flanagan dribbling around his own goalkeeper before being dispossessed on the outside edge of the six-yard box. It wouldn't be the first time he lost the plot.

Having stood level with the Hastings penalty spot, we relocated for the second half to the other end. The fog came down, thicker and colder, which meant we couldn't grasp what happened when there was a second mad scramble, this time in the Stevenage penalty area and with the ball pinging under countless Stevenage bodies. Just before we learnt from the scoreboard that Arsenal were three-nil up against Spurs (big groan from the crowd), a quick free-kick released Blackwood who, with just the goalkeeper to beat, saw his shot hit the post and Jackson completely mis-kicked the rebound.

There followed the characteristic Cup pressure of the trailing team pushing for the equaliser, which was complicated first by Flanagan being sent off for a straight red card for what we learnt later was violent contact and then the Hastings French striker (and Luton reject) Zahana-Oni following him down the tunnel for a second bookable offence.

That's five red cards we've seen in six FA Cup matches. But six matches means we are half way to Cardiff, which will be the thirteenth game unless we get a replay. And half way between out hometown Marlow and Cardiff is just west of...Swindon. Spooky, eh?

Stevenage, 20,000 the richer, play Darlington in the next round, away.

Away!

That's a five hundred mile, eight-hour round-trip for ninety minutes of Cup football. And with the prospect of repeating the trip if Darlington win and get another home draw. We must be mad but....

We'll be there. Come and join us (yeah, right). It can only get better. The Trail is becoming less of a trial. The Big Boys are coming. There's no stopping us now.