Final whistle

Newport State of Mind

Brackley Town face League Two strugglers Newport County at home in the FA Cup First Round Proper after convincingly beating Bamber Bridge on Saturday (October 24).

Their 3-0 win over the Lancashire side meant that Brackley went into the hat for the First Round draw on Monday night, screened live on BBC Two.

The Newport fixture may not be the glamour tie that Brackley supporters were hoping for – with local league sides Northampton and Oxford United in the hat – but it pits them against league opposition at home, with a great chance to be a giant killer. If ‘giant killer’ is the correct term. No disrespect to Newport, obviously.

Newport are now managed by John Sheridan, after he replaced former England defender Terry Butcher, who lost his job after the club’s woeful start to the season. They remain third from bottom of League Two with just 12 points from 15 games, but an impressive 4-1 victory over local rivals Bristol Rovers at the weekend may give them some much-needed impetus.

In fact, that victory in Bristol in the lesser known ‘Severnside derby’ lifted them off the foot of the table.

For Brackley, a league side at home, whoever it be, should give the fans a sense of excitement, and it would’ve been what they wanted after the final whistle against Bamber Bridge.

Brig, who were without their talismanic striker Brett Ormerod, did include ex-Preston, Forest and Hull midfielder Paul McKenna in their side (even if this particular Forest fan never noticed him! I only found out after the game!).

But despite testing Burton Albion loanee keeper Sam Hornby early on with a sweet strike from their best player, Sam Joel, Bamber Bridge were bossed by Brackley in a game played largely in dreadful conditions.

Steve Diggin put them on their way in the 17th minute with a cool finish, neatly rounding the keeper before slotting the ball into a gaping net. As conditions worsened, with driving wind and rain now battering the players, their lead was doubled by that same man in the 76th minute, who finished clinically from a pin-point cross.

The match was then put beyond any doubt 6 minutes later when Richard Batchelor’s towering header looped into the net after a deep cross to the far post.

The First Round fixture against Newport will be only the third time in the Saints’ history that they have reached that stage of the world’s oldest and most prestigious cup competition. It will be another huge game for the club with extensive television, radio and wider media and sponsorship interest.

And we’ll be there again, for the third time on our Quest. If we can get a ticket that is!

By the way, did anyone get the Billy Joel reference in the title to this piece?

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The Bamber Bridge coach, a vehicle for a long journey home for the Brig players.

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The game gets underway. Wind and rain not present. That came later.

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The goal that Steve Diggin found in the 17th minute.

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The final whistle, and Brackley are in the hat after a 3-0 win.

Brackley, Bamber Bridge, Brett, Burgers and Berger

IMG_5226There are some big fixtures this weekend. The ‘Manchester Derby’ takes place at Old Trafford on Sunday, and the fierce ‘Wear-Tyne Derby’ between Sunderland and Newcastle is played on the same day. There’s even a ‘Lancashire Derby’ on Saturday when Blackburn and Burnley meet.

But forget all of those, because the biggest games are in the FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round this weekend, as non-league teams – including West Midlands minnows Sporting Khalsa who have made it through all 7 qualifiers to get to this stage – have desires on reaching the First Round Proper, and securing a hefty win bonus – in non-league circles anyway – of £12,500.

Our team Brackley Town face Northern Premier League Division One North side Bamber Bridge. The Lancashire side, based near Preston, overcame another Northamptonshire side in Kettering in a 3rd Qualifying Round replay for the opportunity to play at Brackley’s St James’ Park on Saturday.

The tie should pit two ex-football league players together in Brackley’s Pablo Mills (once of Derby and Rotherham) and Brett Ormerod, who owns a FA Cup Runners-Up medal from his time at Southampton. He’s played at every level of English league football and his experience and know-how could be a major threat for Brackley’s defence. If he plays, that is. There are rumours that he will not be fit for Saturday’s game. If true, that is a huge blow for Bamber Bridge, who have been bolstered by his goals already this season.

The tie sets up the first ever meeting between the two clubs, and with 2008 winners Portsmouth and 2013 winners Wigan – plus the likes of Coventry, Blackpool, Millwall and Sheffield United – as potential opponents in the First Round Proper, it could be a well-contested affair.

Brackley manager Kevin Wilkin has been busy since the last round, bringing in loan players to propel the team up the league table. Most notably is Burton Albion keeper Sam Hornby. He’s been drafted in to replace Ben Crane who decided to leave the club, despite Wilkin’s best efforts to keep him. Crane’s penalty save in the replay with Rugby in the last round ensured he leaves with no hard feelings.

Finally, did you know that Bamber Bridge played a part in Euro 96? Ok, so it was prior to the tournament but it’s a moment in the club’s history the fans will recall fondly.

The Czech Republic, who had qualified for a major tournament for the first time since Czechoslovakia split in 1993, were due to play Germany in their opening group match at Old Trafford. Based nearby to Bamber Bridge, and in need of a friendly, they initially approached Preston, who declined the invite but gave them the number of the then Bamber Bridge secretary, grounds man and kit man, Russ Rigby. So the Czech manager checked the facilities and formalised the details of the friendly. And so, after the pitch was relayed, bunting had been hung on the streets to welcome their European visitors, a stand and bar had been erected and an agreement for Bamber Bridge’s players not to be too physical was rubber stamped, the likes of Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Patrik Berger performed in front of a capacity crowd of 2,200 and a live audience on Czech TV!

imageThe Czechs comfortably brushed their amateur opponents aside, winning 9-1, but there aren’t many non-league sides who can boast that they played a European Championship side.

Anyway, we’ll be back at Brackley tomorrow focusing on the Saints, eating the locally-sourced burgers and wondering who the victor will be playing in the First Round Proper. Bring it on.

Back to Brackley

Our FA Cup Quest is taking us back to Brackley after they eased their way past Rugby Town in a Third Qualifying Round replay last night (Tuesday, October 13).

The tie had gone to a replay after Brackley’s Steve Diggin scored in the 7th minute of 8 additional minutes in the original tie on Saturday, October 10, at The Saints’ St James’ Park ground.

And he was on target again last night to seal the victory after Richard Bachelor had set them on their way in just the fourth minute with a neat, hooked finish.

Rugby, in fairness, never really looked like threatening to overturn a side two rungs above them on the non-league ladder.

However, they were awarded a massive chance from the spot on the half hour mark after what looked like a soft challenge. But Rugby’s all-time leading goal scorer David Kolodynski had his penalty brilliantly saved by Dan Crane who dived low to his right to tip it around the post. It was reminiscent of Rugby keeper Raaj Gill’s heroics in the first game when he pulled off an equally impressive save after another harsh decision.

That was to be Rugby’s only real chance of the game. Brackley limited them to half chances, with their best coming from a cross which was headed over at the far post.

That proved costly when Steve Diggin made sure of Brackley’s Cup progress on 79 minutes. Having missed the target with a lob moments earlier, he got his angles right when the ball dropped to him on the edge of the box. With the keeper advancing, he half-volleyed the ball which slowly but surely rolled into the bottom right of the net.

The win sets up a home tie with Bamber Bridge of the Northern Premier League Division One North in the 4th Qualifying Round. They defeated Kettering 3-2 in their replay last night, denying a Northants derby en route to the First Round Proper.

And despite Bamber Bridge being from the same level as Rugby, they shouldn’t be taken lightly. In Brett Ormerod they have a striker who has scored in every level of league football and has a FA Cup Runners-Up medal in his cabinet from his time at Southampton in 2003, when they were beaten by Arsenal. His pedigree is clear to see at this level, too, and he recorded a brace in that 3-2 win over Kettering.

So it’s back to Brackley for us a week on Saturday for a hugely important tie for both sides as they look to make it into the First Round Proper and beyond.

Finally, I’d like to say a huge farewell to Rugby Town and everyone at the club. Mark and I have visited their tidy little stadium twice on our Quest and it’s a wonderful advert for non-league football. The food is good, the beers are good, there’s a friendly atmosphere, their travelling fans are louder than the Formula 1 engines that were being tested at Brackley on Saturday…it has all the elements of how a small club should be run. We’d like to wish them well for the campaign ahead, and who knows, our paths may even cross again some day.

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Rugby Have to Try Again After Cruel Blow

Rugby Town were left crestfallen and shell shocked in Saturday’s FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round tie after hosts Brackley Town hit a stoppage time equaliser to take the tie to a replay on Tuesday.

After a tepid first half which saw little clear cut chances for either side, the second half kicked into life when Brackley were awarded a soft penalty just after the hour mark.

Valley ‘keeper Raajan Gill had to quickly rush off his line to deny Brackley’s man from reaching the ball. In doing so, the ref adjudged Gill to have fouled his man and pointed to the spot. Gill, meanwhile, had been clattered during the incident and had to receive lengthy treatment before the spot kick could be taken.

When Gill got back on his feet, he at least only received a yellow card, and not the red that everyone – including the Rugby coaching staff, who had warmed up a replacement ‘keeper – were expecting.

So with Gill now ready, Brackley’s Steve Diggin struck his spot kick low to the ‘keeper’s right. But justice was done, as Gill guessed correctly to make an outstanding save.

Revved up by this, Rugby sensed this might be their day, and as they pressed on, a weak back pass by Brackley defender Eddie Odhiambo was pounced on by the unrushing Callum Powell who slid in as Brackley’s ‘keeper Dan Crane attempted to clear the danger. But his kick hit Powell’s legs and rolled into the gaping net to send the travelling Valley army wild.

From that moment on, Brackley clawed at Rugby, creating and fluffing chances. Indeed, Rugby’s lead could have been increased when Kolodynski lifted the ball over a stranded Dan Crane only to see it agonisingly bounce back off the crossbar.

Due to the injury to Gill, there was always going to be hefty amount of stoppage time, and when 8 minutes was announced, nails began to get bitten. Rugby looked like they’d done enough, as scuffed efforts and goal line clearances were going their way. But in the 7th minute of the added eight, Rugby’s dreams were dashed when Diggin – who failed from the spot earlier – did find the net with a rising drive into Gill’s top right corner.

It means the two sides meet again on Tuesday. But it also means Rugby go into the 4th Qualifying Round draw – as an either/or at least – for the first time in 21 years.

So it was heartache for Rugby and their brilliant support. In the second half they never once stopped singing. Even after that last gasp heart breaker they continued to chant, and as the whistle blew for the final time, they bellowed their pride to try and lift the spirits of the players whose heads were down. Fantastic support.

Rugby must be given credit for their performance against a side two steps above them on the non-league ladder.

In all, our trip to Brackley was an enjoyable one, even if we too were as disappointed as the biggest of Valley fans when Diggin’s equaliser flew in.

Brackley treated us well. The Red Lion – the nearest pub to the ground – provided us with a decent pre-match pint (unlike the half of Old Speckled Hen Mark had in the club house at half time. It was so bad it almost made him physically sick!) and the burgers – made from locally-sourced meat from the local butcher – were the best we’ve had on this adventure yet.

But it’s back to Rugby on Tuesday by which time we’ll know which team awaits us in the last qualifying stage before the First Round Proper. Exciting times.

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The players emerge from the tunnel

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Crazy scenes as Rugby take the lead.

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Never stopped singing.

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Fantastic support

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Raaj Gill receives treatment after he was clattered. Picture courtesy of @Rugby_Revisited via Twitter

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Raaj Gill sporting a huge shiner. Picture courtesy of Raaj (@BigManGill) via Twitter

 

Have Brackley Got the Right Formula?

In sport circles, the south Northamptonshire town of Brackley is better known for Formula 1 than football. This is due in part to the nearby Siverstone racing circuit and for the fact that German F1 team Mercedes AMG Petronas are based there.

But Brackley Town will be hoping to ‘race’ into the 4th Qualifying round by beating our team Rugby Town in Saturday’s 3rd Qualifying tie.

The Saints, who ply their trade in the Conference North, do have recent pedigree in the FA Cup. Their finest moment came in the 2013-14 season when they beat then League One side Gillingham 1-0 in a First Round replay following a 1-1 draw.

They’ll be favourites in Saturday’s match, being two steps further up the pyramid from Rugby. But form and stature goes out of the window in the Cup, and Rugby will be making the relatively short journey full of confidence having dispatched Lincoln United in the last round. That 3-2 win was followed by a 3-1 league win over fellow strugglers Carlton Town, a result which lifted them above their opponents but sees them remain in the bottom three in the early league table. They then suffered defeat in the FA Trophy Preliminary round, when St Ives Town beat them 4-2 away.

Brackley too are struggling for league form, and haven’t won in their last 5 league games, losing four. So Rugby will at least have hope. And the two clubs do have previous, having met in the old Southern League.

It’s worth noting that Brackley do have a couple of famous faces in their squad. Former Premier League defender and Jamaican international Frank Sinclair is the club’s player-caretaker manager. His career saw him turn out for Chelsea and Leicester City in the Premier League. And do you remember Pablo Mills? My Derby County-supporting companion will. Mills started a very promising career at Pride Park back in 2002. The defender/midfielder made 57 appearances for The Rams before loan spells at MK Dons and Walsall. He then made 138 appearances for Rotherham between 2006 and 2010, but was released after they suffered League Two Play Off Final defeat at Wembley in May 2010. His record for Brackley reads played 2, scored 1.

So which club will have the right formula and race into the next round? And can my awful puns get any worse?