As I turned the corner and started walking up the steps to the pub it was as if I had been transported back about 10 years, as faces from my past were everywhere I looked. It felt as if half of the small town I had spent my formative years in had all decided to meet up in the north of Bristol. With flags and claret & blue scarfs making this boozer more than familiar I already knew that this was going to be a special day.
It had been a long time since I moved away from the small town at the end of London’s tube line, but thanks to around 15 years of following Chesham United home and away in the early 1990s to the mid 2000s, I still kept an eye out for their results and kept in touch with a few of the old terrace faces.
Apart from my regular burger review column for the match day programme – yes really, it was called Hat-Trick Burger. I know, hilarious – the overriding memory of my years watching the Generals was the absolutely abysmal FA Cup matches. As any non-league fan will tell you, the first round of the FA Cup is the Holy Grail. Even before the increased financial incentive and the prospect of being patronised by cliché-reliant BT Sport commentators, making it through the myriad of qualifying matches from the middle of August to be in the hat for the draw for the first round was what it was all about. It’s even called the first round proper. ‘Proper’ – how can you not want to be a part of that?
I’d not actually seen the Generals play for a few seasons as I now lived on the south coast but when I heard the fourth qualifying round results included a 2-1 victory for Chesham over Enfield I knew I was finally going to be one of those non-league fans anxiously awaiting the draw for the first round. And what a draw; Bristol Rovers away. Logistically I wasn’t going to be able to get on the supporters coach from the ground – and the train route from Brighton to Bristol looked like it would take several days – so I was going to have to make the drive myself. But that didn’t matter. This was the first round.
So there I was, in a pub in Bristol packed with Chesham United fans. To call this experience surreal would not do it justice but the day was about to become even more fantastical. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the Chesham fans sing as loud and long as they did that day and when we were awarded a penalty just before the half hour we couldn’t believe our luck. The spot kick was well saved, and conversations on the terrace were already turning to the clichéd ‘you have to take your chances’ variety.
The second half proved to be even better the first. Barry Hayles came on for Chesham with about 20 minutes to go and received a great reception from both sets of fans due to his hero status in the West Country. And then it happened. Hayles picked the ball up near the halfway line and stroked it down the left wing in front of the Chesham fans to Ryan Blake. After cutting inside, the Rovers defence continued to give the Chesham man room and then he let fly with a speculative shot from just outside the box. It didn’t seem too well hit but it must have deceived the keeper because it beat him on the way to the net, sending the travelling contingent into ecstatic delight. The rest of the game is a bit of a blur to be honest. We held on, thanks largely to a legendary performance from keeper Shane Gore, and we were still singing and applauding our heroes long after the final whistle was blown.
We drew Bradford City away in the next round and unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the trip, although there were a very impressive number of fans that made it to Yorkshire to see us get beaten 4-0. No embarrassment there though, as two of the goals were in injury time anyway.
It may not get the TV repeats of parka-clad kids running on to congratulate Ronnie Radford’s goal for Hereford – or even the nostalgia-inducing grace of Keith Houchen’s diving header for Coventry – but for me the magic of the cup was alive and well at the Memorial Ground that day in 2015.
By Dan Roberts
Part of our Magic of the Cup series