The Cup did not so much overflow with romance at Clarence Park in this FA Cup first round tie, rather than get drowned in reality.
But, without wanting to get too misty eyed about jumpers for goalposts, this was a reminder of what football is really about.
Saints had already played through four qualifying rounds to get to this stage of the cup, to be rewarded with a home tie against league opposition, struggling Mansfield Town. If Hertfordshire itself is not exactly a hotbed of football (sorry Watford fans), the cathedral city of St Albans certainly isn’t. But walking through the cobbled high street at lunchtime before the game, there was a faint murmur of FA Cup excitement, the odd pub or two spilled onto the pavement and posters adorned local shop doors.
This was only my second visit to Clarence Park and this time we went en famille. Fans queued patiently over the railway footbridge to make their way into the ground, about 3,000 more than usual, the programme seller was doing brisk business and had to make an emergency call into the club “shop” to restock his cardboard box fifteen minutes before kick off.
We took our place behind the goal on the terraces, kids allowed to stand at the front and almost able to touch the players. The top boys (well, 16 year old GCSE students free of their parents for the afternoon) of St Albans filled the middle of the terrace, leading the support. Terrace banter was ever present from the first minute after the linesman made a complete horlicks of a corner kick decision about a corner kick. How we miss the wit of the terrace wag in our all seater stadia in the higher leagues.
Our community was evident everywhere we turned, bumping into people from the local school, the village football team, the rugby club and a colleague. Congratulations must go to one St Albans fan who’d even made his own triple life size FA Cup to mark the occasion, fingers crossed it makes the highlights on the tv, it deserves to.
The half time raffle included a tin of Quality Street with some mini Toblerones for one of the runner’s up. Fittingly, local legend Dave Clarke graced the pitch before the match and it was nice to hear he has been appointed a club ambassador for the Saints. A mention is also due to the Mansfield drummer, beating his drum periodically through the game, he must be a real favourite amongst the away support if he takes that to every away game. And a special mention to the Clarence Park groundsman, I’ve seen many worse pitches in much higher divisions, it positively glowed that luminous green under the floodlights which only football fans know exists as an actual colour.
To a neutral like me, the score was almost secondary, but for the record the Stags ran home winning 8-1. There was a sniff of an upset in the air after the Saints sneaked ahead after 8 minutes and the first half was a pattern of consistent pressure from the home team. But 2 goals in the last five minutes of that half put the Stags ahead and the result was never really in doubt from that point, with the second half turning into shooting practice for Mansfield.
I’m a cup romantic at heart and a bit of a grumble about lack of replays, penalty shoot-outs and worst of all Saturday tea time kick-offs for the grand old final itself, so this was a lovely reminder of what the cup is about. In theory, anyone can get to Wembley. In reality, that’s not the case of course, but at 3pm as the golden last shades of the sun fell over the trees in the park which border this typical non-league ground, the magic of the cup was certainly in the air.
I plan to be back to Clarence Park a bit more often and let’s hope a few more of today’s 3,000 do so as well.