The Cup of Cheer and the Poisoned Chalice - County in the FA Cup

The depressing inevitability that Covid-19 would strike County at some point this season finally became a reality earlier this month and as such there will be no ‘November Review’ for your perusal. Never fear though, the October review is available and I still have your literary needs in mind during lockdown. This month, due to the quirk which means our last and next games are in the FA Cup we’re going to be looking back at County’s run in ‘the world’s oldest and most famous cup competition’ (© clich├ęd hacks everywhere). Down the years County have played all the famous names, Willenhall Pickwick, Walthamstow Avenue, and of course West Auckland Town. There have been many memorable moments during County’s history in the cup; top of the list must surely be the games against Liverpool, Everton and Queen’s Park Rangers but we’re also going to be reliving the memories of some lesser-known games, and not all of them cover County in cup glory. Also before we begin, a big thank you to Phil Brennan for supplying the Eddie Prudham, Terry Park and Mike Flynn photos.

The 1970s were the start of a dark period for County, after the impressive display at Anfield in 1965 which saw County achieve a draw against the team who would go on to win the cup that season, County only made the third round once in the seven years following the Liverpool tie. Against a backdrop of very limited success and barely troubling the top half of the Fourth Division, they lost to non-league Blyth Spartans 1-0 in the second round in 1971 despite beating Palace and West Ham (too!) in the League Cup in 1972 and progressing to the FA Cup third round the same year.

More non-league woes were soon to come in the shape of Stafford Rangers in 1974. At the time Stafford were a well-respected non-league side, and coupled with the wretched decade County had suffered it probably wasn’t too much of a surprise to see County lose 1-0 away after a replay. Unlike most games from that era, there is some YouTube footage of the game at EP and for those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a great step back in time to see what the ground was like in the 1970s.

The latter end of the 1970s also brought little cheer, 1977 saw County make the second round before losing to Third Division, Shrewsbury Town in a replay. While the following season County scored nine in two home games; five against Morecambe in the first round (5-1) and four against Bradford City in the second (4-2). They had made the third round for the first time since 1973 but we had to wait for our next cup game. After NINE postponements due to month-long heavy snow, they lost away at Wrexham, then in the Second Division, 6-2 (the game closest to the day I was born, in case you were wondering?!).

Eddie Prudham scores County's first against Morecambe in 1978

County had some success in the 1980 League Cup after securing a fine victory away to First Division, Sunderland, but then succumbed to fellow top-flight side, Arsenal, at EP in the following round. No FA Cup success was on the horizon, but the start of a new FA Cup trend was about to begin.  

During the mid-1980s County versus Telford United almost became an annual fixture as, bizarrely, we were drawn together in the first round three times in five years. Telford were a non-league side but they were just a handful of places below County in football’s hierarchy, however, the gap between professional and semi-pro quality was much wider 30 years ago than it is today, plus we are talking about a time when the FA Cup was the competition to win and all teams, especially those at the top of the food chain took it seriously. Now, with the focus on league success and the fielding of under-strength sides (even at lower league level, remember the conversations pre-Chesterfield about the quality of side County should field? That wouldn’t have been up for debate back then) the upsets caused by non-league sides have been diluted somewhat. The defeats to Telford, while not exactly unexpected given County’s lack of success, were still regarded as embarrassing upsets. In 1983 County returned home on the end of a 3-0 defeat and mixed in were some pretty ugly scenes between the two sets of fans off the pitch. 

In 1985 Telford were victorious once more, this time a single goal was enough to dump County out of the competition. The day was also notable for a National Front demonstration in Stockport which descended into violence outside Stockport train station.  

Terry Park has an effort on goal away to Wrexham in the third round, 1979.

Finally in 1987, at the third attempt, County managed to get one over on their non-league opponents but only after a replay, a 2-0 win gave County a place in the next round. 

It’s worth mentioning that Telford had quite the giant-killing reputation in the 1980s, the first year they beat County they went on to reach the fourth round, beating Northampton Town and Rochdale in subsequent rounds. The following year they went one better and reached the fifth round with victories against Lincoln City, Preston North End, Bradford City, and Darlington. They also beat Burnley in 1986 and Stoke City in 1991. 

Neatly sandwiched in the middle of the Telford trilogy was 1986’s first round trip to Welsh non-league side Caernarfon Town. The omens weren’t good, County were on their way to finishing 19th in Division Four, were on a run of one win in 17 games, and that same season were forced to switch a home League Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday to Maine Road (we lost 7-0). The day will be remembered, like Telford in 1983, for events on and off the pitch as County lost 1-0 amidst a large amount of crowd trouble.

The only brief bright spot in the 1980s saw County make the third round in 1987/88 after negotiating a second round tie at Runcorn (which wasn’t as easy as one expected considering the Caernarfon defeat a year earlier) County narrowly lost to Leyton Orient at EP in the third round.

Crowd trouble at Caernarfon in 1986

The 1990s gave us a marked improvement in the FA Cup which coupled nicely with the upturn in league success under Danny Bergara. 

1992/93 saw County make the third round for the second time in five years and a trip to a foggy Baseball Ground to face Derby County. In what was a very similar last few minutes to that of the Everton one at EP three years later, County equalised in the dying moments, cue pandemonium in the dangerously overcrowded away end (unnerving scenes such as those experienced by County fans that day should have been a thing of the past after the Taylor Report, but I digress) and, like Everton, Derby snatched the winner in injury time, though via an own goal not by a John Ebbrell thunderbastard. Derby finished 8th in the second tier (1993’s Division One) and County, of course, made the Play Offs. There hasn’t been much footage of the game shown in the years since, so this local news report on YouTube is pretty rare.

The following season saw one of County’s most famous FA Cup victories against a well-respected and talented QPR side who had finished 5th in the Premier League the previous season. But the route there, or at least the first round tie away at Rotherham United, was just as emotional and breathless. The stage was set; dismal November weather, played on a heavy pitch, and two teams giving 100%. Those who were present will remember the raucous and unwavering support from the away end as County, at the height of their 1993/94 pomp, dominated a second half in which they needed to find two goals after being one down just before the hour. County thoroughly deserved their equaliser with under ten minutes to play and Andy Preece was the hero in injury time as he turned and poked home the winner. The scenes between players and fans after the game were phenomenal. Some may sneer at the phrase “the magic of the FA Cup”, but this was it, neatly encapsulated in seven minutes. 

Non-league Halifax Town were beaten in the second round and County faced QPR in the third round at a frozen EP in January 1994. Despite Rangers’ lofty position, County were more than a match for them and in the second half were by far the better side as they took the game to their Premier League opponents. An exciting, pulsating cup tie culminated in one of the most famous County goals of modern times, as Preece superbly volleyed in Peter Ward’s freekick. The hysteria of the goal and the pitch invasion will live long in the memory of those present. So will Bergara’s post-match interview where he delivered his immortal quote “we’ve got a small house but we’ve got a big bloody heart”. It still brings a tear to the eye 26 years later. 

Round four beckoned and County would play at EP versus the winners of the Liverpool/Bristol City tie. The stage was set for County to try and cause another, arguably bigger, upset with the visit of the Anfield team. But in true FA Cup style, Bristol City won their replay 1-0 and then pulverised County 4-0. Not quite how the script was written in the minds of County fans, but at least they had a cup run to remember for the right reasons.  

The victorious County side, 8th January 1994.

The 1995/96 run which culminated in a mouth-watering tie against holders, Everton, got off to a fine start against Lincoln City at home where Jeff Eckhardt’s treble helped County to a 5-0 win. The second round saw County play Blyth Spartans, again at EP, which they won 2-0.

The tie against Everton had everything; suspense, drama, euphoria, despair, nine goals, and of course deep anguish. Just 12 months away from pushing the big guns out of the way in the League Cup, County were doing a good job of achieveing exactly the same here. Stand out performances from Mike Flynn, Lee Todd, Chris Beaumont, and Alun Armstrong, not to mention Ian Helliwell’s header, which was a great end to as good a team goal as we’ve ever seen, lead to a very creditable draw at Goodison Park. The replay at EP saw another impressive team performance which deserved so much more and the pendulum-like way the tie swung for and against us was as thrilling as it was agonising. In the end, Armstrong’s exquisite turn and finish at the Cheadle End was cruelly counter-balanced by his tears on the EP turf just minutes later after Ebbrell's winner. I guess it was predictable in many ways given the way the previous 178 minutes of the tie had gone. 

The following season will obviously be remembered for the League Cup run and promotion, but we should note County made the fourth round in the FA Cup. Remember we wouldn’t start in the third round until the season after and having dispatched Doncaster Rovers and Mansfield Town County then briefly renewed their rivalry with Stoke City and took the scalp of the team from the division above in the third round, in the last FA Cup game to be played at the Victoria Ground. 

County’s stint in the Championship of course meant a third round start, and the prospect of a run to the latter stages if a lower-division opponent or two were dispatched. Sadly, not. County made the fifth round just once during that time. After a Karim Fradin wonder strike knocked out Preston North End at Deepdale and a last-minute winner by Finnish international, Jarkko Wiss at Crewe Alexandra in the fourth round, County were drawn away against Tottenham Hotspur. A glamorous tie and a trip to the capital to play at one of the most famous stadiums in the country; certainly an exciting prospect for County fans. Alas though, I was there, but I don’t remember much excitement about the game itself, with Spurs rarely having to get out of second gear to send County back home on the end of a 4-0 defeat. It was just the third time in the club’s history that they had reached the fifth round, the others being 1935 and 1950.

Mike Flynn in action during County's fifth round tie at Spurs in 2001

In 2003, on their way to surviving from League One relegation by just two points, County’s first round defeat to non-league Stevenage Borough marked the 18th occasion that, as a league club, we had been beaten by non-league opposition. A pretty dismal record. 

The decade brought little success in the cup as league fortunes began to nosedive, although County made the third round in 2005 and 2007. Both Swansea City and Brentford, our first and third round opponents, made the League One Play Offs that season, but County beat the Welsh side 2-0 at EP and only narrowly lost to Brentford (not the most glamorous of third round ties), 3-2, also at home, despite being 2-1 up with 20 minutes remaining. 

Backed by a superb away following, David Poole gave County the lead away to Premier League side, Watford, in 2007. However, the home side eased to a 4-1 victory, aided by some grim County defending.

Later that year, County reached a new landmark, that of losing an FA Cup tie via a penalty shoot out. After a home draw against Staines Town, a team from the Ryman League, three tiers below County, they lost the replay 4-3 on penalties. This after County were by far the superior side for the vast majority of the game, however, once the game had reached penalties the outcome could probably have been predicted. 

Staines Town win on penalties in 2007

County entered administration in 2009 and it was just the tip of a shitty iceberg as we entered the second decade of the millennium. With the potential upset against Tooting and Mitcham avoided in the first round, County were drawn against Torquay United at home in the second round, a decent draw against a team from the division below. But befitting the freefall County had already embarked on, multiple postponements caused by a combination of the weather and our tenants, Sale Sharks, playing their home games at EP, which meant County suffered the ignominy of having to switch the tie to Macclesfield’s Moss Rose. The hardy and loyal band who followed the team that night weren’t even rewarded with a goal or a performance to be proud of as a team who would go on to finish 17th in League Two scored four without reply. Not the first or the last harrowing low point we would suffer over the next decade.  

Where the late 1990s and early 2000s saw County’s chances increase of landing a big cup draw or making progress to the later rounds, just over ten years later those aspirations were about as far away as it was possible to be. The qualifying rounds meant there were more chances of being cast aside before the competition started properly. 2013 saw arguably the nadir of County’s time in non-league as Rushall Olympic won at EP. There may have only been a tier between the sides, but that in itself was a testament to just how far County had fallen and barely 2000 people were there to witness it.

In ten years, since the relegation to non-league, County had made the first round just four times but there have been a few dramatic games. 2017’s third qualifying round game against FC United of Manchester looked set to be a forgone conclusion as County lead 3-0 only to be pegged back to 3-3. A beleaguered County lost the replay as nine-man United progressed with a 1-0 victory.

The following season, 2018/19, County were causing an upset of their own against league opposition as they knocked out League Two side, Yeovil Town at Huish Park. A magnificent performance against a team two divisions higher was capped by goals from Matty Warburton, Nyal Bell and Frank Mulhern. They were knocked out in round two by National League side, Barnet. 

The latest chapter in our FA Cup adventures this season saw another landmark reached when our tie against Chesterfield had to be replayed at the beginning of the month. The subsequent wins against our Derbyshire neighbours and League One, Rochdale (including the John Rooney wonder goal which brought the club worldwide exposure) have set up a tie with Yeovil Town at EP, and we can be quietly confident of third round place, which for a non-league side starting in the qualifying rounds would be a fine achievement. Should that happen all we have to wish for is for a money-spinning draw and for fans to be allowed back into grounds again. Who knows, we could see a repeat of the QPR or Everton games? One can dream at least.  


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