Magic of the FA Cup started with the draw itself as Matt Bass' Road to Wembley begins

Tuesday 08 Aug 2023
Disclaimer: This picture was taken 15 years ago. I do not look that young now!

I’m still not entirely sure how it came to this. Perhaps a short history lesson is in order. 

Like many football fans, I love the Emirates FA Cup. Watching it has given me untold joy over the years (and of course my fair share of heartbreak!) 

Settling down in front of the television in the summer of 1994, I distinctly remember Eric Cantona stroking home a brace of second-half penalties before Mark Hughes and Brian McClair completed Manchester United’s rout of Chelsea underneath the Twin Towers.

Since then, memories such as the agonising despair of Chesterfield in the semi-finals of 1997, the wild rollercoaster of my own Wycombe Wanderers reaching the same stage in 2001, Steven Gerrard’s ferocious strike against West Ham in 2006 and too many others to list completely are etched deep into my mind.

Once I was fully old enough to comprehend both the magnitude and indeed the sheer depth of the competition, I had a dream. A crazy dream. A crazy dream shared by many and achieved by few. I wanted to attend every round in the competition in the same season – all 14 rounds.

Foolishly, I decided to wait until I was deep into married life with my daughter about to start school and my son set to enter full-time childcare as my wife completed her maternity leave. Unbelievably, when I broached the subject with Mrs Bass (a lady not known for her love of the Beautiful Game) she was all for it! That is why I now find myself on this journey with its route unknown but its destination a certainty.

Massive brownie points to anyone who recognises this ground I visited back in 2015

The extra preliminary round clash between Wembley and Bearsted was a natural one for me for numerous reasons. Firstly, living in the Kentish countryside, the Bears are my local team entering the competition this year. A home tie would have been splendid but a trip to Vale Farm was, arguably, the next best thing. 

Some years back, I lived just across the road from Wembley’s home and, regrettably, I never made it to a match owing to the fact I was working each Saturday. This was an opportunity to right this wrong. Also, if I fall short in my goal to reach the final, at least I will be able to say I’ve been to Wembley!

My journey began on Monday though, five days ahead of the match. On this quest, I hope to meet the people behind the players and not just attend the games. I want to get to the heart of each club and not just spend 90 minutes in the stand. 

Upon entering the Bearsted clubhouse at Honey Lane, I was warmly greeted by Under 23s manager, Aaron Lorentson, first team manager Kevin Stevens and his wife, Lesley, who is the club secretary (although I soon learned her responsibilities are many and the club would have huge boots to fill were she not around).

“She’s a bit of a hero!” confirmed Lorentson.

My journey actually started five days early as I went to see some of the staff from my local club Bearsted

Stevens, a veteran of close to 400 games in charge of Bearsted, showed me to his office where I discovered his wife is not the only one spinning many plates at the club. Walking pitchside, I commented on how pristine it looked. It just so happened, I was also speaking to the groundsman!

“This is my third season doing the ground. It’s quite enjoyable,” he explained.

“I’m here every day, more or less all day. We come up here on a Tuesday normally at 10am and leave here sometimes around 12am after we have trained and we’ve had food. 

“Lesley makes food for the first team after each session. They’re long days but I enjoy it.”

The sentiment of “all in this together” is clear and the theme of family runs strongly through the club. It is evident the staff are supported by their own away from football.

Lorentson has a young family at home but still manages to devote much of his time to Bearsted. As a father myself, I have experienced that overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with having a little person to raise. I asked him how he manages to juggle everything.

“To be fair I don’t know how I get away with it! I have a ten-month-old at home and I am up here five days a week with the first team and the under-23s. But I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t the right atmosphere or if I felt I wasn’t valued, if that makes sense. 

“It is hard and there are times when I get home late at night and I wish I could just spend some time with my family but I am doing it because it is what I have wanted to do since a young age. 

“I get looked after so the sacrifice to me is worth it in the long term. I just enjoy being around the first team and the under-23s. It’s like a family away from having a normal family.”

And this special family was about to grow by one when Stevens offered me a place on the coach for matchday. I had planned to travel solo but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Unique experiences are what I’m looking for and what could be more special than travelling with the squad and their loyal supporters?

Saturday came and I made sure I was at Honey Lane in good time. Stevens had explained he wanted the coach to arrive in Wembley by 1pm to ensure there was maximum preparation time and nothing was left to chance. 

Departing at 10.45am, all seemed well until the traffic hit. Even getting out of suburban Maidstone was proving a little taxing before we even attempted to negotiate the M25!

Somewhat later than planned but still with plenty of time before kick-off, we pulled into Vale Farm with the weather seemingly relenting. 

Wembley FC's Vale Farm was the destination for my first match of this year's Emirates FA Cup

As the Bears headed for the changing rooms to begin their preparations, I took the opportunity to chat to Wembley’s president, Peter Sutton. 

Having supported the club since 1964, he was good company and it was wonderful to hear his stories of some of Wembley’s FA Cup matches gone by. When I found him, he was expertly directing cars in the compact car park whilst also greeting all those attending and pointing them in the right direction. He is a fine ambassador for the club.

Shortly before kick-off, I left the warmth of the clubhouse and headed for the stands. The majority of the crowd had opted for the cover provided on the eastern side of the pitch, opposite the dugouts but I braved it out in the open elements.

The visitors made the brighter start and looked sharp, passing around nicely with some great movement off the ball too. Alex Brown constantly dropped deep to find a pass and draw his defender out while Robbie Roberts often looked a threat on the right flank.

Stevens’ men were rewarded for their forward endeavour midway through the first period and it was no less than they deserved, forward Ollie Freeman sending a looping header over the ‘keeper to give the Bears the advantage. 

It was shortly after this I made the spectacularly wise decision to join the masses on the other side of the pitch. Just as I did so, the heavens opened and undoubtedly left their indelible mark on proceedings. Spray was kicking up from every boot across the park and the players now had to factor in the slick surface before judging their next move.

Wembley and Bearsted's players line up before kick-off

Wembley’s equaliser came on half an hour and in spectacular fashion. From out wide on the left wing, Alfie Bates caught Frankie Leonard off his line and looped the ball in from 35 yards. It was a fine finish and it proved a turning point in the game. 

Bearsted were no longer in control and both sides well and truly cancelled each other out. The visitors still looked the more likely to score but with a winner not forthcoming, a replay on Tuesday will be needed.

Stevens felt this was a game his side should have won and expressed frustration after the match.

“I’ve had some harsh words with some of them afterwards - individuals and the group - because of the standards we set.

“But, as a few of our fans have said, we dominated for large parts. They haven’t had a shot that our goalkeeper has had to save. 

“So to bring them back to our place, hopefully we can do the same again and put the chances away that we create.”

It’s an enjoyable start on my personal road to Wembley. The prize for the victor is a home tie against Southall from one level up the pyramid. A chance for some early giant-killing perhaps? 


By Matt Bass