When the second round draw was made for the Emirates FA Cup, I was left with a little bit of a problem. I just couldn’t decide where to go!
Such is my enthusiasm for the competition, lots of ties stood out for me. With the excitement of the third round and the “big boys” just on the horizon, much like the final qualifying round, this felt like a stage where heartbreak would await those who fell.
Unable to make a decision myself, I took to social media with a poll of four fixtures.
- Emirates FA Cup second round proper
- Saturday 2 December 2023
- The Gallagher Stadium
First up was Alfreton Town against Walsall. The Saddlers had impressed me in their victory at Sheppey United and their hosts were one of the lowest ranked sides remaining. This seemed a great option but, thankfully, not the choice of the people as it fell foul of the weather minutes before kick-off.
My second option was a trip to watch my own beloved Wycombe Wanderers who entertained Morecambe. Taking on this Road to Wembley challenge means I am unlikely to see the Chairboys in action much this season so perhaps a case of “two birds with one stone” could help me here. Alas, it was not to be and, given the success of the Shrimps on the day, I can’t say I am too disappointed.
Thirdly it was Newport County hosting Barnet. Maybe a trip to Wales would be the pick of the public? Wrong again. These two sides will meet again though following a 1-1 draw.
Which meant it was my final option - Maidstone United welcoming League Two high-flyers Barrow - that won the day.
Maidstone is easily reachable for me and it didn’t take long to get to the Gallagher Stadium, using a taxi for the inbound journey and even managing to get a bus home in time to tuck my children into bed.
I was greeted by the Stones’ goalkeeping coach Zach Foster-Crouch who assured me it would be no problem to speak to some players and manager, George Elokobi, during my stay. True to his word, he immediately introduced me to Michael Petrasso.
Petrasso was not in the squad for the game but had an FA Cup memory to share himself. Currently on loan from York United in his native Canada, he was part of the Oldham Athletic side who memorably lost 2-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in the third round in 2014.
“I actually ended up at the end of the game - I played 90 minutes - I got (Luis) Suárez’s jersey at the end of the game. That was almost ten years ago now but it was probably one of the best moments of my career.
“That's how special the opportunity is - playing at a lower league to playing against a Premier League side and Suárez has gone on to be one of the best strikers in the world. Just to have the opportunity to be on the field with them was a great privilege.
“I think that is what a lot of teams in these divisions are chasing. They are chasing memories. For us to get to the third round was an amazing experience.”
Shortly after, I spoke to Barrow’s media manager, Ethan Thatcher, who has been working with the Cumbrians since the summer.
I think I found a kindred spirit when chatting to him as it was clear how much he too enjoys the FA Cup.
“I absolutely love it. Especially when you work for a lower league team, you are thinking about those “What ifs”. Round three is next, what if you get Liverpool away or Chelsea away?
“It is such a big competition and it is a competition which year on year has these upsets so it is not unthinkable that you can get on the TV cameras and cause a bit of chaos in the competition.”
I joke that, in his line of work, a tie against one of the giants of the game in the third round would be an absolute nightmare for him with all of the media attention that such a draw would inevitably bring. Refreshingly, he didn’t see it that way.
“It would be awesome as well to be in a press box at a Premier League side. I feel like the players, I am also hungry to have these experiences at these top level sides.”
Thatcher spoke so well of the game and he is a credit to Barrow. I could easily have spent longer in his company but I knew his time was precious and so I let him return to the gantry for his duties. Meanwhile, I headed for a packed bar to soak up the atmosphere a little further with the home supporters.
Just ahead of kick-off, I ensured I sampled the local fare with a fine portion of chips accompanying my cheeseburger before settling in near the tunnel to take in the first half.
With both sides flying high in their respective divisions, there was plenty of attacking intent.
Elliott Newby fired over for the visitors while Sol Wanjau-Smith’s header brought a fine low save from Paul Farman.
Maidstone’s Bivesh Gurung really impressed me in the middle of midfield - more on him later - but it was the visitors who opened the scoring when Ben Whitfield capitalised on a mix-up at the back to find the net.
The advantage was short-lived though as Sam Corne found space from a through ball to fire in at the near post, ensuring the sides were level at the interval.
Losing forward Levi Amantchi shortly before half time could have rattled the Stones but with the match drawing to a close, it seemed like the Kent outfit were on course to secure a replay.
However, Gurung had other ideas.
The midfielder, born and raised in Maidstone, was in the perfect place to pick up Sam Bone’s lay off and fire a blistering strike home from outside the penalty area. I’m convinced it would still be rising had the net not stopped it.
The local hero was mobbed by his teammates as he wheeled away in delight to celebrate in front of the vocal home supporters.
And as the Stones saw out the remaining quarter of an hour plus stoppage time, Gurung was left a little lost for words at the final whistle.
“It doesn’t really get much better than that. It was such a massive game for the club. You can see how everyone turned up in their numbers today," he said.
“There was a lot of anticipation building up - you could feel it from the warm-up and you could feel it in the changing room as well - just looking in everyone’s eyes, everyone was really fired up and tuned in and wanting to get a result in today’s game.
“We managed to do it and we are just so, so proud.”
And Stones boss Elokobi was equally proud of his squad who have earned the club a place in round three for the first time since 1988 - and also the first time since the club reformed in 1992.
“The FA Cup has always been a special competition. When I was signed on by Colchester in League One, we managed to get to the fifth round and were drawn away to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
“That was when it hit me and I saw how special it was - what it could do for a small football club, what it could do for the community - just moments like that, the players putting themselves in the history books.
“Getting in the third round hasn’t happened since 1988, I think. To be able to do that as a group is fantastic. It is incredible.”
Matt's Road to Wembley so far....
First round proper: Ramsgate 2-1 Woking & Sheppey United 1-4 Walsall
Fourth round qualifying: AFC Totton 0-1 Ramsgate
Third round qualifying: Gorleston 0-1 Hemel Hempstead Town
Second round qualifying: Ascot United 1-2 Lewes
First round qualifying: Flackwell Heath v Farnham Town
Preliminary round: Lordswood 1-1 Cray Valley (PM)
Extra preliminary round: Wembley 1-1 Bearsted