Road to Wembley: Inside the dressing room as players add their names to history books

Monday 06 Nov 2023

Living about as far south-east as you can get in England, somewhat inevitably I have not ventured too far north as yet on my Emirates FA Cup adventure. This is something I am determined to put right as the competition progresses and, indeed, I was hoping to stretch my car’s metaphorical legs for this round.

However, when two of the competition’s lowest-ranked sides are practically on your doorstep for what is among their biggest ties in their respective histories, it’s hard to say no! I would love to have made it a weekend hat-trick by popping along to The Valley to renew acquaintances with Cray Valley Paper Mills but, alas, I had to settle for a brace of games.

Sheppey United were playing in the first round proper of the competition for the very first time and it felt like the whole island had turned out to share in the occasion.

In truth, it’s a shame more couldn’t attend in person but the presence of the TV cameras ensured a much wider audience could enjoy the action. In fact, my aunt in Peterborough even spotted me in the crowd!

The Ites had some early chances but Walsall soon settled and looked very comfortable and, indeed, calm. What impressed me most was how composed they were throughout, even when their hosts took an unexpected lead to leave the whole island dreaming of an upset.

It was James Bessey-Saldanha who broke the deadlock with a fine strike from distance, rifling beyond Owen Evans with an effort that seemed to be continuously rising until it struck the back of the net.

The TV crew from ITV ahead of the televised FA Cup tie between Sheppey United and Walsall

Unfortunately for Sheppey, dreamworld soon turned to reality as the Saddlers levelled ten minutes later through Douglas James-Taylor, meaning the sides were level at the interval.

The visitors were relentless in the second period and ensured there would be no cup upset on the night as strikes from Tom Knowles, Ross Tierney and a late effort from Isaac Hutchinson handed them a trip to Alfreton Town in the second round.

The dream is over for Sheppey but they should be commended not only for their efforts on the pitch in reaching this stage but also the way in which the tie as a whole was put together.

Having never reached the first round proper before, the Ites are not accustomed to hosting a sold-out stadium, coupled with the presence of the TV crews and the avalanche of media requests they had received in the build-up to such a momentous occasion.

I hope they are able to look back on the last few months with nothing but joy and pride.

As for Walsall, manager Mat Sadler was pleased to progress and demonstrated a real awareness of just how special this competition is.

“For the guys from Sheppey tonight, they have worked so, so hard to get these moments for their families and it is an amazing thing.

“For us, we are searching and striving for our families and memories if you like - and that is what it can give you.

“Hopefully, whatever the draw looks like, we want to get through. The financial aspect is also really important for us as a football club and important for me as we move into the coming months.

“We want to create some memories and some moments and that is what the cup can give you.”

Ramsgate made me feel welcome straight away

And so to the second part of my double header. This one broke a little rule I had set myself of not rewatching a side so soon after seeing them play before but I felt I could justify it.

When I met Ramsgate manager Ben Smith following their success at AFC Totton, his first words were to ask why I hadn’t been in the changing rooms to get a real insight into their day.

Well, how could I refuse such an invitation?

Smith is a joy to be around and as soon as I arrived at the stadium, he immediately put a Ramsgate hat and scarf on me. I couldn’t have felt more welcomed. He wasn’t done just yet though!

When the players arrived, Smith was true to his word and brought me into the changing room to listen to his pre-match chat with the squad. Defender Joe Ellul immediately asked me what song I would be singing for my initiation. It was similar when travelling with Bearsted in the extra-preliminary round. I’ve done a bit of PA announcing during this year’s FA Cup but I’m getting nervous that a microphone may well end up in my hand for a different reason at some point!

Half an hour before kick-off, Smith invited me onto the pitch to help introduce Ramsgate’s new signing, Craig Stone, who joined from Hastings United.

I had no real reason to be there other than it being another way the manager could show kindness and embrace what I am doing. Photographs completed, it was back to the changing rooms for the final preparations.


Fans run on to the pitch after the game

Even now, I’m still struggling to comprehend the access that Smith granted me. Of course, I’m not looking to be a nuisance, but it’s still remarkable to me that a manager would allow someone into the very centre of the action on one of the biggest day’s in the club’s history. Maybe if I ask nicely he might name me as a substitute next time?

National League visitors Woking clearly hadn’t read the script when they took an early lead through Dennon Lewis, who latched onto a neat through ball to fire beyond Tom Hadler in the Ramsgate goal.

The scores were level at the break though and Hadler can definitely claim the assist, pumping the ball forward for TJ Jadama to take one of the finest first touches I have ever seen before eventually poking the ball past Will Jääskeläinen, son of the former Premier League shot-stopper Jussi.

Before the game, Smith had impressed on his players that this was to be the day they would score the ‘double over’ that they had been working so hard on and that the moment would go viral. I confessed to him after the match that I wasn’t sure what he meant by a ‘double over’ but when it happened it was a moment of pure magic.

With 74 minutes on the clock, Alfie Paxman fired in a low corner which skipper Mike West gave a step-over dummy to, leaving former Ipswich and Millwall man Lee Martin free to fire into the net.

It wasn’t quite the ‘double over’ but a ‘single over’ was good enough to put Ramsgate into the second round of the competition for the first time ever.

Celebrations in the Ramsgate dressing room after the match

The celebrations were wild. I’m accustomed to a football changing room smelling of deep heat but Ramsgate’s was drenched, leaving the air thick with champagne. Smith received a soaking too when his players invaded his post-match interview!

The manager explained: “I said to the boys beforehand that it isn’t about them, it's about the club and the community. I said that the one thing they did have today was the chance to write themselves into this football club’s history.

“Not often, forgetting where the players have been in the football league levels etc. not often could you say in your careers you have had a chance to do that. Today they had a chance and they did it.”

Martin dedicated his goal to his dad who has spent the last two months in hospital in London with his mother visiting each day.

“It has been a bit tough for the last couple of months. My dad has been in hospital so that goal was for him.

“It was a special little moment and my mum managed to come down because she has been going up to the hospital every day. To celebrate with my wife, my mum, my three boys and my girl, alright my dad wasn’t there but I know he was watching in spirit.

“I’ll give him a call in a minute to check in on him and make sure he buys a paper tomorrow!”

Joe Ellul played despite a recent family bereavement

Ellul was a mountain at the heart of the Rams defence but could have missed out after suffering a family bereavement in the build-up to the tie. Encouraged to play by his family, he was full of praise for those around him.

“It’s days like this that show you how important family are and they can push you through to new heights.

“I am just so glad we got the result – not just for those reasons but for the club it is massive.”

He added: “It is an unreal feeling for the boys. I think it’s a well-deserved feeling as well because we grafted for ninety-plus minutes and I think we got our just rewards at the end of it.”

Those ‘just rewards’ extend to a second round proper trip to face AFC Wimbledon, a club synonymous with the FA Cup. Will there be another underdog story to come?

Matt's Road to Wembley so far....

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

By Matt Bass