Road to Wembley: World's oldest grandstand, Love Islander and more tannoy duties

Monday 02 Oct 2023
I can now lay claim to have sat in what is believed to be the oldest surviving football grandstand in the world

From my home in Kent, I’ve so far managed to keep travel down to reasonable distances and times, factors that have been on my mind when making plans for the challenge.

Like many people, I work full-time and also have a young family. I’m embracing this for exactly what it is – a challenge – but I want it to be manageable too and not impact negatively on my family with time away.

That being said, it was time to test the waters and venture a little further afield. A trip to the Norfolk coast appealed partly because it is a part of the country I haven’t visited on many occasions before. From a footballing perspective, Norwich City seem to fly the county’s flag loud and proud but, beyond the Canaries, I wasn’t entirely sure who else represented the region.

Gorleston currently call neighbouring Great Yarmouth their home, playing at the Wellesley Recreation Ground. The venue lays claim to having what is thought to be the oldest surviving football grandstand, having been opened in 1892.

It was here that I perched for the duration of the match, looking out over rows of park bench-style seating ahead of me, before an athletics track encircles the playing surface.

Gorleston v Hemel Hempstead Town

Emirates FA Cup
Third Round Qualifying 
Wellesley Recreation Ground

It is a truly unique setting and I’m immediately glad I chose this tie for the round, even before I meet some of the fantastic people at the club.

I had arranged to meet Gorleston’s director of football, Gavin Coe, ahead of the match and it was a pleasure to take a seat in the home dugout and pick his brains.

When not focussed on Gorleston, Coe is chief operating officer at Norwich City Community Sports Foundation. He confirms my initial thoughts that the Canaries are the only professional club in the county while Kings Lynn at step two are the next highest on the pyramid.

However, Coe says the ambition at Gorleston is to get ‘as close to the other two as we can in the shortest amount of time possible’.

He explains: “We have recently gone through a lot of changes in terms of changing our ground and changes to our identity and how we do things. 

“I think the current committee, the chairman and the vice-chair have done an outstanding job in terms of waking up a bit of a sleeping giant that has sat around at step five for a good few seasons and they have really brought some ambition and drive to the club and it has inspired all the other volunteers to want to get involved.”

Alongside Emley, Cambridge City and Barton Rovers, Gorleston are one of just four teams left in the competition who entered the Emirates FA Cup in the Extra Preliminary Round. 

The Third Round Qualifying game with Hemel Hempstead Town is their fifth tie in the competition and Coe was quick to point out the benefits this has brought.

He continued: “This FA Cup run has been good for us. It has united the group and perhaps given them a bit of belief around where they are at as a group – the challenge of playing other teams at other levels, needing to be on it regardless of level. 

“I think the beauty of the FA Cup is that levels go out of the window. It is about who fancies it on the day and who is up for it.”

Before I select my vantage point for the game ahead, a microphone is thrust into my hand. I had made the mistake of sharing tales of my exploits at Flackwell Heath where I read the teams over the tannoy. Coe was keen for me to take it a step further this time.

After a quick training session with the technology, I would be in charge of announcing the teams, additional minutes and substitutions. Time to get familiar with the names on the teamsheet!

Just before kick-off, I was asked if I could read out a birthday message at half-time as well! In for a penny, in for a pound!

And speaking of pounds, halfway through the first half, a lady hands me the two winning raffle tickets for me to announce as well as £60 in prize money to be claimed! I might give up my job and become a full-time announcer as I think I’m getting a feel for it!

Hemel Hempstead ply their trade two divisions above their hosts and are made to play a patient game, absorbing a lot of Gorleston pressure in a goalless first half.

The home side strike the woodwork twice in their quest to find the net but ultimately, it is the Tudors who open the scoring.

Love Island star Montel McKenzie – a man in demand at the full-time whistle for photos – is back by the beach to hammer home from inside the box. 

The visitors are in the mood now and soon double their advantage as Tarelle Whittaker grabs his second goal in as many games.

Gorleston continue to press forward in search of a goal but their efforts are ultimately in vain as Hemel now find themselves just one game away from the First Round Proper.

I take the chance to speak to Tudors boss Brad Quinton after the game who has his own special FA Cup memory.

In 2005, Quinton was in the Braintree Town squad who travelled to Shrewsbury Town in the First Round. With his side trailing 4-0, Quinton was on hand to earn a consolation goal through a diving header, netting beyond future Premier League and FA Cup winner, not to mention England international, Joe Hart.

Back to this season’s FA Cup action, Quinton was pleased with how his team acquitted themselves.

“The boys did really well. They did a job. They persevered and were persistent with the game plan and what we needed to do,” he explained.

“I thought we were superb at managing the game at times. I still think we could have gone up another gear if we needed to. But overall I am really, really happy.”

Gorleston assistant manager, Olly Willis, was left to rue the Greens’ missed chances but was full of pride for the squad.

“Firstly, I think we did the club proud. I think the boys followed the game plan we set out to try and get a result and we leave today proud of the performance but with a little bit of frustration.

“It could have been different with key moments in the game. Although they were the better team, and they should be the better team, they had more possession than us for obvious reasons, but if you look at clear-cut chances, we have hit the post, we have hit the bar, their goalkeeper has made one good save and our striker has missed from a yard.

“They are the fine margins in a game and I honestly do believe after 55 minutes if we go 1-0 up, potentially, we go and win the game of football.”

He’s right that Gorleston should be proud of their achievements in the competition this season. Hemel were worthy winners but the hosts were far from overawed by their higher division opponents. 

And so to the final round of qualifying. Nobody wants to fall at the last hurdle before a potential tie against Football League opposition. Sadly many will, but the dream is now just one step away for those who advance.

By Matt Bass