This is surely the round where no club wants to come up short.
It’s the final hurdle before sides from League One and League Two join the Emirates FA Cup action. I knew exactly what I wanted when selecting my fixture for this stage.
- The Emirates FA Cup
- Fourth round qualifying
- Saturday 14 October 2023
- Snows Stadium
In the five ties prior to this, I’ve only seen an outright winner on two occasions - both of these being the higher-ranked side. Arguably, I haven’t yet found the traditional ‘magic of the cup’. I hope this would be the round that changed that.
I wanted to choose a game where, if there were to be a victor on the day, it would be clear how much it meant. I felt I needed a fixture between two of the lower-ranked teams left in the competition. That isn’t to say that reaching the first round wouldn’t mean as much to a side higher up the pyramid - far from it in fact - but rather that it would be perhaps less expected for the clubs who entered in the earlier stages.
There were three fixtures that were to pit a team from step three against opposition from step four. Still keen to spread my own wings as far as possible, AFC Totton hosting Ramsgate was the choice.
A bonus for this selection was I could spend a little time ahead of kick-off reminiscing on my student days. Armed with my friend Lewis in tow, a pre-match pint is enjoyed in the Portswood area of Southampton where I spent two of my three years during my studies.
I always warm to the familiar. It’s comforting to be back on my old stamping ground although it makes me appreciate just how much time has passed. The shops and bars are barely recognisable. My own ever-growing collection of grey hairs perhaps should be a clue that I am not as young as I used to be!
My short trip down Memory Lane completed, it is time to concentrate on the main event. A short trip across the city and into Totton itself sees us arrive at the modern Snows Stadium.
Warmly greeted by the stewards and the ladies on the turnstiles, we immediately take a wander behind one of the goals and make for the warmth of the bar, the changeable weather helping to conclude that shelter and a beverage are a fine idea.
I take an immediate shine to the surroundings. The modern stadium combines covered seating with a wealth of space to stand and enjoy the action. It also has the feel of being quite compact, a place where the home support could really get on top of their visitors. As it turned out, Ramsgate were not going to let any part of this occasion get the better of them.
I soon meet with Steve Miller and Louis McLaren from the Rams, both fantastic people and we arrange to meet again post-match when they will introduce me to manager, Ben Smith.
Braving the on-off showers, we take up a position close to the corner flag on the same touchline as the subs' benches. My reminiscing is not yet complete though as I am soon joined by an old university friend. Oli and his young family live close to Totton and, having heard a little about my journey, they decide to join me, making this the children's first live football match. A little sprinkling of family magic courtesy of this wonderful competition perhaps?
AFC Totton compete one level above Ramsgate but the Stags are often pushed back in the first half where their visitors probe and ask lots of questions going forward.
Their forward endeavour is eventually rewarded as referee Lewis Sandoe awards them a penalty, much to the delight of the many travelling supporters who are making themselves heard behind the goal.
Local goalscoring hero Joe Taylor is the man to step up but the perfect script has not been written as his effort lacks the power to really test Lewis Noice in the Totton goal, who gathers with ease.
The deadlock remains unbroken as the sides head for the break. Smith conceded after the game that he feared the Rams had missed their chance. However, he needn't have worried. Somebody call that scriptwriter back.
A long ball is pumped forward by Ramsgate’s Tom Hadler, causing confusion at the back for Totton with neither centre back seemingly sure who should be dealing with it. Taylor is there to pounce, watching the ball perfectly, allowing one bounce before helping it on its way over Noice from the edge of the penalty area.
The Ramsgate fans - who, of course, have switched ends at half time - are in raptures. This was Taylor’s moment and they were all in for it.
Totton’s urgency levels seem to rise after this and they desperately go in search of the equaliser. However, Ramsgate’s defence holds firm and they will welcome either Hemel Hempstead Town or Woking in the first round.
As a neutral, this is what I had hoped for - witnessing one of the lower-ranked teams winning outright and booking their place in the next round where they could face one of the so-called ‘big boys’.
The joy and delirium from not just the supporters but the players and coaching staff of Ramsgate is a joy to behold.
My heart goes out to Totton. Falling at this hurdle must be painful but it is warming to see some of their supporters congratulating their opponents.
Reuniting with Miller, he asks me who I would like to speak to. It’s an easy question.
Within a matter of minutes I am talking to Taylor and it’s an absolute pleasure. He’s a striker who has scored many goals in this competition but this will be the first time he has the opportunity to play in the first round.
And despite having many goals to his name throughout his career, he is fully aware of just how special this one was.
He explains: “In my mind I was just trying to anticipate the bounce of the ball. Thankfully the defender didn’t and I did. That is where the goal is made, when the clearance is made.
“I only had one quick look up to see where the goalkeeper was and I didn’t have to think too much to be honest, it was instinctive. I made good contact and once you make good contact in those situations it usually ends up in the back of the net.
“I am really happy with it and the fact I got to share it with the fans. I know a lot of them behind that goal. I am from Thanet and I see a lot of them in the shops.
“It was special getting to do my celebration in front of those fans and they were singing my name.
“It’s a special moment for me and my family and everyone connected with Ramsgate that one.”
And his manager is full of praise for the striker.
“Joe Taylor has been so prolific in these leagues,” Smith explained.
“He was top scorer for the last two seasons in the league above. He has come back home to his local club and it's typical that he has missed a penalty but he showed strength of character. That goal means so much to him and he was so composed.”
Although the FA Cup is not the main focus for the club this season, Smith, who doubles up as a deputy headteacher at a secondary school, is rightly proud of what his side have achieved.
“I’ve said all along that the FA Cup has not been the priority. I’m not going to be judged on the FA Cup. However, getting to the first round is some achievement.
“We played Chatham a few rounds back and they won our division last year. Totton won the equivalent division we were in last year. Cray Wanderers have got a great experienced manager there. All of these games were away from home.
“We have done it against the odds, certainly outside of our dressing room.”
When I ask them what they would like in the first round, both Taylor and Smith mentioned Derby County.
And while the arguably more famous Rams may have dodged a trip to the Kentish coast, who’s to say they won’t cross paths later on in the competition?
Matt's Road to Wembley so far....
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