Road to Wembley: I've always loved the FA Cup but didn’t expect to be this hooked!

Monday 18 Sep 2023
I was very impressed with the value for money provided at Ascot United...and that was before I got my hands on the Isuzu FA Vase

This round was the one I’d been a little nervous about.

I’ll be honest – I hadn’t been as comprehensive as perhaps I should have been in my research when I first decided to commit to the challenge of one game per round of the Emirates FA Cup.

Naively, I assumed I’d always be able to make a Saturday game and there would be no problems in that regard. What I hadn’t accounted for was that the second qualifying round clashed with my parents’ golden wedding anniversary celebrations! With the party all confirmed and my attendance mandatory, I have been praying for a Friday night or Sunday game for more than a month now.

Thankfully, fortune was well and truly on my side.

Ascot United v Lewes

Emirates FA Cup
Second Round Qualifying
Friday 15 September 2023

From my home in Kent, a Friday game would ideally need to be somewhere in London or the Home Counties. As a primary school teacher, it isn’t particularly easy to book an afternoon off work to go to the football!

Ascot United and Lewes were on my wavelength, though. A mad dash out of school, picking my son up from his childminder and getting him home to my wife and an unusually calm M25 all combined to see me arrive at the Racecourse Ground with an hour to spare.

Ascot are a team that had been on my radar for a little while. The Berkshire side achieved a league and Isuzu FA Vase double last season and have settled well in their new division. Their visitors, Lewes, play a step higher and so would provide a real test to see how far they have come.

The Yellamen’s home boasts some rather impressive neighbours, with Royal Ascot golf course just to the north and the famous Ascot Racecourse to the south and west – indeed I had to travel underneath it to find the ground.

Great Friday night of entertainment at the Racecourse Ground

With no large stand behind the goal at the southern end of the pitch, wayward shots easily navigate their way onto the racecourse, but a number of enthusiastic ball boys are happy to play fetch.

Before discussing the match itself, I have to commend Ascot for their excellent ticket initiative. I paid £15 for the ‘Hat-Trick’ ticket, entitling me to entry into the ground as well as a voucher for a drink and another for a burger – more on the latter shortly. At any level, I think that is more than a bargain!

As I show my ticket at the turnstile, I’m greeted by chairman, Simon Negus, and shortly after by director of football, Neil Richards. I had briefly conversed with them via email in the lead-up to the match and both give me a warm welcome.

Before Richards shows me into the bar, Negus hands me a copy of their FA Vase final souvenir brochure, a fine memory for what must have been a truly magical day for the club in May last season. 

In the bar, I bump into a familiar face as I reunite with Sean Pattison who I first encountered in the extra preliminary round at Wembley v Bearsted. We bonded over plans for the challenge we are both undertaking and indeed, quite simply, the ‘magic of the cup’.

Much like myself, Sean had been praying for a Friday fixture for this round as he was getting married on the Saturday! Speaking from experience of marriage, I was mightily impressed he was able to head out to watch football the night before his big day. Congratulations, Sean!

I spend the match with Sean but before stepping outside, it’s time to get my dinner and make use of the burger voucher. A quick glance at the menu shows a nice selection is on offer but one immediately grabs my attention – the Racecourse Rascal Burger!

The Magic of the FA Cup

With two fillets of chicken, onion rings, salad and a dollop of curry sauce, it is fairly priced in today’s market at £7 so I assume it can’t possibly be included in the ‘Hat-Trick’ deal. Imagine my joy when I am informed that I am mistaken.

I enjoy my ‘Rascal’ pitchside, noticing the first artificial surface that I have come across on my travels to date. It contributes towards a fast-paced encounter where the first touch is always crucial.

Ascot are certainly not overawed by their visitors and begin on the front foot with many forays forward. It looks to be a matter of time before they start asking some serious questions of Nathan Harvey between the sticks for the Rooks.

However, it’s Lewes who open the scoring as former Peterborough United and Gillingham man Chris Whelpdale lets fly from distance to find the top corner, giving the visitors an advantage they hold all the way to the interval.

Richards invites me into the boardroom for tea and biscuits at half time – my kind of refreshment when driving means beer is not an option – before taking my place at the other end of the ground to see if the noisy home support can help suck the ball into the net.

The Yellas again look bright and certainly have chances to level proceedings. Speaking to manager, Jamie Tompkins, and his assistant, Dean Greenwood, after the match both point to the opportunities their side had to score which were unfortunately missed.

I was impressed by the quality of show on Friday night

The second goal of the tie again falls to the visitors and it’s Whelpdale at the double, finishing from much closer range this time to seemingly kill off the contest.

Ascot continue to press though with both Harvey Killeen and Harry Grant coming close but their route back into the match comes in unusual circumstances. Sean McCormack’s low corner is met at the near post by Lewes defender Harvey Hughes, who is unfortunate in his attempts to clear, seeing the ball slice off his right foot and into the net.

With the game finely balanced, it doesn’t feel like the scoring is over. However, despite Ascot’s continued pressing and Lewes striking the post late on, 2-1 is how it finishes, meaning the visitors from Sussex march on.

The Rooks are the highest-ranked team I have seen on my journey to date and while I would not say they were comfortably the better team on the night, there did seem to be a step-up in quality in the match as a whole. I say this with no disrespect to the teams I have already watched at all, but the competition is certainly hotting up.

Strangely, following on from two draws and an abandonment, this was also the first match I have watched where a side has progressed at the first time of asking! 

And now the long fortnight of waiting until my next dose of FA Cup action. I’ve always loved this competition, but I didn’t imagine becoming this hooked!

By Matt Bass