Since you probably got bored of my gushing eulogising over the Jay Rollins winner against North Ferriby, it’s quite possible you missed me concluding my column in last week’s edition with a flippant comment about the last time anyone enjoying the FA Cup around here being around 1996.
Well, I say flippant, because if you study the inglorious recent history of United’s FA Cup performances that run to the second round in 96/97 really does stand out as the finest string of cup results since the early 80s journey that ended in defeat against Sheffield United. To put that into context, United haven’t done anything of note in the FA Cup since around the time when Damon Hill had just won the F1 Championship and hadn’t yet turned alarmingly grey, and Robson & Jerome were topping the charts with What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.
Sure, there was the 4-1 win against Swindon in 2005 – the first time United had defeated Football league opposition in the FA Cup for 23 years – but the FA Cup does somehow lose a little bit of sparkle when you compete as a league club. Even when Boston made it to the third round in 2004, their reward was an away trip to Hartlepool – which is a bit like winning the lottery only to fall into a volcano the next day.
Being a spectator at Boston United FA Cup ties is much like standing on a cliff watching a ship sink – a slow-motion calamity with only one seemingly inevitable outcome: an epic tragedy over which you exercise no control and are powerless to prevent. Over the years United have been scuttled by so many clubs beneath them in the pyramid that to call their conquerors ‘giant-killers’ would be a bit of an insult.
But in 1996, for whatever reason, Boston performed a mini giant-killing of their own. Their opponents in the first round were Morecambe, from the league above and whose supporters tucked into fish and chips in Eagles while pondering how many they’d stick past us. Boston – or more precisely, Leroy Chambers – soon put that right, and United had their reward: an away tie at the now long-defunct Chester City, then a Football League club playing in a stadium that was only four years old and therefore – we assumed – a bit like Wembley crossed with The Jetsons.
Of course, these were the pre-internet days. Unless you were willing to venture into a bookshop to rifle through a copy of Football Grounds From The Air, travelling to away games at league clubs was often akin to a magical mystery tour of England’s finest industrial estates. For Pilgrims fans, an away tie at Chester’s new ground seemed an exotic, romantic journey into the unknown.
I’ll never forget the sound on the bus as we pulled into the car park at the Deva Stadium. Or rather, the complete lack of it – the kind of sudden hush that descends over a congregation of mourners as the coffin appears, or a pub when a fight breaks out. It was a silence broken only by sobbing, and someone mumbling “is this it?”. Someone else remarked that it appeared Boston United would be playing their second-round tie at an abattoir.
We all know how it ended. In the grand traditions of United’s history in the FA Cup, they played magnificently but still lost. Indeed, United’s performance that day merited a long-forgotten match report in the 1998 Non-League Club Directory – a book the 17-year-old me was so ashamed to be buying I hid it inside a copy of Razzle. The report references ‘raiding wing-back’ Simon Armstrong while expressing incredulity that the Pilgrims left the place with nothing to show for it.
But that’s United through and through, so you can fully understand why so many were pessimistic about United’s chances of winning a replay at Haughmond, especially after such a dispiriting draw at home last Saturday. And there’s no shame in admitting I was genuinely fearful that Boston Town would last longer in the FA Cup than we would, which would be a confusing and upsetting state of affairs.
There was no need to worry (well, not yet). United won handsomely, easing through with a hefty win that proved Adam Murray’s prediction that someone was due a thrashing completely accurate. Our reward? A trip to AFC Mansfield, which is useful as pretty much everyone at Boston lives round that way anyway.
To say we’re long overdue a cup run is understating things hilariously, and the Pilgrims do find new, unique ways to ruin your autumn, but we’re still alive – and how many of you thought that would be the case after Saturday? Enjoy today’s game, but more importantly – keep dreaming.