Hebburn Town's FA Cup campaign began on August 20th. IBWM was on the beach then. Luckily, Andy Hudson was following their progress for us.
January is usually the time of the year when the romance of the FA Cup comes alive; at least that’s what most people will tell you. But the competition doesn’t begin in that month, nor does it even begin in November when Football League sides are numbered and dropped into the ‘hat’. For many football clubs and players, the road to Wembley starts in August when lads, many of whom are like you and me, get their chance to play in the world’s greatest cup competition.
Based on the banks of the Tyne, Hebburn Town had previously failed to negotiate their way beyond the FA Cup Second Qualifying Round. On Saturday 29 October Hebburn will play their seventh FA Cup match of the season; they will play in the sixth different round of this season’s FA Cup, after winning a replay to advance beyond the Preliminary Round; and they will be playing in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round, a game that if they win will see them in the hat for the First Round Proper and a chance of drawing a Football League side.
When the draw was made on Monday 17 October that pitted them against relative giants, and local neighbours, Gateshead, there was a distance of 125 league places between the two sides, covering six leagues. The actual distance between the football grounds that each team plays at stands at slightly less: three-and-a-half miles.
While Gateshead, currently sixth in the Blue Square Premier, are playing their first FA Cup match of the season, Hebburn’s journey began back on 20 August when they travelled to Carlisle to take on fellow Northern League Division Two side Gilford Park. They then took on Whitehaven, another team from their league, before dumping Penrith, Runcorn Linnets and Radcliffe Borough, all higher division sides, out of the competition.
Speaking about the Radcliffe match, Daniel Regan, Hebburn’s goalkeeper, told The Real FA Cup: “We probably played the best 90 minutes as a team as we possibly could and we deserved the 4-2 win, a scoreline that in truth flattered them. From start to finish, we passed the ball well and worked hard for each other; we were so organised even though we didn’t have any scouts watching Radcliffe beforehand, unlike the previous round against Runcorn Linnets. We thoroughly deserved our victory and we could have won by more goals. Whenever we go forward, we look like scoring goals and all of the lads have great confidence in each other.”
The Hebburn side that will take on Gateshead will include players who have been national names in the past, such as Jamie McClen who scored in the 2002 FA Cup for Newcastle United against Peterborough United before spells at Motherwell, Hamilton Academical and Gateshead; and Stuart Nicholson, who made his West Bromwich Albion debut in the FA Cup against Reading before “The Knife”, as he was known at The Hawthorns, played in the Premier League.
Hebburn also have players who never quite made a name for themselves before dropping down out of professional football, players such as Dean Nicholson, who was also at West Brom before moving to Boston United; the ex-Sunderland forward, Liam McBryde, who scored the winner against Runcorn Linnets; and Paul Gardiner, once of Carlisle United and who scored a brace in a 4-2 victory to set-up the Gateshead clash.
Looking ahead to the Gateshead match, Dean Nicholson said: “We wanted a top team so why not be pitted against a side that’s flying high. If [our Cup run] ends then what a way to go out. We’re definitely hoping for a big crowd. I’ve been receiving text messages all day and everyone is excited for this. We’ll have some fans there and many Gateshead fans will be expecting an easy game and their team going through. We’ll be looking to prove them wrong”.
Regan added: “We have great team spirit and we feel that we can go anywhere and play a good, attacking, game. I don’t think we’ll go to the International Stadium and defend as it’s in attack where are strong, even though we’ve shown that we are difficult to break down in defence. One of the goals we conceded against Radcliffe, who are two levels above us in the pyramid, was a penalty that may not have been given on any other day.”
On Friday evening the Hebburn players will arrive at a Tyneside hotel and spend the night there before spending Saturday morning resting. The practice served them well when they travelled to Radcliffe and stayed over the night before the game. The part-timers will be looking to match the professional status of Gateshead as much as possible, as Nicholson points out: “Their [Gateshead] players are professional and will be training every day. As we’re part-time we will all have to take responsibility for our own preparation by making sure we’re relaxed before the game; that we’re eating and drinking the right things. I’m sure all of the lads will do this as we all want to stay in this competition”.
At 3pm on Saturday, the biggest game in the north-east will kick-off and the romance of the FA Cup, usually only reserved for the when the big boys enter the competition, will be alive on Tyneside. Sometimes small is better, something Hebburn Town will be looking to prove when the final whistle blows.