As prophecised by the front page of the Daily Express, the Greater London area was receiving a real drenching. The storms kept waking me up in the night, the rain lashing relentlessly against my window and the gale-force winds whipping through the trees in the courtyard opposite. The sky was fast-moving and angry.
Against this backdrop have come some of the greatest cup upsets and it was with this hope that I set off to my chosen FA Trophy first round match. With Boston United once again playing at home, it was fortunate that a number of Conference South sides had attractive draws and from those, the visit of Conference Premier Cambridge United to Essex side Billericay stood out.
I must admit it wasn’t until I was sat on the train at Liverpool Street watching the raindrops dribble down the window that it dawned on me this match could be postponed. After all, if the weather in Essex - a 25 minute train journey away - was as dire as it was in London, then surely Billericay’s pitch wouldn’t be able to handle it.
It’s that time of the year again to always set out with a back-up plan and I was relieved to find out that Southend United were playing at home to Rochdale. It was somewhere I’d been to before, of course, but at least it was football action. Besides, it was already past 2pm and I wasn’t blessed with a great deal of options.
I heard nothing to suggest things were off and, upon arriving at Billericay’s small New Lodge ground after a 20-minute walk under my handy umbrella, I was relieved to see fans of both sides walking in and nobody walking in the opposite direction for the warmth of the pub.
The rain continued unabated and, just after I’d paid my admission, the three officials pondered out to the centre circle and did that most scientific test of kicking a football three feet forward through the mud, picking it up and dropping it into a whacking great puddle. It was a heart in mouth moment - the ball didn’t move very far at all, it certainly didn’t bounce. But crucially it did move. The referee gave the thumbs up and the players sheepishly emerged for the warm-up.
Cambridge ran out for their preparations, but by the time i’d walked round the perimeter to the covered seated stand on the far side, they were trooping back in again. A-ha, I thought. We’ve got all the ingredients for that upset here - home team looking bang up for it, away side seeing it as a distraction, a pitch that was ninety per cent sticky mud and absolutely filthy conditions. I loved it!
I noted the Mayflower ship on their club crest with interest, matching Boston’s of course, and it turns out the Pilgrim Fathers held a meeting in the town prior to setting out for the New World. Four of those on board the voyage were from the town, though they all perished shortly after landing at Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
However, like the Pilgrim Fathers on their first attempt from Boston, things didn’t work out too well for the Billericay boys. New to the Conference South this season having won the Isthmian League, they were more than equal to their more illustrious visitors and piled on the pressure, backed by some fervent support behind the far goal to me.
Every thud of the ball sent up a great explosion of soil and mud, knees, elbows and noses were coated in brown sludge, slide tackles were woefully mistimed, headers hopeless with the driving rain in the eyes. It was kamikaze football, a good old-fashioned mudbath.
Billericay had been on top but couldn’t convert and they were made to pay shortly before half-time, albeit through some dreadful refereeing. Home goalkeeper Luke Bartlett was left on his backside after a robust challenge from Michael Gash and, given the default position is to protect the keeper, everyone assumed a free-kick had been awarded.
But incredibly the ref pointed to the spot and booked Town captain Rob Swaine for being too physical. The locals around me were gobsmacked and I couldn’t make head nor tail of the decision, which was just plain wrong. Gash knocked the mud from his studs to slam the penalty plumb down the middle.
There was a long way to go but the decision knocked the stuffing out of Billericay. Those sat near me pleaded with the referee to postpone the game! It was a fair argument - conditions, if anything, were getting worse with a blanket of mist ascending and the wind getting up.
Cambridge would have felt otherwise and, in the second half, they had a fair wind behind them. It was 2-0 on 52 minutes when Andy Pugh scored from close range after the ball, inevitably, became marooned on a sticky patch of mud.
The contest was settled when sub Tom Elliott knocked in at the back post late on and Billericay were left to reflect on what might have been. They had a lot going in their favour - the conditions should have been more of a leveller that they were - but the higher level class told in the end and the home fans made off apace for warmth and shelter.
Next Match: Can’t be sure as I’m working this Saturday...