Railwaymen shunt Magpies into FA Cup siding
FA Cup days have a palpable excitement which is largely missing from the rest of the season.
The truly comprehensive national competition with its accompanying high hopes of future glory naturally holds emotions of deep disappointment in its locker for occasions like yesterday's trip to Didcot when Maidenhead failed to deliver a performance of sufficient quality to make it into the hat for Monday's draw.
This was Maidenhead's first visit to Loop Meadow, having made a couple of Cup trips to Didcot's old ground on the other side of the tracks in the 60s. The new ground, built on the Ladygrove development on reclaimed marshland, is a good little set up with the club's rise in the last decade from county league to senior level being reflected by the town itself which is growing fast.
Despite leaving work in Southwark at 11.45 I was in the ground by half one, a quick trip from Paddington being followed by a short walk under a narrow bridge then through a park which presented an industrial view rather at odds with the town's setting in rural Berkshire (historic boundaries). Indeed the club presents a similarly odd brand with a badge containing an Arsenal style cannon to compliment a Gunners style strip of red shirts with white sleeves, a reference to a long closed local armaments factory in front of a railway wheel to reflect the history of the Great Western Railway which built the town and literally stares you in face throughout the ground.
Unfortunately the town's growing population does not seem very interested in its football club with today's crowd of 301 over one hundred in excess of any previous ones this season. Speaking to a longtime Didcot fan before the game, the feeling was this was due to people being spoiled by the constant success a few years back which culminated in winning the FA Vase, and so not being interested in the weekly grind of the superior but more challenging Southern League.
The team itself is improving fast, unbeaten in seven mainly cup matches, following the controversial exit of manager Dave Mudge. Facing a Maidenhead team on a three game losing streak with David Pratt and Harry Pritchard joining Michael Pook and Mark Nisbet on the unfit list, the stage was set for an upset.
The home team were clearly well up for the opportunity to break the club record for the furthest run in the FA Cup, tearing into United with gusto, their industry perhaps inspired by the marvellous array of transport on view behind the Maidenhead goal, which included hot air balloons and trains ancient and modern.
Maidenhead for their part were clearly struggling with a change of formation to 4-4-2 forced by Pritchard failing a late fitness test which led to Leon Solomon taking a role in left midfield whilst his counterpart on the right Martel Powell was unable to resist an instinct to carry the ball into the congested middle.
Still having survived a couple of early scares Maidenhead started to take the game to their hosts, Alex Wall putting the ball in the net twice only to be flagged offside twice, on the first to the bemusement of those standing on the sidelines The second was particularly frustrating as from my angle behind the goal, the Reece Tison-Lascaris shot appeared to have beaten the goalkeeper and be goal bound before Wall followed up to make sure.
Didcot then took advantage of Maidenhead's growing confidence which had seen the defensive line move up the pitch, a neat through ball from Brian Bowles finding Morgan Williams who, like Theo Walcott later in the day, ran clear and beat the keeper with a fine finish. Maidenhead responded instantly when Wall's effort was well saved by eccentric Brazilian keeper Marcos Bellolli-Perreira (wearing tights under his thigh high socks).
Half time led to little change in proceedings. Sure Maidenhead enjoyed the lion's share of the play, but lacked the wit and the patience to break down a determined Didcot side who continued to threaten to score on the break.
A "name on the Cup" moment then secured the lead with twenty five minutes left when with the goalkeeper beaten Wall shot from close range only for the ball to be stopped by the hand of defender Lee Henderson but either unseen or ignored by the well placed officials. Maidenhead then sought to up the tempo, a move which only served to heighten the tension, Henderson having the gall to call Solomon a cheat for taking a tumble in the penalty area. As the spot kick appeal was waved away Daniel Brown then crossed the line with his questioning of the decision to the referee, receiving a red card for dissent. This incident signalled the end of United's hopes of earning a replay, and reflected an afternoon when United failed to show the calm discipline to soak up and trump the endeavour of a team two divisions below them. Rather it was Maidenhead, unable to shrug off the slings and arrows of refereeing misfortune, who were deservedly beaten.