"The dream had become reality".
These are the words of Havant & Waterlooville manager Shaun Gale after watching his side's sensational 4-2 victory over Swansea City in the FA Cup on Wednesday evening.
I don't think "sensational" is too strong a word to use. Up for grabs was not only a nice tidy sum of prize money but a trip to Liverpool in the Fourth Round. Swansea would have wanted that reward just as much as Havant & Waterlooville. When I wrote the post on Wednesday evening I honestly thought Swansea City would be too strong for the non-league side and this was a game too far. They proved me wrong. Fantastic.
I believe that Havant & Waterlooville's progress to the next round means that this is the first time that a team from the sixth level of the English game has reached the Fourth Round Proper since Woking in 1991. We have had to wait seventeen years for this.
The planning down in Hampshire has already started, and questions are already being asked about the amount of travelling support that "The Hawks" will take up to Merseyside. The FA have already offered the Havant & Waterlooville team the use of the England coach; one assumes Brian Barwick was referring to the bus rather than Fabio Capello.
The amount of support than non-league clubs get for the bigger cup games has, as long as I care to remember, been a topic that stirs strong feelings in some quarters. It is something I have come across many times, and has also surfaced several times in my FA Cup exploits this season. And it annoys me somewhat.
I've lost count of the number of times I have heard or read complaints about the larger attendances that the small clubs suddenly get when a bigger team comes into town. The phrase "glory hunters" is often banded around in reference to the additional "floating" support that swell the gates. If I had one pound for every time I have heard someone moaning at a cup game that "most of these fans won't be here next week" or "all these glory hunters come out of the woodwork now, don't they", I'd be a reasonably rich man.
It happened at the Staines Town v Stockport County game that I attended in the First Round this season, back in November. On what was a fantastic evening for Staines, with a league club scalped and a ground full to bursting, there was one grouchy old soak stood in front of me who was complaining about the size of the crowd and that all these "extras" who are not the hard core Staines support should stay away. Really. I had to bite my lip.
A very small part of me sympathises. 179 fans one week for a match against North Geenford United and then just under 2,900 turn up to watch Stockport County. The regulars, who watch the team week in, week out, are bound to wonder where the additional two thousand plus fans come from. It is only natural. But if you follow through their argument, are these people really suggesting that the floating fans stay away from the big games? Do they really want an empty ground for what is such a special, rare event? No matter how much I think on this, I simply cannot fathom the argument.
Surely, this is what it is all about. The swollen gates, the first time visitors and the fans from other clubs in the area. This is a key ingredient that has made the FA Cup one of the best football competitions in the world. How often can a smaller team such as Staines Town, Chasetown, Horsham or Havant & Waterlooville get the opportunity to meet (and beat) league opposition? It comes around infrequently for the majority of non-league clubs. For some, never. And it is exactly the rarity of such occasions that makes them so appealing when they do occur.
It is something different, unique, out of the ordinary, special, exciting. It is a change from the norm. It is something that just does not happen every day.
A good cup run raises the profile of a club, locals get interested, the town wakes up and takes notice. True, many will only ever come to these attractive games. The vast majority won't be rearranging their Saturday plans to return for a league game against Chelmsford City the following week. But a few might. Or if not then, perhaps later in the season.
If the grounds of non-league clubs were not filled to the rafters for these big cup games, it would be even more surprising. Imagine the scenario. Staines Town v Stockport. Only regulars allowed in. Attendance 170. No TV cameras. No local interest. No floating support. And therefore, no different from North Greenford United. Just another game. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to get excited about. No cracking cup atmosphere. The season, and all future seasons, would become rather boring and rather tame. It simply would not happen.
There is a distinct lack of interest in the Watford v Wolves tie that I will be going to, simply because these clubs play in the same league and actually meet the week after the cup game. It is nothing special for many supporters and it has not fired the imagination of either set of fans. Now, if either were playing Liverpool, different story.
A natural instinct for us humans is to crave change, to look for something different, something that will appeal, something out of the ordinary, something that raises our excitement levels. If we didn't have this, if we lived life on a constant, unchanging level, with no peaks and highs, what kind of life would that be?
Without the lows, one cannot appreciate the highs. And every now and then along comes an FA Cup fixture that jumps out and screams at you "Hey, this is great, this is an exception, how often do you see something like this? Once in a lifetime, if you're lucky! Bloody hell, give me some of that!".
The Staines Town v Stockport fixture did exactly this for many people, including me. So did Horsham v Swansea City. And Chasetown v Port Vale. Liverpool v Havant & Waterlooville certainly will. Try telling Havant & Waterlooville that they should only take regular supporters (a few hundred?) to Anfield, and no more. What a load of tosh.
Six thousand Luton Town fans travelled to Liverpool for their replay on Wednesday, and they were a credit to the club. Despite losing 5-0 they sang their hearts out for ninety minutes and thoroughly enjoyed what was a massive occasion. It is something special that will live with those that made that trip (on a horribly wet and windy Wednesday) for a long, long time. Imagine what it would have been like if they had got a result.
So to those of you who moan about the "floating" support, I'm sorry, I just don't get it.
Now, please excuse me, I must go; I have to give an interview for "The Birmingham Mail". Now that is something that doesn't happen every day.