Ilfracombe Town on the road to Wembley in FA Cup
IT HAS long been known as the road to Wembley but for Ilfracombe Town, and every club like them, the one place the journey is sure not to end is Wembley Stadium.
In recent years Ilfracombe's road in the FA Cup has been blocked even before they could get out of the South West, at places like Chard, Newton Abbot and Frome. Now St Austell loomed as a potential dead end.
Barely three months since last season's final was played, 370 teams set off on Saturday in the extra preliminary round – the lowest of the low in the FA Cup family.
But members of the family they are and, for Ilfracombe, this special day meant hiring a 49-seater coach rather than the usual minibus for 16 they take to Toolstation Western League matches.
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Players, officials and supporters travelled as one and, from the moment they left Marlborough Park, it felt like the FA Cup.
This is the round that offers some of the most colourful names, such as West Allotment Celtic and Thurnaby Nirvana, but no matter who you are it costs £75 to enter.
Every club, from top to bottom, fills in the same FA teamsheet before a tie and woe betide any making spelling errors.
"It is vitally important to make sure the names on the teamsheet are as they appear on the registration form," said Tony Alcock, Ilfracombe's football secretary.
Turn striker Stanley Paxton into Stan Paxton and Ilfracombe could be out for fielding an ineligible player. "You get away with it on a Western League form but today it would be Stanley Paxton," said Alcock.
A family wedding prevented Ilfracombe chairman Matthew Hayne from travelling but he would be checking score through the afternoon.
The income from a Cup run would be wonderful but it is the essence of the tournament that matters most.
"We are playing in the same competition as Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea – a competition known throughout the world," said Hayne.
"Little Ilfracombe Town are playing in this flagship competition and we are proud to be associated with it."
So the road to Wembley began, even if it did mean setting off in the opposite direction.
The first stop was a Cornish club returning from the edge of extinction and playing in the competition after an absence of several seasons.
On the coach was Ilfracombe's own little piece in the jigsaw of FA Cup history, Bryan Hill. It was 30 seasons ago he reached the last stop before Wembley, only to be denied a chance to appear there.
Hill was a coach at Plymouth Argyle as they became only the sixth club from the old Third Division to reach the semi-finals, where they lost 1-0 to Watford.
Now here was Hill, at 75 and walking with a crutch, bothering with the extra preliminary round. You had to ask why.
"I live in Ilfracombe and go up and watch," said Hill. "It's a day out and, if you look around, they are all blokes of an age, there aren't many kids on the coach. We have a good time – win, lose or draw – have a moan if they play rubbish.
"And it is somewhere different. We have never played them before and St Austell Brewery supply our beer back at the club. Maybe that's all we are going to get out of them, I don't know."
A largely new and inexperienced Ilfracombe squad, with two defeats in two matches, had done nothing for optimism.
It has been nearly 20 years since time was called on Hill as a manager. He had been boss at Bideford and Ilfracombe but, back at Barnstaple Town for a second time, the chairman deemed him too old.
"He called me an old warhorse," said Hill. "I have carried on watching but I have had lots of trouble with my knees (he has two false ones) and I fell over and broke my thighbone."
The mobility has gone but the memories remain. Hill recalled how, in 1981-82, with John Hore as manager and him as assistant, Bideford reached the first round proper, losing 2-1 at home to Barking. Then came the thrill ride with Plymouth two seasons later. Hore was manager and the semi-final was played at Villa Park.
Hill's most treasured moment, though, was meeting Jimmy Greaves, legend of Tottenham Hotspur and scorer of an FA Cup Final goal in 1962.
By the Eighties, Greaves was working as a TV pundit and Hill said: "He came to the hotel where we were staying before the game and interviewed the players. That was great because he was a hero for me."
Ross Middleton is Ilfracombe's player-manager. Young, forced to work on a lean budget and without a win this season, if he was feeling pressure he wasn't showing it. His memories of the FA Cup?
"Played in it, never won it," said Middleton with deadpan humour.
Arriving at St Austell's Poltair Park, there is more than one reminder of FA Cup history.
First, you see a pitch sloping sharply from side to side, like the one on which non-League Yeovil Town famously beat Sunderland, from the First Division, in 1949.
Then walk into the clubhouse and the first photograph you see is a team shot with Matthews at the centre.
The 1953 FA Cup Final became known as the Matthews Final for his wizardry in Blackpool's 4-3 win over Bolton Wanderers.
He played twice as a guest for St Austell and it would have been three times had an England fixture not clashed.
The Ilfracombe squad included five players on FA Cup debut.
The youngest, 19-year-old goalkeeper Kurtis Parkin, remembered watching on television as the team he supports, Liverpool, beat West Ham United in the 2006 Final.
"And here I am, seven years down the line, playing in it," he said.
The oldest was Lewis Ovey at 28. After 10 years with Boca Seniors in the North Devon League he joined Ilfracombe this season. Named as a substitute, he had to wait until six minutes from time before going on. He got one touch of the ball.
"One touch in six minutes but I'm on the road in the FA Cup," said Ovey. "I watched the Cup growing up as a youngster and to be part of that now is something special."
And with the promise of more. Ilfracombe, with goals from Ian Cockwill, Steve Holland, Paxton and Ed Yeo, won an entertaining game 4-1.
After two successive seasons suffering extra preliminary round elimination, a trip to Plymouth Parkway awaits in the preliminary round.
Count the goals and count the cash. Ilfracombe's victory earned £1,500 from the FA prize fund.
"The money will sustain the club for a month or two," said Alcock.
Now only five rounds to go to make the first round proper. Or 12 to Wembley Stadium. Or four for the chance of facing a Conference Premier club in the fourth qualifying round.
Ilfracombe reached that stage 61 seasons ago, as a Western League Second Division side, losing 1-0 at Llanelli before 8,500 spectators.
"The FA Cup is romantic and there is this dream of meeting one of the big boys, even a Conference side," said Hayne.
So never mind Wembley for now. Focus instead on the road to Woking, Welling or Wrexham.