This weekend I watched Millwall visit non-league side Staines Town in the FA Cup second round. League-1 club Millwall, known for their infamous rivalry with West Ham, had no small task even if they were favorites.
Watching the two teams play to a 1-1 draw and force a December 9 replay inspired me to give an outsider’s perspective on why the FA Cup is so special.
First of all, the depth of English football makes the Cup great. Underdogs play like there’s no tomorrow. Every Cup game is their biggest contest of the season. So they play ferociously. Bigger teams better come ready to go or they will get embarrassed.
The best part about the fixture is that Staines played at home. The atmosphere is like watching a high school game. That’s how small their stadium is. People stood three to five deep all the way around the pitch. Grandstands cover only portions of the midfield on both sides. At capacity, the stadium holds 2,000 people and they reported more than 2,700.
Apparently they use eight game balls in pro soccer. Watching top divisions, it’s never something that goes into consideration. Ball boy’s surround the pitch, and the minute a ball goes out of play another is right there.
When the first ball went out of play thanks to an errant Millwall shot that flew into a nearby cow pasture, we had to wait for the game to resume and the commentator wondered rightly if there were in fact ball boys. There weren't and that was one ball down, seven to go.
Staines made Millwall work for it from get-go, almost taking the lead in 16th minute, but a back-post header from a deep corner was cleared off the line by a defender. However, the play leading to the corner, when Staines forward and first-round hero Ali Chaaban beat Millwall keeper David Forde to a through ball in the box, was most indicative of the problems facing the more illustrious side.
Though Forde should have easily collected, Chaaban never gave up on the ball and nearly got his team on the board first because of Forde’s nonchalance coming off his line.
In the 26th minute, Staines Town almost took the lead again, but Chaaban’s shot on the break away was right at Forde and the veteran keeper turned it aside. The inability to finish a chance of that magnitude emphasizes the difference in class on a team like Staines from those featured every weekend in the Premier League. As the division gets higher, the finish gets further and further towards the far post.
But its important to realize that most of the Staines players have day jobs. Richard Butler, the top of their forward trio, makes his living as a carpenter. Priceless.
Instead of names on the back of their jerseys, Staines Town has their sponsor, www.weareelectric.co.uk . I wonder how much that company paid for that sponsorship.
Even as the second half wore on and Millwall dominated the chances in front of goal, I couldn’t help but hope for the monumental upset. The stadium held their breath, gasping with every Millwall header that flew over the bar and every shot that rolled wide of the post.
They emphatically cheered with every challenge by the home-team. Even if it drew a yellow card.
When the game opened up in the 60th minute, giving both teams ample opportunities, the tension mounted as the minutes crept by and you couldn’t help but wonder what an upset would do for the town. How long would this victory be remembered—five years? Ten? Fifty?
Then, as I contemplated, it was over in a blink of an eye. Staines goalkeeper Louis Wells had a fine day, but got caught in no man’s land on a lofted header by Millwall captain Paul Robinson. One mistake. End of a dream.
Americans can’t imagine the joy of the FA Cup. We don’t understand how deep-rooted and established professional football is in England. We don’t understand how many divisions of professional football there are, and how competitive each one is. Never in a million years would a local semi-professional baseball club have the chance to play the Yankees. Not anyplace, let alone on their own diamond.
No, Millwall can’t be compared to the Yankees, but with a win, Staines may very well find itself up against a Premier League behemoth.
Oh, by the way, Staines Town equalized in the 78th minute on a penalty when Butler was dragged down in the box as he went for a cross. The stadium erupted when Forde went the wrong way. Their boys had secured a replay against a much more illustrious opponent.
And that brings me to my favorite part about the FA Cup. If you draw, you don’t play extra-time, you don’t go to penalties. You take a few days off, go to the other team’s stadium, and try and do it again.