It’s only ten miles from Ewen Fields to Old Trafford. But the differences between the football clubs that play at these two venues are better measured in astronomical units. Hyde United play in the eighth tier of English football, the Northern Premier League, which is sponsored by Evo-Stik. The United of Manchester do not.
But don’t think, even for a second, that the differences between the two clubs mean that Hyde have no acquaintance with glory. They are due to play MK Dons in the first round proper of the FA Cup. The Dons may not be everybody’s idea of languid, decadent aristocrats, but they play in League One (the third tier) and will make the trip to Ewen Fields wary of the underdog that bites. There’s always one upset – at least – in every one of the early rounds.
Hyde will not win the FA Cup. They may not win the Evo-Stik North: they’re a little better than midtable. So why support them? Why support any non-league side? Why not support MK Dons or Manchester United?
It’s a question that sends me whirling backwards through space and time in a footballing Tardis to the days when I covered non-league football for local papers: Redhill FC for the Surrey Mirror, or Tooting and Mitcham for Balham and Tooting News. The bite of a frosty afternoon, the ragged cheers of 100 supporters, the hogo of embrocation belching from the dressing rooms, and then the entrance of the 11 players of the home side: as hopeful and fearful as any that ever stepped on to a football pitch.
It’s like that at Hyde, it’s like that everywhere. Football doesn’t require vast crowds and sick-making sums of money. If you don’t go you won’t understand, but everywhere the struggle continues, your lot against ours.
At a small club you matter. You can walk to the ground; you can get a nice drink afterwards; you can talk to the players. “Nice goal, Ron.” “Cheers.” You know people – hell, you know everyone. You belong. Miss a match and they’ll ask if anything’s wrong. You win and you lose and that’s great, and you grumble about the players and the manager, and every now and then it’s your day and you put three past your local rivals and God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Until next week. That’s life, that’s football.
And every year there’s that teaser called the FA Cup. Managers mutter that it’s a distraction from the serious business of the league. Chairmen talk about the money to be made from a glamour tie: “Win this one for me, boys, and I’ll spend all the money on players.”
The supporters understand, though. So do the players. You have an FA Cup tie against the big boys and win, lose or draw, it’s like swapping a pint of lager for a glass and a half of champagne. Just how good are we? If we all play our best, and Jim puts himself about a bit, and Ron gets on the end of one… there’s no telling what might happen, for no sport pampers an underdog like football.
“You won’t be here next week when we’ve got Throstlethwaite Albion in the league!” Someone always says when you’re a reporter at one of these ties. No, I won’t – that’s more or less your private business and you wouldn’t have it any other way. But the FA Cup is something shared: when a club no one has heard of might topple the mighty, and the underdog has a faint but genuine chance of finishing as Best of Breed.
Live FA Cup: Hyde United v MK Dons is on Friday 3rd November at 7.30pm (k/o 7.55pm) on BBC2