A new giant slayer from ... where?
The 2011 census of Great Britain counted 63 298 people living in the West Midlands town of Stourbridge. On Tuesday December 13, 2 250 of them crammed into the War Memorial Athletic Ground to watch Stourbridge FC play Northampton Town in the second round of the FA Cup. Four minutes from the end of that match, several hundred of them celebrated so hard they damaged the small stand behind the away goal.
They were celebrating the score that took Stourbridge into the third round of the tournament and becoming the new giant killers of the FA Cup, perhaps the grandest and most romantic of knockout tournaments.
Although Northampton are not the “fee fi fo fum” of giants, for Stourbridge, a non-league side, the 86th-minute goal by defender Jack Duggan on that cold, dark night in December, was the hacking of the beanstalk. Northampton were 89 places and four divisions above them in England’s football hierarchy. Stourbridge, the Glassboys, are the lowest-ranked team remaining in the FA Cup, a team of teachers and personal trainers, against a team whose top goalscorer, Luke Benbow, is described as a “bricklaying Manchester United fan”.
On Saturday, they will take on Wycombe Wanderers, a team in League Two and 72 places ahead of them, away from home. The Wanderers are nicknamed the Chairboys. The Glassboys against the Chairboys.
It wouldn’t be too rude to suggest that not much happens in Stourbridge. The sign outside the War Memorial Ground, which they share with the local cricket team, declares it as the home of “THE GLASSBOYS BAR & Stourbridge FC”, the team almost an afterthought.
Google tells us that two ICC Trophy matches were played at the War Memorial Ground between Bermuda and Papua New Guinea in 1979, and Argentina and East Africa in 1986. The Stourbridge News reported that a former landlord “whose pub put the town on the musical map in the late 1980s and early 1990s” died on Christmas Day. “John Knight, who ran the Mitre Inn in Lower High Street for 25 years with his wife Babs, died at the age of 74 on Christmas Day — in a year that claimed the lives of many much-loved names from the world of music … In the late Eighties, members of The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin frequented the venue before exploding on to the music scene and enjoying chart success.”
Stourbridge believe the wonder stuff of the FA Cup will not end for them on Saturday. They have FA Cup giant-killing DNA in their side. Stourbridge goalkeeper Matt Gould is the grandson of Bobby Gould, who managed the now-defunct Wimbledon when they beat Liverpool in the final at Wembley in 1988. That was the Liverpool of the 1980s, a team that dominated that decade so completely it seemed they would never fall.
Gary Hackett, the Stourbridge team manager who runs a chemical distribution business in his day job, once played under Gould at West Bromwich Albion, a club where Matt Gould, who retains ambitions of becoming a full-time professional, trains during the week with his father, who is the goalkeeping coach at the Premier League squad. He has been doing the odd bit of training with his grandfather in his back yard.
“We have worked in his garden together. He loves shooting at me, as an ex-striker. I have a video of me and him having a penalty shoot-out. He’s 70 now, and he was going into the corner celebrating like he used to as a player. He has given me plenty of advice, as has Dad.”
Away from the FA Cup, Chelsea’s unbeatable aura slipped on Wednesday night when Spurs ended their 13-match unbeaten run. It compressed a title race that threatened to become a gallop by Chelsea, with Liverpool now just five points behind and Spurs third with Manchester City on their shoulder, both seven shy off the leaders. This will be the first weekend that the Premiership clubs will take part in the FA Cup, with West Ham against Manchester City on Friday night.
Stourbridge will play their seventh FA Cup match — four of them qualifiers — of the tournament.
This will be a weekend for the Premiership to take a breath and reflect on a season that has shown the strength and the weakness, the good and the evil, of British football. This week, the Football Association suspended another former coach from Crewe Alexandra, Paul McCann, “because of his work with their youth-team players”, another in an ever-growing list of former coaches suspected of sexually abusing young players.
The FA have set up a review into the sexual abuse of children at clubs, which stretches back to the 1970s. The chairman of the FA, Greg Clarke, who believes the sexual abuse crisis “is certainly the biggest one I can remember” for the sport.
The FA have had their share of scandals this season. Sam Allardyce was forced to quit as England coach after being recorded by The Daily Telegraph advising business people on how to get around the FA’s transfer rules. Allardyce lasted just 67 days. He is now manager of Crystal Palace, who will take on Bolton in the FA Cup on Saturday.
Allardyce accused the newspaper of entrapment, but the cloud of secrecy that has hidden bungs paid to managers and the blind eye turned to the sexual abuse feels like it is slowly but surely being lifted.
Stourbridge got £27 000 from the FA prize fund after the Northampton win. Should they beat Wanderers, they will receive £67 500. But it’s not just about the money. The FA Cup is a dream away from the franticness of the Premiership, a throwback to a time when football was more than just six teams fighting for riches.
There will be 32 FA Cup third-round matches played over four days. Gould believes the Glassboys could be back for the 16 games that will make up the fourth round. He comes from proud giant-killing stock.
“We can dare to dream, why not? Why can’t Stourbridge win in the third round and get into the fourth round?”