Non-league’s maddest FA Cup run from lads mags and late goals to Aaron Ramsey

When Marine drew Tottenham in the FA Cup, few people could relate to what the non-league part-timers were feeling.

But, in a small corner of Staffordshire, a select group were reminded of when FA Cup fever gripped Chasetown and gave them a few months they’ll never forget.

“To be fair, it was one of those, we thought it would stand forever,” says Danny Smith, whose late winner against Port Vale saw the Scholars become the first team from the eighth tier to ever reach the FA Cup third round.

“As soon as it came up that they’d got Tottenham I thought, ‘fair play, I know exactly how all of them are feeling right now’.

“Theirs will be even more incredible than ours – Mourinho being there will be ridiculous – it’s just a shame they can’t have any fans there because that’s such a big part of it.

“But they’ll still get some of that atmosphere and they’ll get to meet and play against some real superstars. It’ll be mental for them.”

Times have changed since 2008, in football and in life, but Marine have proved the magic of the FA Cup remains.

Their game against Tottenham will represent the biggest gap between two clubs in FA Cup history.

But Chasetown still hold the honour of being the lowest-ranked side to reach this stage.

The reward for their remarkable achievement was a fortnight living the dream.

Smith was promised a car if he followed up his second round winner with a third round goal.

Reporters rocked up at the houses and workplaces of players, from accountants to teachers.

Some appeared in FHM magazine, others saw their ‘WAGs’ featured in magazines and newspapers whilst the entire team were promised a trip to Dubai by sponsors Virgin Holidays if they could beat Cardiff City.

They celebrated wins at Bar Sport in Cannock, watching themselves on Match of the Day whilst stood on the dance floor with drinks in hand.

“It was magical, everything about it was magical,” says striker Kyle Perry, who set up Smith’s second round winner.

“It was unheard of, a team of our standard playing somebody in the Championship, and from start to finish it was just a non-stop rollercoaster ride of emotions.

“When the press jumped on it we were on all the newspaper, we were in FHM magazine, we were on the back of every paper then in the front of every paper. It was just non-stop for a couple of weeks.

“It was just like a two-day bender from beating Port Vale in the replay. We had agreements with Bar Sport in Cannock, we spent a lot of time in there, and we were like D-List celebrities for a bit.

“My girlfriend at the time, she even had a centre-page pullout as one of the non-league WAGs at one point. Everyone was just like, ‘what is going on?’”

Smith says: “I think I had two weeks of having what it must be like all the time for pro footballers and it was absolutely mental.

“The papers picked up on different things. They’d knock on my Mom and Dad’s door when I was at work and they’d just tell them everything!

“She’d tell them I was working at a school and they’d turn up at the school, nobody had ever seen anything like it.”

Left-back Mark Branch recalls: “At the time, I was 21 so you get all the people telling you enjoy it because things like this don’t happen every day, but at that age you think, ‘I’ve got years left in football’.

“I knew it was a special thing but it’s only looking back now you really appreciate how special it was to be part of the lowest ranked team to get to the third round.

“It was a strange time because there was so much interest. We had weeks of madness with the FA Cup second round coverage then leading up to the third round, a different person in the papers or on the TV every day.

“People were coming into our work, finding out what we did and I think for everyone it was just a bizarre few weeks.”

Chasetown had been in the first round before, appearing on BBC Match of the Day when they faced Oldham two years earlier and forced a replay.

This time around, the first round handed them a trip to another non-league side, Team Bath, and something of a banana skin.

Smith, an unused substitute as a teenager against Oldham two years earlier, said: “As a non-league club, you think that’s your chance gone – you’ve played in the first round, forced a replay against Oldham, so to then go on and beat it two years later was incredible.

“We were gutted when we drew Team Bath, absolutely gutted, because we could’ve had an Oldham at that point. We were all sitting in the bar excited for the first round draw, ‘and Chasetown will play…Team Bath’, and everyone just said, ‘what? Team Bath?’.

“We’d done all that hard work to get to the first round then got another non-league side, but then we looked at it and said, ‘we could go and beat these’. We went away to their place, and that was probably the biggest result of the lot because they were a good team and we battered them. We were the better team the whole game.”

When they travelled to Port Vale, they took an army of fans on the short trip across Staffordshire.

After going behind early on, a long free-kick from Branch beat everyone and crept into the far corner to force a replay.

“It was right in front of the away end, and being quite local I think we took two or three thousand up to Port Vale behind the goal,” he recalls.

“It was right in front of the fans, and that buzz of running off celebrating in front of them was a moment I’ll never forget.

“The next day I had an interview with Sky Sports News, there’s pictures of me in all the newspapers the next day and I’ve got all the cuttings saved.”

Despite being an FA Cup hero, it was back to the day job for Branch and many others the day after their second round game and around their cup run.

He recalls: “With the Port Vale game, it was actually on Sunday so it was one of those where a lot of us had to go into work the next day.

“I was a trainee accountant at the time, so I didn’t have much sway with the boss to take the day off!

“I was in work the next day, grabbed a few papers and showed everyone I worked with and just cracking on with the normal day – it was the life of a non-league footballer.

“With replay, you had the buzz of winning against Port Vale, one of the biggest nights you’ll ever have in football and the next day you’re in work.

“Even before the third round, Mick McCarthy let us go and train at the Wolves training ground on the Friday and a few lads had work in the morning before getting the afternoon off.”

When Port Vale came to Chasetown for the replay, they were met by a capacity crowd on a freezing cold December night.

The game was supposed to be televised, but Chasetown were unable to scramble together an upgrade on their floodlights in time to enable the game to be shown in HD on Sky Sports.

“It was quite poetic on that Tuesday night,” Perry recalls.

“Luke Rodgers missed two penalties then we ended up getting the winner late on. It was like fate handed us the game really.”

It was Perry’s run to the byline that saw him place a perfect cross on the head of substitute Smith to spark bedlam in the dying seconds.

Smith remembers it vividly, stating: “When it hit my head I slid behind the goal, it was really icy, and I looked up and I just thought, ’s***, has that gone in?’

“The next thing I know everyone has gone mad, I’m getting dragged into the crowd by my shirt and I’m thinking, ’s***, it has gone in, we’re going to beat these!’.

“After that, I can only imagine what it must be like for pro players scoring in front of a packed crowd.

“It was so late that we knew it was the winner, and it was crazy. From the minute that ball hit the net, my feet just didn’t touch the ground for about two weeks.”

“When Dan scored the goal and ran off celebrating, I just fell to the floor crying,” Perry remembers. “I’d obviously put the cross in from the left flank, and my legs just gave way and I just fell to the floor. It meant so much.

“When the ref blew the whistle, the scenes were unbelievable, everyone on the pitch, getting lifted up.

“Nowadays, with the frozen pitch, would that game have even been played? I don’t know, but the romance of it was like a film.”

Wild scenes followed in the dressing room whilst man of the moment Smith and manager Charlie Blakemore were kept on the pitch carrying out interviews.

“After the game we had a proper drink,” Smith says. "I didn’t get in there until about 40 minutes after the full-time whistle, but when I did get in there it was still going mental.

“The lads had got the champagne going around, then Charlie got in about the same time as me and sat us all down. The last thing we wanted was a team-talk.

“He gave us some moans about the game, not tackling them in the box, holding the ball up better, all the usual tactical stuff when everyone wanted to be celebrating.

“Then at the end of it he just said, ‘now let’s go and get f***ing p*****! And obviously everyone went crazy. Bedlam is the only way to describe it!

“I was still living with my Mom and Dad at the time and I got woken up by my phone at about half seven in the morning. My phone kept ringing and it was Radio 1!

“A lot of the stuff that happened, because we were a close-knit team, we used to wind people up, it was savage. To the extent where we used to get our mates to ring people up saying they were from the newspaper or the radio or whatever.

“When this call came through I was like, ‘yeah, whatever’, thinking it was going to be someone on a wind-up then Chris Moyles came on the other end of the line to speak to me in the break. I was hungover, at my Mom and Dad’s house and I’ve got Chris Moyles on the other end of the phone thinking I sounded funny because of my Brummie accent

“Straight away I just thought, ‘wow this is mental’, and then because we drew Cardiff it kicked up again being the goalscorer from the first game.”

There were more celebrations when they were drawn at home to Championship side Cardiff City and fans packed into the makeshift stands and surrounding trees for the famous third round tie.

The fairytale looked well and truly alive when another cross was diverted into Kevin McNaughton’s own goal under pressure from Perry.

“I still think we could have beaten them to be honest, on the day,” Perry insists. “Maybe nerves got the better of us?

“We went ahead and I think we were the only team to go ahead against them until they played Portsmouth in the final which was a massive achievement looking back.

“But it was crazy because during the Cup run we were still obviously playing league games. We’d

have one week my Dad would turn up with the dog to watch, then the next week you’d have fans in the trees, the makeshift stand and celebrities sat in the little stand. You just couldn’t make it up.”

All eyes were on Robbie Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink when the draw was made.

Unfortunately for Chasetown, the injured Fowler did not make the trip due to injury, although he did get in touch with huge Liverpool fan Smith and arrange a tour of Anfield a few months later.

Hasselbaink was also not needed, left as an unused substitute on the bench having warmed up shortly before Cardiff took the lead.

They instead looked at the team sheet and targeted a young midfielder by the name of Aaron Ramsey making his first senior start.

“Aaron Ramsey was the one we picked as the one we could get at, because he was only 17,” Smith remembers.

“We thought, he’s 17, he’s playing in the centre of the park on a muddy pitch at Chasetown, he’s being linked to these top clubs but he’s not going to know what’s hit him.

“We expected to be able to get into him, and he absolutely ran the show. We couldn’t get near him. Ramsey ran the show and it was just a step too far in the end.”

Perry adds: “You could see Ramsey was technically gifted, he was head and shoulders above anyone else and he was so sharp, then he ended up going off to Arsenal after that.”

Branch comments: “People were talking about him being a good player at the time but he’s obviously gone on to have a great career, and his first ever goal was against us!”

After learning lessons from the first Cup run two years earlier, manager Blakemore had taken on a professional approach with his side.

They met on the mornings of games for team breakfast at the nearby Junction Pub and were given team briefings on their opponents, something unheard of at their level.

Nothing, however, could prepare them for the fanfare and different world of a third round tie.

“The preparation changed slightly for that because I think Charlie wanted to get us away from all the madness,” Branch explains.

“After training at Wolves on the Friday we stayed at a hotel which was a bit strange before a home game five minutes down the road.

“But when you turned up and saw all the cameras and fans you knew it wasn’t a normal game. They had a good team then, they got to the final, and we knew it would be tough.

“It was a massive step up from the Port Vale games, and I think when you got up the leagues it’s a fitness and pace thing then by the Championship you add that ability in as well.”

After the game, they made sure to make the most of the opportunity to take some mementos.

“We went into the changing rooms and basically took all of their kit,” Smith says. “They asked if we wanted anything as they were chucking a lot of training stuff away, so we had everything.

“We didn’t have training kit, so we were getting Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s shorts and top even if they were massive on me.”

At the end of the journey, it was party time for all involved to finally look back and reflect on a special journey.

The club arranged a marquee next to the ground with a free bar for the players, and a chance to celebrate with their fans after an unforgettable few weeks.

Perry says: “We felt it was the end, we felt content with the journey and it was nice to look back knowing we’d made a bit of history and knowing what we’d achieved.”

“After the game we had a hell of a party,” Smith says.

“We weren’t prepared for the Port Vale one – there was no marquee, no free bar after the game or anything.”

Branch recalls: “A few lads went out after the Cardiff game, but also after the Team Bath game in the first round.

“The coach came back, we went to Bar Sport, and you’re watching yourself on Match of the Day whilst you’re stood at the bar!

“With that team, we’d had that group of lads together for a while, everyone got on well and there are good players who’ve had good careers who were on the bench for some of those games.

“You probably don’t appreciate at the time how good a bunch it was, there were no real egos in the team and it was just the perfect mix.

“It was a strange and special time, and it was just a shame the Cup run meant we didn’t finish so well in the league as we had games to catch up on, players left and the team got broken up a bit.”

Whilst the cup run was over, the journey continued for those involved, albeit under less of a spotlight.

Perry and team-mate Chris Slater were snapped up by Port Vale after knocking them out in the second round, enabling Perry to quit his job and embark upon a professional career.

He says: “I first got wind of teams wanting me to go on trial with them – I think it was Stoke, Coventry and Leicester – and I couldn’t believe it.

“Then I was at work one day, in the office when I got a call off the gaffer saying, ‘Kyle, Port Vale want to take you and Chris’.

“I said, 'thanks but I’ve got a job, I’m a graphic designer at the Midcounties Co-Operative, I can’t really go on trial because I’d have to quit my job’.

“He said, ‘no, they want to offer you both an 18-month deal’, and I just said, ‘when do I start?’. I quit my job, went there after the Cup run was over and it was unbelievable.

“I was pleased I managed to push on and that was a whole different story, but I think for some of the lads that stayed it was a bit tough going from that Cup run back to reality I suppose.

“I went on to play in the Football League but I’ll always say that Chasetown game against Cardiff was the biggest match I’ve ever played in.”

Smith’s career came to an end in his late 20s after a knee injury but he remains involved in the game, coaching his son’s local team.

He was also invited to carry out the FA Cup draw a few years ago, handing his beloved Liverpool a nightmare trip to Manchester United.

“Every time we think it’s over, something else happens,” he says. “They asked me to do the FA Cup draw a few years ago, and, again, it was one I just didn’t believe.

“It wasn’t all about me, it really wasn’t, I was just the lucky one that scored the goal but I took everything I could get, I knew if I didn’t take every opportunity I’d regret it.

“Me and my Dad used to watch the FA Cup draw every time, check what Liverpool’s number was, so doing that was really special.

“I ended up drawing Liverpool away at Man Utd which was the last thing I wanted! I wanted to give them a nice easy game but I got some right grief from my mates!

“Usually this time of the years all the memories come back up. I’m coaching my son’s team now and they never believe me when I say I scored a winner in the FA Cup. They weren’t even born, so I’m having to try and find the clip, but it’s not as easy to find that video any more.

“The feeling of scoring that goal was something so special, something I’ve never felt since and probably never will since.”

Branch was fortunate enough to share the experience with his brother, right-back John, and stuck around at Chasetown to see the impact of their heroics.

He added: “It was a big thing, and even now my mates will tell me I talk about it all the time!

“For me, playing in the same team as my brother and sharing it with him was great. He was two years older than me, best mates growing up and that type of thing. He was playing right back and I was playing left-back, so it was a big thing for the family.

“I think the impact of it is something people outside of non-league football don’t realise as well. The prize money means so much to those clubs.

“Some people would say they maybe could’ve spent the money in different ways, they tried to build a stand and struggled with planning permission I think. But the main thing was that for the next few seasons we went from being a team who got 200 fans to getting 400 or 500 fans regularly.

“We ended up the next couple of seasons getting to the play-offs then getting promoted, so we built on it, got to the Northern Premier League where we stayed for a couple of seasons.

“Financially, it sorted the club our for a number of years and all the added interest took it to another level for the club and the players.

“Cardiff were great with us as well, they had us down to play the first game at their new stadium and their fans always followed us as well, so that was nice to come from it.”

Over a decade has past since Chasetown’s month in the spotlight, and they will watch on with fond memories as Marine enjoy their moment against Jose Mourinho’s superstars.

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