Watford are playing away at Woking in the FA Cup tomorrow and I am nervous.
One hundred and eleven places separate the two teams in the league pyramid. Watford are currently eighth in the Premier League, Woking are five divisions lower, in the regionalised National League South, although they are currently flying high, pushing Torquay United for the one automatic promotion place into the top tier of non-league football.
When the draw was made, I was delighted. I’ve never seen Watford play a competitive fixture away at a non-league ground and although it might seem like quite a specific and obscure one to tick off the wish list it’s something I always hope for every time the balls come out of the perspex drum when the FA Cup third round draw is made each December.
Cup magic feels like it is in short supply these days, not least because a perspex drum has long replaced the old velvet bag for the draw protocol. We can see the cards hidden in the magician’s sleeve, partly because the whole game is over-exposed and partly because the top clubs can afford to rest an entire first eleven for the early rounds of the cup and still not risk an upset. When a big side is knocked out, there’s often the mitigating factor of a weakened team or a half-empty stadium. Gone are the days when the FA Cup meant everything to everyone.
The giantkillings of my childhood – York City stunning Arsenal with a last-minute Keith Houchen penalty at a snowy Bootham Crescent in 1985, or Wrexham beating Arsenal a few years later or, arguably the biggest upset of all time, when Matthew Hanlan’s goal for Sutton United helped knock out Coventry City – are still images I can summon in a heart-beat. And although it happened before I was born, the sight of Hereford United’s Ronnie Radford striding through the mud to connect with the ball and send it flying past the Newcastle United goalkeeper is burned into my mind’s eye. It’s been played thousands of times since and has become a visual shorthand for the days when the FA Cup filled grounds and captivated the nation.
With 24 hours to go until kick-off at Woking’s Kingfield Stadium the thought of Watford being on the receiving end of an upset is beginning to feel a bit too real. I watch enough National League South football to know that Woking’s pitch will be in decent condition – even non-league clubs don’t have to play on patchy, sand-covered fields anymore, unless there’s a really sustained period of bad weather. I know that Woking will have plenty of players with at least a bit of Football League experience so the old cliché about non-league sides consisting of the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker no longer applies. From what I can gather, Woking are more or less a full-time outfit these days, and if their players have a sideline it’s probably more likely to be as fitness consultants or personal trainers.
I am looking forward to standing on a packed terrace and being part of a day that Woking’s supporters will remember for a long time whether they win, lose or draw.
I just hope it’s not too memorable. I am also hoping Watford don’t take their opponents lightly because I don’t want to see images of Woking’s players in their smart Feyenoord-esque red and white-halved shirts celebrating at our expense over and over and over again for the rest of time.