Some of the most memorable moments from the best-known club football tournament in the world, the FA Cup, involve the plucky exploits of amateur and semi-professional teams when they come up against the 'big boys' of the Premiership and Football League.
The FA Cup can help answer these questions. The ‘unseeded’ draw ensures non-League teams can be pitched against others from far higher levels of the pyramid2. Sometimes, just sometimes, the underdogs win through enough rounds to play against the very best.
A Tale of Two Suburbs
In the 2007-8 competition, it was the turn of Hampshire part-timers Havant and Waterlooville FC to enter the spotlight. The club didn’t have much of a history; it had been formed about ten years before - a merger of two clubs from neighbouring towns in Portsmouth's north-eastern urban sprawl. The team, nicknamed the Hawks, plies its trade in the Blue Square South division, which with Blue Square North forms level six of the English football pyramid. League matches are played against clubs from towns such as Thurrock, Dorchester and Weston-super-Mare - places you wouldn't immediately associate with football greatness.
Nor would you particularly associate either Havant or Waterlooville with sport in general, although Havant did have a brief fling in the sporting limelight when its field hockey team won the National Championship three times in the 1990s. Waterlooville is known to toxophilites as the home of Quicks archery store. But its pre-merger football team was always unlikely to rise beyond the level of the Southern League, where it had been languishing since the early 1970s. Havant Town FC was an older club, also in the Southern League, but one which was on the rise.
Two events in 1997 led to the merger. Waterlooville FC was having financial difficulties following relegation. Havant Town had just suffered a mutiny by its manager, Tony Mount, who left the club to take up a position at Newport FC3 on the Isle of Wight. He took the nucleus of the first team with him. Financed by the sale of Waterlooville's town-centre Jubilee Park ground, the teams reluctantly agreed to merge. Overnight, it became one of England's longest football club names, out-lettering such mouthfuls as Milton Keynes Dons, Dagenham and Redbridge, and Brighton and Hove Albion.
Matches are played at the former Havant Town's ground, Westleigh Park, situated to the north of the town in Leigh Park, a massive council estate4 built to house Portsmouth residents who were displaced after the bombing of the city during World War II. Next door is an office which sends out millions of electricity bills. Recently extended, Westleigh Park can now accommodate crowds in excess of 5,000, although regular attendances are usually in the region of 500 - 800.
In the ten years since the merger, the rebuilt team had seen a fair amount of success, winning a place in the re-formed Conference South in 2004, and challenging for promotion in each subsequent season. The club showed its giant-killing potential by reaching the semi-final of the FA Trophy5 in 2002-3. Havant and Waterlooville also reached the first round proper of the FA Cup in 2000-1, 2002-3 and 2006-7.
The latter of these drew a home tie with East London side Millwall, the club's first against League opponents. Police fears about fan segregation6 forced the tie to be switched to Portsmouth's Fratton Park. The subsequent security bill left the Hawks out of pocket in what should have been a money-spinner.
The 2007-8 FA Cup Run
Premiership and Championship clubs start thinking about the FA Cup in December, when the third-round draw takes place, for ties to be played in early January. Even to qualify for the first round, non-League clubs need to have won a number of qualifying round matches. The FA Cup competition is actually open to clubs at all levels. The first knockout matches start as early as August with the extra preliminary round. Clubs at higher levels of the pyramid join the competition in later rounds - the Hawks doing so three rounds later, at the second qualifying round.
The Early Rounds
The Hawks' FA Cup journey started close to home with a local derby at fellow Blue Square South side Bognor Regis Town on 29 September, 2007. Matches with ‘the Rocks’ often end as hard-fought draws, but this time the Hawks prevailed in a 2-1 victory, after having gone a goal behind early in the second half. Andy Gurney and Jamie Slabber were on target.
The reward was a third qualifying round tie at home on 13 October against level-eight minnows Fleet Town, who play in the Southern League South and West Division. Once again, the Hawks came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory, with first-half goals from Richard Pacquette and Rocky Baptiste, following a blistering start from the visitors.
The fourth qualifying round is 'the big one' in non-League terms. Win it and you're into the first round proper, where you can draw one of the level-three professional sides. This year these would include former European trophy winners Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, both of whom had recently fallen on hard times.
Once again the Hawks got a good draw - a home tie on 27 October against Leighton Town from the Southern League Midland Division. Once again, the visitors made a bright start, but a goal from Baptiste and two from Pacquette eventually sealed an easy 3-0 victory. Supporters sat around their radios as the first round draw was made.
First Round Proper - York City (Away)
If you ask any non-League manager what draw he’d prefer, he’ll usually say a home tie against a team his side can beat. Failing that, he’ll plump for any tie against a high-profile League club, as it generates high gate receipts from a large crowd - more so if it's played in the opponents' larger stadium. Havant and Waterlooville's luck ran out this time. An away trip to Blue Square Premier side York City on 10 November was going to be very tough indeed. And it's a long coach journey home to the South coast to dwell on the likely pasting you’ll have received.
This was as far as the Hawks had previously reached in the FA Cup. It looked as if they would once again fail at this stage. But as it happened luck was on their side. Despite facing a fierce onslaught from the hosts throughout, the visitors held firm, and even scored against the run of play - Mo Harkin firing above the goalkeeper after he had parried Slabber's first-half shot. A fine defensive performance coupled with some desperate last-ditch goal-line clearances saw the Hawks prevail 1-0. They headed into the second round for the first time in their history.
Second Round - Notts County (Away)
As any Statto7 will tell you, Notts County are the oldest Football League club in the world8, having been formed in 1862. Their black-and-white striped shirts were adopted by Italian giants Juventus in recognition of the history of this pioneering club. Indeed, County fans are known to sing 'It's just like watching Juventus' when their team are winning9.
Despite playing second fiddle to their near neighbours Nottingham Forest10 for much of the last century, County would’ve seen their home tie with Havant and Waterlooville on 1 December as a passport to the third round, and a chance for a tilt against one of the top clubs. From the Hawks point of view, it was a great draw, too - another crack at a side from the Football League, albeit a game they’d be unlikely to win.
They hadn't read the script, however. The Hawks came out fighting and matched the League Two side for long periods. As the game wore on to its conclusion it looked increasingly likely that a single goal would clinch it. Indeed, it was Hawks substitute Tony Taggart who provided it, in comedic fashion. With two minutes left of normal time, Taggart forced his way past two defenders inside the penalty area, then, as the goalkeeper dived at his feet, managed to get the lightest of touches on the ball, which took an age to slowly bobble across the line as everybody watched, dumbfounded. The Hawks had won 1-0.
Third Round - Swansea City (Away)
The third-round draw threw the Hawks into an away tie on 5 January against either Horsham or Swansea City, whose first second-round match had finished all-square. On paper there was a world of difference between the two. Horsham were a level-seven Ryman League side, whereas the Swans were currently top of League One - the highest-ranked club at that stage of the competition. Indeed, Swansea's class showed in the replay, which they won 6-2. This tie looked like one mountain too many to climb for the Hawks.
The Swans dominated the play throughout. Only some desperate goalkeeping from Hawks keeper Kevin Scriven helped to keep the scores level, as did the crossbar, which Swansea rattled no less than three times. With 15 minutes left on the clock, Swansea eventually broke the deadlock when Andy Robinson found the net with a superb dipping free-kick. It was the first FA Cup goal Scriven had conceded since Fleet Town's early opener back in October. Things then went from bad to worse as Hawks full back Brett Poate was sent off for a two-footed tackle. The subsequent punch-up saw Swans defender Alan Tate follow him into the dressing room for what Eddie Waring called an 'early bath'.
The Hawks needed another late goal to keep their FA Cup dreams alive. Once again, with two minutes of normal time remaining, it came. Substitute Taggart's deep cross was smashed past the helpless goalkeeper by Baptiste for a 1-1 draw, and a replay at Westleigh Park.
Third Round Replay - Swansea City (Home)
Before the replay could be settled, there was the matter of the fourth-round draw, and it was a cracker: Luton Town or Liverpool to play Swansea City or Havant and Waterlooville. Liverpool? Surely not. It was a long way off, in any case. Liverpool would almost certainly beat Luton Town, but the Hawks would have to beat Swansea City at Westleigh Park to qualify. Club chairman Marcus Hackney said he would take the whole team on holiday to Las Vegas if they got through. Maybe this was the kind of incentive they needed.
Liverpool, as expected, beat Luton in their replay - 5-0, as it happened. The stage was set as 4,400 packed Westleigh Park to see if the Hawks could once again hang on. What followed was bizarre: within 37 minutes, the home team were 3-0 up. First, Swans captain Garry Monk headed into his own net under pressure, then Hawks captain Jamie Collins and Baptiste scrambled two more. The crowd and radio commentators couldn't believe what they were seeing. Swansea pulled one back with a long-range shot from Guillem Bauza, who was shortly afterwards awarded a penalty. This was to be Scriven's finest hour, diving to his right to palm away Leon Britton's spot-kick. It was 3-1 at half-time.
Hawks manager Shaun Gale later admitted this was his hardest ever team talk. He knew that the tie was far from over - the visitors would come out fighting. Soon after the restart, Jason Scotland made it 3-2, but Welsh hearts were broken when Poate's deep cross allowed Tom Jordan, son of Manchester United and Scotland striker Joe, to head home, sending the fans wild. The final score was 4-2. A shell-shocked Gale could say little more than 'unbelievable', repeating the word nine times in the Match of the Day post-match interview.
Fourth Round - Liverpool (Away)
They don't come any bigger than Liverpool FC. The Reds had won more trophies than any other English team: the League Championship a record 18 times, the FA Cup seven times, and five European Cups11, as well as a string of other honours. The club has a vast red army of flag-waving supporters and a string of players who would grace football's hall of fame. And in Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres they had two players who are truly world-class. To play in front of the Kop is something footballers at any level aspire to, but few semi-professionals ever achieve.
The sudden media interest in this tie was immense - there were stories on so many levels. Liverpool's manager Rafa Benitez was under pressure from the club's US owners after a string of below-par results. Anything less than the complete annihilation of this bunch of no-hopers would be a major embarrassment - perhaps one too many for him. The story which filled most column inches, however, was the contrast between the players. Liverpool's stars earn anything up to £200,000 per week. They have palatial homes12 and celebrity wives and girlfriends. Havant and Waterlooville's team included one full-time player: Alfie Potter, on loan from Peterborough United for some first-team experience. The rest have to supplement their incomes with day-jobs as builders, school caretakers and dustmen. Every binman reading The Sun would think 'that could be me out there'.
The Hawks had won six FA Cup games to get this far. Liverpool would only need to win that number to lift the trophy. So on those terms the Hawks were already winners. This was a time and a place to celebrate. Some 6,000 fans travelled up from the south coast to enjoy the experience.
They weren’t disappointed. The non-Leaguers even took the lead - Pacquette was left unmarked in the six-yard box to nod in Harkin's corner. Liverpool's Leiva Lucas hit a classy long-range equaliser, but the Hawks, not to be outdone, took the lead again - Potter capitalising from another defensive slip-up to hit a shot that deflected past Charles Itandje in the Liverpool goal. Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun equalised shortly before half-time, but the embarrassment was already hurting.
Normal service was resumed after the break, as the part-timers' lack of fitness started to show. Benayoun hit two more to complete a fine hat-trick, and Peter Crouch, looking suspiciously offside, hit Liverpool's fifth on the stroke of time. In-between, Benitez brought on the big guns from the substitutes' bench - Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Dirk Kuyt - to ensure no further mistakes. The 5-2 scoreline didn't tell the story. But the standing ovation for Havant and Waterlooville from all sides of the Anfield terraces did.
So the Hawks wouldn't be going to Wembley after all. The dream that started on a dreary September day in Bognor was over. Neither would Scriven receive the brand-new Mercedes which The Sun had promised him for if he kept a clean sheet.
But they would be going to Vegas!