FA Cup 3rd Round day is the time for commentators to wax lyrical about the joys of life outside the brightly-lit luxury of the Premier League. But to find a game where neither team was going to rest key players, nobody was going to talk about the imperative of maintaining league form, and everyone was desperately hoping to add more games to their season’s schedule, the FA Vase 4th Round made more sense.
On the radio, the BBC was at Sutton United, speaking warmly of local kids having a kickaround and evoking the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ glory of the grassroots. At Billingham Town, who play in a league five levels below those grassroots, the kids’ kickaround continued throughout the game, while passing trains caught tantalizing glimpses of a compelling cup tie.
It had all the makings of a giant-killing. Visitors Cleethorpes Town were in rampant form in the Northern Counties East Premier, one level up from Billingham. With just two league defeats all season, they were the obvious favourites. But Billingham are handily placed in their league and, despite being the lowest-ranked team in the competition, had already shown scant regard for reputation with wins over the likes of Bishop Auckland and Cleethorpes’ near neighbours Bottesford Town.
An away goal so early that much of the 364-strong crowd was still shuffling through the turnstile should have ended that ambition; a second inside 20 minutes would have pointed to a potential rout for anyone following on Twitter. Inside Bedford Terrace, though, the mood was different. Cleethorpes were doing the simple things well, having clearly scouted Billingham carefully.
“We know what’s coming!” came the repeated warning from visiting goalie Liam Higton as he marshalled his defence and, for much of the first half it seemed that this might be true. The best chance of a Billingham response came when Jamie Davis danced his way through the defence, only for his shot to be turned behind for a corner. Otherwise, all was frustration.
Not just because they were losing. It was the sense that Cleethorpes were not obviously a cut above. “That’s how good these are, man!” came the howl from the home support as passes went astray and the visitors spluttered. But Billingham struggled to take advantage: after the game the home team felt it had underperformed on the big occasion. Chris Dickinson came closest to saving them, pulling a goal back when his low shot bobbled through the keeper’s legs with 20 minutes to go then putting a stoppage time cross onto the forehead of substitute Gary Redman, only for the ball to flash wide. The jig of delight off the away bench when the whistle sounded was ample evidence that Cleethorpes had been in a real game here.
Disappointment for Billingham, dreams of Wembley dashed. But the back story is positive. Under the guidance of Barry Oliver the club, which once nurtured the talents of a young Gary Pallister, is upwardly mobile again. Promotion to Division One seems more than possible this season, rising attendances have seen the average gate inch ahead of Billingham Synthonia, traditionally a more famous name playing just across the railway line from Bedford Terrace. It’s a club working hard to do things right, from engaging supporters through smart use of social media to providing a warm welcome for all comers. The Vase run might have ended here, but it’s unlikely to be the last we hear of Billingham Town.
Bedford Terrace, Billingham, England
FA Vase 4th Round, Jan. 7 2017
Billingham Town 1 (Dickinson) Cleethorpes Town 2 (Taylor, Robertson)