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REMEMBERING THE TIME EIGHTH-TIER CHASETOWN FC MADE THE THIRD ROUND OF THE FA CUP

Underdog stories are a part of the magic of the FA Cup, and eight-tier Chasetown FC provided one such tale in 2008. Rewards, an inspiring team-talk and more, this is their adventure.

Every season, the FA Cup throws up its shocks. It’s a part of its charm and despite some Premier League sides not taking it as seriously as they used to, there’s nothing better than seeing a League Two or non-league side knock one of the big guns out. 

However, upsets are quite rare and are only limited to maybe one or two per competition. Every year, the same ones always get shown over again before FA Cup draws and talked about in the press. Ronnie Radford’s goal for Hereford against Newcastle, Bournemouth beating a Manchester United side that had won it a year prior and the infamous Wycombe story. But one that isn’t talked about quite as much is the story of Southern League Midland Division side Chasetown. 

This story begins on 1 September 2007. Eighth-tier Chasetown are playing Leicestershire-based Oadby Town in the Preliminary round qualifiers of the competition in front of a mere 321 fans at their home, The Scholars Ground in Staffordshire. After four straight wins in the league, Chasetown were favourites and unsurprisingly were too much for Oadby and calmly kicked them out of the competition, beating them 4-1 in the process.

Two fouls inside the six-yard box, a spilled save from a free-kick and two red cards from Oadby meant that it would be Chasetown in the draw for the first round qualifying. 

Their opponents? Ninth-tier side Rocester FC. Things weren’t as easy as they were against Oadby and Chasetown struggled for large parts of the game. A five-man Rocester defense almost made it impossible for Chasetown to score. But, despite resolute defending, Rocester were eventually broken. A corner found its way onto the head of non-league journeyman Kyle Perry who gave Chasetown the lead. 

Perry’s goal of the game was enough to send Chasetown through and manager Charlie Blakemore had started to build a bit of momentum. Blakemore is still the record goalscorer in the Midland Alliance and became the manager of the side four years prior to this after serving a stint as assistant manager of the club. 

Chasetown were drawn against Conference South side Cambridge City in the second round Qualifying. 

For the first time in the competition, Chasetown travelled to Cambridge as underdogs. Cambridge were in the sixth tier at the time and reached the second round proper only three seasons prior. 

This didn’t stop Chasetown though from going at Cambridge straight from kick-off. Just two minutes in, Perry played the ball into captain Lee Parsons who shocked the Cambridge goalkeeper by striking the ball to his right-hand side and catching him out in the process. 

Chasetown had taken the lead. Cambridge were stunned. The battle now for Chasetown was to hang on for 88 minutes. Despite a valiant effort and putting everyone behind the ball, they couldn’t. One minute into the second half, Cambridge equalised after a lapse in concentration from Chasetown and forced a replay three days later. 

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Chasetown were unsurprisingly underdogs again for this and Cambridge were expected as when most big teams have a replay to win quite convincingly. And, that looked like the case for the first half. Cambridge came close to taking the lead after Michael Gash’s header was saved from close range and it looked as if they were learning from their mistakes on the weekend prior to this by not conceding early on. 

The tie looked as if it was heading for extra time as it was still goalless after 60 minutes. However, Chasetown were awarded a free-kick. Mark Branch took upon himself to try and score instead of playing it short and it worked. Branch curled the ball into the top right-hand corner of the goal, rooting Cambridge’s goalkeeper to the spot. 

Just like the earlier meeting, Chasetown couldn’t hold on to their lead. Seven minutes from time, Cambidge’s No.10 Gash struck the ball past the helpless Chasetown ‘keeper to make it 1-1 and force the game into extra time. 

Extra-time was tight with no chances for either side and it looked as if it would be going to penalties to decide who would be playing Rainworth Miners Welfare. 

Five minutes from time though, Chasetown got themselves a corner. The ball somehow ended up into the path of central defender Joe Williams who stabbed the ball with the tip of his boot into an open goal three yards in front of him. 

Chasetown had done it again. The final whistle was blown after Cambridge failed to find an equaliser in the remaining minutes and Chasetown had booked themselves into the third round qualifying where they would be playing against Rainworth Miners Welfare of the Northern Counties East League Division One. 

Goals from Danny Smith and Karl Edwards in the second half would be enough to send Chasetown into the final round of qualifying where they would face tough opposition in Conference North side Nuneaton Borough, who like Cambridge City, were two tiers above them at the time.

By this time, the ‘cup fever’ had well and truly gripped the small village in Staffordshire with four-and-a-half times as many people showing their support. The attendance for this match had increased from 321 for their first-ever match in this competition to 1,408 coming out to support Chasetown. In 2004, Chasetown managed to reach the first round in their history where they lost to Oldham. Could they do the same here?

Unlike in the second round qualifying where Chasetown came out of the blocks and shocked Cambridge, the first half at The Scholars Ground was tight as expected with barely any chances for both sides. Dean Parrow though managed to find some space for Chasetown and found John Branch who made it 1-0 just before half time. A minute into the second half, Chasetown doubled their lead through Dean Perrow to guarantee their spot in the first round proper.

Despite Nuneaton responding with a consolation after67 minutes, Blakemore’s Chasetown had done enough. They had made it into the first round of the FA Cup for the second time in their history and would face Southern League university side Team Bath two weeks later.

Chasetown eased their way past Team Bath and secured their place in the Second Round after Chasetown’s keeper Lee Evans sent a long free kick in the air that was knocked down by Kyle Perry into Vaughan Thomas who volleyed the knock-on past Bath’s keeper Darren Chitty after eleven minutes. Twenty minutes later, Lee Parsons teed up Craig Holland who blasted one in from 25 yards to secure Chasetown folklore.

It would be League One side Port Vale that would stand between Chasetown and reaching the third round of the FA Cup. One hundred and one places separated the two sides going into the tie but for Chasetown after their results prior to this, they weren’t afraid of anything.

Over five thousand fans turned up at Vale Park presuming that they would see their side comfortably breeze past a side that were five leagues below them. And, that looked like that would be the case. Eighteen minutes in, Luke Rodgers [future New York Red Bulls strike partner to Thierry Henry] gave Port Vale the lead. 

Blakemore still had a game plan though for Chasetown. A simple one albeit. He wanted his players to pass the ball, close Port Vale down when they had the ball and work hard. 

And it worked. 

Just before half-time, Chasetown were awarded a free-kick. And who else was going to take it other than the same person who gave Chasetown the lead in the replay against Cambridge City? Forty yards out from goal, Branch smashed the ball into the top right corner, leaving Vale keeper Joe Anyon completely bewildered as to what he’s just seen fly past him. 

Chasetown had forced yet another replay after surviving for the next 44 minutes away from home to former semi-finalists of the competition. This replay though wasn’t to play Rainworth Miners Welfare in the next round but former holders of the competition Cardiff City. If Chasetown could beat Port Vale nine days later, they would become the lowest-ranked side ever to reach the third round proper. 

The club from a former coal-mining village of 4,000 in South Staffordshire that had brought almost half of its population down in away support had set themselves up for a tie that could potentially keep the whole club alive for the next few years.

Port Vale fans, on the other hand, weren’t pleased with the result as expected. Angry fans ran on the pitch after the draw to berate the team and one player was even confronted in the car park.

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Surely Port Vale, a fully professional side who were playing at Elland Road only a few weeks prior to this, could see off part-timers in a replay? 

Blakemore gave a strong team talk to his players: “They’ve come here, full-timers, Playing on their f**king PlayStations all day, You’ve done a  f**cking days work, Don’t let them take the f**cking p*ss out of you,” he screamed to his players. 

It looked like Chasetown were finally waking up from their dream. A tense first half gave Port Vale a free-kick that was tipped over the bar and two minutes into the second half, Port Vale were given a penalty. Rodgers, who was part of the Shrewsbury team that beat Everton in the 2002-03 competition would definitely make sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen to him five years later, right? 

However, in an incredible series of events, Rodgers somehow hit the crossbar. Chasetown were still in the cup. Was that Port Vale’s only clear opportunity to beat Chasetown on the night? No. Because five minutes later, Port Vale got another penalty. Rodgers, eager to prove himself stroked the ball to Evans’ right. Luckily for Chasetown, Evans also went to his right, palming the ball out. 

Port Vale had managed to miss two penalties in the space of five minutes. This was now Chasetown’s to lose.

The game was ticking on and Chasetown had hung in the balance perfectly. It was their reward that in the final minute of normal time they got a free-kick which gave them the opportunity to push everyone forward.

Port Vale managed to clear the attempt away but only as far away as Branch. Branch found Perry in space who managed to whip a cross into Danny Smith, who threw himself at the ball and managed to connect his head with the centre of the ball perfectly. Three seconds later, the stadium had been brought down. Chasetown had pulled off another upset and had teed themselves up with Cardiff City. 

The strong capacity crowd of just under 2,000 had witnessed one of the biggest shocks in the entire history of the tournament. 

And then began the rush to get the stadium ready so the Cardiff game could be played at their home The Scholars Ground. Obviously, Chasetown weren’t used to having big ties like this one so in order to have the match played safely quite a few things had to be done. The ground had to go through quite a turnaround in the space of over two weeks. 

People sacrificed their Christmas for the match to go ahead. Temporary seating had to be added, the groundwork had to be done, temporary toilets had to be added and security had to be arranged. All of this was done by volunteers that knew how much this game would mean to the village. 

And when certain things couldn’t be done because of just how much there was to do, Cardiff helped them out. It was Cardiff who printed tickets, provided stewarding and helped with health and safety measures. 

If the incentive of scouts watching and potentially life-changing contracts being offered wasn’t enough, Virgin Holidays decided the day before the tie that if Chasetown were to beat Cardiff, they would offer all the players and coaching staff free flights to anywhere in the world.

After what must have seemed an eternity to the players after doing countless media duties and photoshoots, the day was finally upon them. A chance to show the whole nation what they were about after the seven games leading up to this. 

For central defender Chris Slater, it was a chance to prove Cardiff manager Dave Jones wrong after he was released by him at Wolves. After failing to find a club, Slater had to come back to his hometown to become a bricklayer. 

Cardiff took control of the early exchanges of the match and kept possession as expected. Chasetown, just like all of the other matches they had played in this competition weren’t phased by this. 

The first chance of the game went to Chasetown after 17 minutes. Dean Perry found Ben Steane who drilled his cross low into the box, in front of Cardiff left-back Kevin McNaughton, who stumbled trying to clear the ball and in the process had put it into his own net. 1-0 Chasetown.

The Scholars Ground packed with 2,420 fans erupted just like the Port Vale replay where no one gave Chasetown a chance. The defence had been solid as well. Slater was stopping Ledley from getting space on the ball and Cardiff, despite having large amounts of possession were struggling to get used to the occasion. 

The 600 Cardiff fans that were tucked away and ignored by the national press were beginning to tut to each other a bit nervously. The game was ticking on and Chasetown still had the lead and looked as if they would be going into the break 1-0 ahead. 

Peter Wittingham however, had other ideas. In the second minute of stoppage time for the first half, Steve MacLean had teed him up on the edge of the box and he curled his shot first time into the top left-hand corner. Chasetown really needed to hold on until half time but had just had a small lapse in concentration which cost them. 1-1 half time. 

After the break it was Cardiff that came out on top, the experience and the talent just ended up being too much for Chasetown. On 60 minutes, a 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey on his full debut for Cardiff made it 2-1 after heading in a cross from Tony Capaldi. Thirteen minutes later, Cardiff secured their ball in the pot for the fourth round after Joe Ledley found Paul Parry, whose effort trickled through the legs of the Chasetown ‘keeper to make it 3-1. 

The dream was over for Chasetown. After the players finished doing their lap of honour and interviews for Setanta and Sky they went back to their jobs. Ben Steane went back to Coventry airport in his role at HM Revenue and Customs, Joe Williams returned to his role as a tax collector and manager Charlie Blakemore went back to his role as operations director at BAE Systems. 

As for Cardiff? They went all the way to the final that season, losing to Portsmouth 1-0  at Wembley. 

Chris Slater, however, did get a professional contract. Port Vale of all places signed him along with Perry. He was only there for two seasons though, before returning to Chasetown for the rest of his career. Perry also only stayed at Port Vale for the remainder of the 07/08 season and the 08/09 season before becoming a bit of a non-league journeyman playing for seven different clubs in eight seasons across the National League. 

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Blakemore also left Chasetown three seasons later after he found it difficult to give up the time after getting a promotion to managing director of BAE Systems. He accepted a role as club director. 

The relationship between Chasetown and Cardiff wasn’t finished though after quarter past five that evening. Both clubs retained a good relationship afterwards. Cardiff invited Chasetown to play them in their first-ever match at the Cardiff City Stadium and gave them 600 seats from their old ground, Ninian Park. 

Chasetown missed out on a playoff place in the 2007-08 season and despite getting promoted to the Northern Premier League in 2009-10, were relegated back down in 2-11-12 to the Northern Premier League Division One South East, where they still play to this day. 

BY JAMES YOUNG