The Magic of Soccer’s FA Cup, the World’s Oldest Knockout Competition, Pits Welsh Minnows Newport vs English Giants, Spurs at a Rugby Ground
“After years of following the Premier League and its ‘win everything or it’s a tragedy’ mentality, I wanted something different. County are a club that does it right — owned by the supporters, always thinking about the community, led by a group of amazing fans and a manager who’s Newport through and through. This is what football’s all about. And this FA Cup run shows that there’s still room for magic in the game!” — Gordon Grafft, US-based fan and founder of Newport County USA
It could never happen in U.S. major league sports where knockout games are determined by seedings. In baseball it would be like the New Yankees randomly being pitted against the “Peoria Podunks” if they existed. The stuff from the fertile minds of fictional authors, and underdog sports movies.
But in the UK’s FA Cup competition, which is governed by random draws, London-based Spurs, who were solid runners-up in the Premier League last season, are drawn to play against Newport County of the Football League’s fourth tier on January 27 in the competition’s 4th round — they previously played in 1960.
Spurs have had crowds of over 80,000 at their temporary home of Wembley Stadium, while Newport averages under 5,000 a game at County’s leased-ground (which is shared by two rugby teams and owned by the Welsh Rugby Union) on the banks of the River Usk. Last season, Newport were seconds away from being relegated to the fifth tier and facing possible bankruptcy if that had happened.
They survived by the skin of their teeth, and have improved their league standing this season. Then in early January 2018, they knocked off once mighty Leeds United in the FAC’s 3rd round — Leeds were part of the excellent football movie, The Damned United, coincidentally starring Newport-raised, now LA-based actor, Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex, and Underworld franchise). Sheen even appears with other celebrities for Red Nose Day, doing a copy of the terrific parody song “Newport State of Mind.”
When Newport were drawn against Spurs, who feature Harry Kane, the Premiership’s top goal-scorer from the last two seasons, and a host of top international stars, County’s manager Michael Flynn enthused:
“I’m over the moon. It’s an amazing draw…It’s so crucial for the whole club with the finances and it’s a great reward for the players for all their hard work so far. It could have been very different; the club could have gone bust [if they’d been relegated last season]. That’s how close it was and now we’re playing a big side like Tottenham in Newport. It’s exciting times.”
The match has a deep resonance with this writer, having grown up in Newport with my father’s family still living in the area. But I’ve been a diehard Spurs fan all my life. But I went to elementary school right next to County’s former ground, so the team, who were out of the English league for 25 years and got the nickname “Exiles,” well, they’re in my blood, just like Spurs. Classy Spurs with their new state-of-the-art stadium are like what I aspire to be — reaching for the stars. Newport, supported by working class, honest South Wales fans, are like who many of us really are — just trying to hang in there.
When the draw was announced fellow Spurs fan and LA-based Stephen Joseph Pritchard called it, “The Collie Cup!” Other USA-based Spurs fans added — Daniel Windler, “Sorry, Ash, no mercy!” and Daniel Hahn, “Wow, you win either way…but we all know which way this is going.” And, one of my England-based cousins, Chris Kelsall noted, “Fate, OMG!”
As for what to expect, I asked Andrew Penman, local sports reporter for the South Wales Argus, who covers County for his thoughts:
Rodney Parade is a world away from Tottenham’s adopted home of Wembley and the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane will not have experienced playing at many grounds like it. Even with temporary stands extending the capacity to around 10,000, it will seem a very cramped environment for Spurs and the pitch will be much worse than they are used to. The estimated 8,400 passionate home fans will make the atmosphere as intimidating as possible. On the pitch, County are likely to try to maintain the Spurs threat early on before going for the kill after the break.
The reality is that Spurs should KO the giant-killers, but it’s a win-win for both teams, especially Newport. Penman notes the match will be a big money-spinner for the club — close to £144,000 in additional TV revenues and County have already made about £250,000 from their best FA Cup run since 1979.
Grafft, who had taken the 10,000-mile round trip from California to Newport last season to see the Exiles’ “Great Escape” and make history by remaining in the Football League, adds:
County supporters are a self-aware bunch — just listen to all the self-deprecating songs about sheep! Everyone knows how big a club Spurs are and how great they can play on their day…I’m personally hoping for the rugby players to tear up the pitch the week before so maybe a few fortunate bounces can lead to something special for County.
As for what fans worldwide think of the game. Newport-raised, now LA pub “guv” Jeremy Thomas, who “unluckily” supports ManU, cheekily says, “Come on The Port!” Englishman but US-based Spurs fan Steffan Chirazi offers: “I expect Newport to use every available trick they can.”
Brit Steve Hale, who served in the Royal Navy like my Uncle Duncan Collie, suggests: “Whoever we decide to send there needs to be ready for a bit of a culture shock. They will not stand on ceremony, that’s for sure.” While John Ellis who travels to report on most Spurs matches, adds, “It won’t be a day for the purists. But, we should play Alli and Kane who have played at the lower levels.”
Finally, England-based Spurs fan Roger Maltz, adds, “I can’t believe that my wish has come true. I hope it’s a fantastic match, Spurs get through, and Newport do their town and country proud!”
Come on you, Spurs. And, Up the County!