The one-time kings of amateur soccer are back on the cup glory trail – and scenting an upset at Stockport County.
It’s a tale of changing fortunes for both clubs as they meet in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round at Edgeley Park hoping for a crack at Football League opposition in the First Round proper next month.
For the Two Blues, more than a decade of struggling with ground gradings is over at last and there’s a bright future at Heritage Park, but County are looking to recover from an alarming slump that saw them drop from Championship-level clashes with the likes of Manchester City to National League North battles against the less illustrious Salford City.
Bishop’s run to this stage of the competition has been impressive. The Northern League team, one of the lowest ranked outfits still in the FA Cup, have accounted for higher-ranked opponents in the previous three rounds. Ossett Albion got a 5-1 thumping before a solitary Andrew Johnson goal despatched Trafford. Then it was off to Farsley Celtic where a 1-0 win set up Saturday’s big game.
And the glory charge has captured the imagination of the club’s fans, recapturing some of the old Kingsway spirit at the new, out-of-town Heritage Park ground. Six coaches are booked up to take about 300 away fans to Stockport and a bright start to the Northern League campaign has pushed the average home crowd over the 300 mark as well. Aside from the cup run, Johnson’s impressive scoring form – he’s reckoned to be the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, and has certainly outstripped Andrew ‘Snapper’ Shaw’s modern day record – has fuelled belief that, at last, the team could climb out of the Northern League and move back up the pyramid.
It’s not quite the glory days of the 1950s. Back then the FA Amateur Cup was almost a permanent fixture in Bishop’s trophy cabinet and five-figure crowds would flock to the atmospheric town centre Kingsway ground for big games. The team’s fame was so great that Subbuteo made them the only non-team club to get a kit in their ‘flick-to-kick’ precursor of today’s PlayStation classics. A trip to Stockport in the Second Round proper of the FA Cup in 1960 wasn’t even the team’s best run in the competition: they reached the fourth round in 1954-5, losing to eventual semi-finalists York City. Now, of necessity, success is measured in more modest terms but this season is a huge lift for a team that spent the early years of the 21st century struggling to stay afloat during a nomadic spell sharing at Shildon and Spennymoor while planning disputes delayed the new ground at Tindale Crescent.
Club chairman Nick Postma has been talking up that ‘buzz’ on the club website – and spelling out what it means for the future. “The prize money from the Cup run means we have been able to increase our playing budget by around 23% of our original budget but more importantly we will be able to maintain this throughout the season which is important as we really do want to win the Northern League Championship,” he said in his preview of Saturday’s game.
Victory over the Hatters would add another £12,500 to the coffers – no small sum when the gate receipts from 300 adult fans paying £6 at a Northern League game would bring in £1,800. Moreover, there’s the prospect of a big tie in the next round, possibly a TV appearance, to inject further funds.
And hopes are high of an upset, despite the four leagues that separate the teams. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in County Durham that Stockport boss Jim Gannon hasn’t sent anyone from the club to watch Bishop Auckland. Speaking after last weekend’s win against Salford – Stockport’s sixth success in nine games – Gannon admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to watch his next opponent and suggested that it was Bishops’ choice to remain at Northern League level and focus on success in the FA Cup and Vase competitions. Those comments raised eyebrows among Two Blues’ fans, who point out that the club has consistently applied for promotion from the Northern League. Gannon also highlighted Bishop’s FA Cup form this season – and their unbeaten away record – as reasons not to take the tie lightly, challenging his players to “get the job done” at the first attempt on Saturday.
Oct. 15, 2016, FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round
Edgely Park, Stockport County vs Bishop Auckland