Every non-league club dreams of reaching the First Round proper of the FA Cup and having a crack at professional opposition. For teams at the level of Ryton & Crawcrook Albion, mid-table in Northern League Division 2, it’s often a pipe dream. Yet on Wednesday, Albion are off to Rochdale in pursuit of further cup glory.
The competition is the FA Youth Cup, something of a Cinderella tournament that rarely attracts the attention it should. But for Ryton it’s been one of the big events of the season so far. Three teams from higher levels – Workington, Marine and Darlington 1883 – have been beaten; a fourth, Kendal, withdrew before the tie was played. While the first team’s best crowd of the season is 111 for the local derby with Whickham, the u18s have attracted 101 for the Marine game and the best crowd in the country – 162 – for the 4-2 win over Darlo to set up the Rochdale clash.
On that day Darlington were red hot favourites, just as Rochdale will be this week, but even after giving up a two-goal head start Ryton stuck to their counter-attacking game and reaped rich rewards as goals from Kyle Wharton (2), Dean Hales and Ben Cains completed a 4-2 win and set up the David-and-Goliath trip to Spotland.
The League One ground might not be one of the most heralded in the Football League, but it’s a far cry from the homely surroundings of Kingsley Park, with its engaging mixture of stands and a notoriously undulating playing surface. Wednesday night brings the prospect of a level playing field, even against an opponent seven leagues higher than Ryton at first team level.
Exciting times for Ryton – and their Ladies are also one game away from the First Round Proper of the FA Women’s Cup when they face Crewe at home on November 13. But this cup run also inspires memories of another great Northern League FA Youth Cup adventure of 2003-04.
That was the year that Chester-le-Street’s youngsters got as far as the fourth round, earning a trip to West Ham United – the so-called ‘Academy of Football’ – to face one of the most productive youth systems in English football. It was barely five years since the Hammers had won the trophy with a team that featured Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand; the East End club featured several players who had featured in Championship games that season and had a young Mark Noble pulling the strings in midfield. It looked like a horrible mis-match for Chester’s kids, more used to the basics of football facilities rather than the top-flight luxuries of Upton Park.
But, under the guidance of Andy Muxworthy, they ran West Ham closer than anyone dared expect. Tony Carr, one of the great gurus of youth team football, admitted that his team faced a “tough examination” against the pace of Andrew Bulford, Chris Laws and Ian Glazinski. Goalless at half time, the 800-odd home fans were getting frustrated with their team’s inability to break Chester down. It wasn’t until early in the second half that a generous deflection presented Kyel Reid with the chance to open the scoring from a well-placed lob over Liam Connell. The game finished 2-0 to West Ham. Reid went on to a career with Charlton and Bradford City, among others; Connell, like his team-mate Bulford, had an even more memorable cup day out in London as part of Dunston’s FA Vase-winners of 2012. Connell is now at South Shields , Bulford plays for Ashington.
Whatever the result at Spotland on Wednesday, a trip to play at a Football League ground promises to be an unforgettable experience for Ryton’s youngsters … and might even uncover the next generation of Northern League Vase-winners.
Boleyn Ground, Upton Park, London, England
FA Youth Cup Round Four, Jan. 25, 2004
West Ham United 2 (Reid, Blewitt) Chester-le-Street 0
Att: c. 850