FA Cup feature: Royston Town's hopes end among Bovril and bonhomie at Garden Walk
PUBLISHED: 01:35 20 September 2017 | UPDATED: 01:54 20 September 2017
The reassuring smell of Bovril was in the air at Royston Town FC on Tuesday evening.
But there was something else around Garden Walk too. Something indefinable.
A feeling best described as hope mixed with optimism, as loyal Crows fans felt the growing sense of excitement when the grand-old FA Cup came to North Herts.
Braintree Town were the visitors to the welcoming home of manager Steve Castle’s men.
Welcoming off the pitch at least as fans mingled freely with each other – as they always do at this level.
There is something special about this small club with the big heart.
From the loyalty and passion shown by club officials and stalwarts, starting at the top with the president Alan Barlow, the chairman Steve Jackson, and secretary Terry McKinnell all the way to the old boy on the gate, who kindly managed to locate a programme for this correspondent when none appeared to be found.
Perhaps it was the team line-ups daubed in red marker pen on a large whiteboard hanging on the wooden shack which also passes for the turnstiles – complete with evocative ‘old school’ wrought iron-turnstiles.
Or maybe it was the elegant tree-line surrounding a stand, along with eight floodlights dotted around the ground – my word how illuminated pylons burning bright against black evenings add to the magic and majesty of a night FA Cup match at stage of the competition.
Or was it just the bonhomie, sense of belonging and camaraderie generated by all those present?
On the pitch of course there was no welcome for the visitors.
Castle, a tough but fair man, had hoped his team would show their undoubted quality, which if allied with the hard work he expects from his team at all times, could have shocked their Essex counterparts from higher up in the pyramid.
The scene was set, the crowd buoyed, the lights shining brightly and warm beef stock filled the nostrils.
But alas, it wasn’t to be.
Braintree had returned to the non-league game’s second tier after half a dozen memorable years at the highest level outside the football league.
Two years ago they even made it to the play-offs for promotion to League Two. However the part-timers’ brave bid failed, the team broke-up and they eventually finished three points adrift of safety, ending last term 22 out of 24 teams.
Phil Roberts, who started his career with Norwich City, then spending time at the mighty Arsenal, before having a four-year sojourn in Scotland with Caledonian Thistle, Falkirk and Dundee struck to make it 1-0 on 21 minutes.
The well-travelled forward tapped in after Billy Crook – a graduate of the Glenn Hoddle Football Academy in La Manga – took a short corner before receiving the ball back, driving into the box to play it low across goal for the 23-year-old Roberts to net.
It was soon 2-0 after a header from former Dulwich Hamlet centre-half Marc Okoye was cleared off the line. The ball was immediately recycled back in the box.
Jon Muleba – who joined Chelsea at U-14 level, making his U-18 debut as a 15-year-old for the Blues – towered above a static defence to head home on 35 minutes.
Castle gave his men a lift at half-time and firing hopes on and off the pitch of a stirring comeback as Adam Murray scored on 63 minutes to make it 2-1 against Brad Quinton’s men.
But just as home supporters were beginning to see the momentum shift to their local heroes, Sam Corcaran was deservedly sent-off for a late challenge on goalscorer Roberts.
The act was as reckless as its impact on the team and the fans was deflating. Boss Castle said as much after the game.
And despite late pressure, including a low angled drive from the former Hitchin Town dangerman John Frendo – who would surely have traded one of the hundred-plus goals he scored for the Canaries for a late equaliser – the expected charge from the home side stalled with ten men.
As referee Jason Richardson blew the final whistle, after six minutes of injury time, both sets of fans shook hands at the end and wished each other well.
The players did too, despite friction at times during the game.
Boss Castle even took the time to talk to the gentlemen of the press with grace, dignity and honesty. Something a certain former Premier League manager could dearly learn from – but that’s a different story for another day.
For tonight, as the floodlights glared onto the pristine green surface – which surely has to be one of the best, if not the best pitches at this level – Royston’s men can say they gave it a go.
Braintree now face Brackley Town in the FA Cup third qualifying round.
For brave Royston Town, despite a performance that didn’t quite reflect their true ability there is always next year.
As Castle told this correspondent afterwards, ‘we’re never going to win the cup, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a go in the qualifying rounds and enjoy ourselves.”
Why not indeed. Because everyone associated with the club can be proud of their efforts this autumn.