Remember the “Laughing Policeman”? Charles Penrose of the “ho, ho, ho” song that was a staple of BBC Radio’s Junior Choice in the 1960s? Well he came from Biggleswade and counts as one of this small town’s most notable residents. Now Penrose has a rival to his crown – Brett Donnelly, an angular centre forward with a penchant for collecting referee’s cards.
Donnelly scored the goal that sent Biggleswade Town – strangely one of two senior teams in this A1 satellite of 16,000 people, surely ripe for merging? – into the FA Cup first round. Penrose must be chortling in his grave.
But the FA Cup is a giant lottery – you never know what balls are going to come out of the metaphorical velvet bag in the first round draw. It could be a big club against a little club, a medium-sized club and a minnow, or it could be two non-league teams from the same division. The latter is what every club who has slalomed its way past four rounds wants, but that’s exactly what Biggleswade of the Calor Gas Southern League Premier Division got – a first round tie away to Stourbridge.
The luck of then draw. Their first ever sortie into the FA Cup proper and they get a trip to the Midlands against a team they will face again on November 26 in the league. It’s likely to be a tough tie for the Waders, for they have yet to win away in the league this season and they are still struggling to get to grips with life in the Southern Premier, their highest-ever position in the Non-League pyramid.
Biggleswade’s FA Cup run got off to an inauspicious start, a 0-0 draw at Wingate & Finchley and a 4-3 replay win in which they twice came from behind. They then pulled off an impressive 2-0 win against Chelmsford in the second qualifying round, before beating Leatherhead 5-1. In the fourth qualifying round, a goal from substitute Donnelly, 10 minutes from time, gave them a 1-0 win against Canvey Island. The game attracted a 678 people to the Waders’ neat stadium that sits uncomfortably alongside the Northbound carriageway of the A1.
The FA Cup has provided some good momentum for a club that won promotion in May via the play-offs. It wasn’t too long ago that Biggleswade were Spartan South Midlands League make weights, but their new ground was the catalyst for an upward trajectory that could yet see them push more celebrated local rivals Bedford, Hitchin and Arlesey into the shadows. They just need to convince the locals that something interesting is going on – their average crowd is 186 in the league, only three clubs fare worse at the turnstile in the Premier, which is a shame given the facilities at the Carlsberg Stadium.
There’s no lack of experience in their squad, starting with goalkeeper Ian Brown, who has had various spells with Bedford Town over the years. Lee Allinson, son of former Arsenal winger and current Boreham Wood manager, Ian, has played for assorted clubs, ranging from his Dad’s outfit and Stotfold. Others, like Mark Coulson, Steve Gentle, Craig Daniel and matchwinner Donnelly, have also been around for years.
They are led by Chris Nunn and his coach Craig Rydeheard. Nunn has been with the club since 2006 and took them to the FA Vase quarter-final and Spartan South Midland title in 2009, earning the club promotion to the Southern League. Two years into their Step 4 career, the Waders just missed out on promotion but in 2013, they made the step-up.
Doubtless, Biggleswade fans were a little upset at landing a tie at Stourbridge, but they have made good money out of their cup run and there’s nothing better for building a reputation than the FA Cup. One thing is certain, the Waders are letting people know that there’s more to this town than muesli – courtesy of cereal producer Jordans – and that hysterical pre-war policeman. Stourbridge v Biggleswade Town is on November 9 – we will watch with interest.