It’s FA Cup day and the town of Hertford is buzzing. Everyone is talking about the big Extra Preliminary Round tie at Hertingfordbury Park between Hertford Town and Kirkley & Pakefield. Let’s rewind. It’s FA Cup day and the town of Hertford is totally ambivalent about the FA Cup tie between Hertford Town and Kirkley & Pakefield. Better.
The tie had certainly not caught the imagination of the county town of Hertfordshire. I alighted at Hertford North, politely asked someone if was walking in the right direction of Hertford Town FC. “I didn’t know there was a football club in Hertford,” said the elderly lady who was more concerned that the Bridge House pub was no longer open. Oh well, I thought, perhaps that’s why they only attract 100 people to their ground.
A couple of Spanish tourists (!) asked me the way to the football ground. “We are from Barcelona,” said the guy in a Barca t-shirt. “We want to see a FA Cup football match.” But first, they were sight-seeing, so they declined my offer to “follow me”.
Further down the road towards town, at last there was some acknowledgment of the game. “Just go through the underpass, up the other side and turn left, you’ll come to West Street, the ground is sign-posted. Big FA Cup game today,” said the helpful man in a rugby shirt. Promising.
Hertford is more oval than round ball, and Hertford Town are now a Spartan South Midlands League club after years in the Isthmian League. By SSML standards, they are well supported, but it’s a level of football you have to be committed to.
In the Black Horse pub in West Street, posters advertised the game, but there’s more interest in the SKY TV schedule and Southampton v Everton is being played out on a Saturday lunchtime. The pub is an excellent pre-match spot, however, and if I had been a member of CAMRA, I would been 30p richer due to a discount on ale.
If you enter the FA Cup at these early rounds, there can be nothing worse than being drawn against a team from your own league. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. But Hertford were playing host to a team from the Eastern Counties League Premier Division. It’s doubtful that anyone really knew who Kirkley & Pakefield were, but they’re from Lowestoft and they finished fourth in 2014-15.
It’s not often you can take a “Public Footpath” to a football match, but it’s an option when you visit Hertford, walking down the hill through a grassy track and into a field, ending up by an electricity generating unit. At the same time, you can catch a glimpse of bales of hay in an adjoining field. It’s all quite bucolic, even when the football ground comes into view.
It has seen better days, has Hertingfordbury Park, but there’s something very comforting and nostalgic about it all. You will not find a ground surrounded by more trees, for it’s a dendrophiliac’s dream, with a notable willow tree right outside the ground. “The ground is council-owned and we’ve got no money…as you can see, it needs a lot of work,” said one club official. “But I think we’re known as a friendly club.” The assessment wasn’t wrong, for Hertford Town does appear to be a welcoming place. And today, FA Cup day, Hertford’s players are raring to go. “The lads love the FA Cup,” said manager Paul Halsey. “Last season, we had a bit of a run and it really lifted us. We’re not going to win the competition, but it’s good when you get a day out or two, raise a bit of money and have a few good games to remember.”
It was Kirkley & Pakefield that had the “day out” with their three hour trip to Hertford. Both teams went into the game on a high – unbeaten in their two league games so far and netting 12 goals between them.
The tannoy announcer underlined the importance of the game and urged the fans to sing their hearts out. I looked across at the handful of supporters and said, “You’ve got some hope, haven’t you?”. Later, I was to be proved wrong.
Kirkley went ahead on 31 minutes when Hertford gave the ball away in midfield and the impressive Tarren Grint played the ball out to Joe Clark who lifted his effort over Ricketts.
The game drifted further away from Hertford in the 38th minute when Ricketts brought down Kyle Baker in the area and Miguel Lopez scored from the penalty spot. The visitors looked much the better team by the break, although I offered encouragement to a Hertford fan by stressing that an early goal in the second period could change everything. For once, I was proved right. Hertford started better in the second half with a more positive formation, and a deflected shot from 20 yards by Leigh Rose was palmed over the crossbar by Tibbles. It was a good sign.
With the introduction of two substitutes, the game started to swing Hertford’s way. Sam Ruff went close with a low shot after some neat work by Leigh Rose and then in the 61st minute, a determined run by Adam Lawton ended with him shooting into the net from six yards. It now had the making of an old fashioned cup-tie and in keeping with a bygone age, two bi-planes flew overhead. It could well have been 1935!
The drama continued and in the 79th minute, Hertford grabbed an equaliser, Kardan Campbell driving a low shot through a crowded area following a free kick. The Hertford fans at The Stable End, were now in fine voice, singing “Come on you Blues” and that old favourite, “Hertford Town, Hertford Town, Hertford Town”, to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”.
It was the proverbial game of two halves and the cliché wasn’t lost on both managers at the end. “That’s the worst we’ve played this season,” said Paul Halsey. “We were poor in the first half, but we made some changes after the interval and they paid off. We responded well.”
Hasley’s counterpart, Gaven Tipple, appeared a little shell-shocked after a second half that saw his team throw away a two-goal lead. “Basically, Hertford did to us what we have done to them in the first half. We were overpowered after the break.”
After their great comeback, young Hertford fans were keen to secure the autographs of their players. As Kardan Campbell scribbled away, I congratulated him on a good second half. “I’m knackered,” he told me. “I only had two hours sleep last night.”
I’d only had three, but I didn’t have to run around the football pitch on the road to Wembley. The replay should be promising!