When the first goal went in just eight minutes into the game you could almost smell the Woodbines, it was so like the old days. A corner, a header, and a bunch of gas fitters, van drivers and binmen from Hampshire towns Havant and Waterlooville were – astonishingly – 1-0 up at Anfield. They were beating Liverpool. The team from the Blue Square South League were the lowliest to get to this stage in the competition in 17 years, and if they won away it would be the most remarkable result in the competition's history.
No wonder the 6,000 fans who had come up from the south coast couldn't stop laughing. "Whatever happens now, this game is legendary," said photography lecturer Mark Young. Liverpool equalised.
Havant scored again. Stick that up your baby Bentley, the part-timers seemed to be saying to opponents who earned twice as much in a week as they do in a year.
"Who are ya?" roared the Havantville fans to the mute Kop and across the country, followers of clubs outside the Premiership chanted for a team who had no hope but who were giving a poke in the eye to the big-money men that many feel are stealing their game.
Liverpool's American co-owner Tom Hicks had announced a new £300m stadium the day before, as if to accentuate his teams distance from the non-leaguers who get 600 people a game if they're lucky, and whose ground is surrounded by the largest council estate in Europe, Leigh Park. But Havantville were due to get a life-changing £300,000 from the game. And they were winning. For a while.
They made it to half-time with the score at 2-2 and the fans rose as if they had won the Cup. Some had been in tears before the game, just at being there to sing in unison with the Kop, "You'll Never Walk Alone". "This has given the community a real lift," said Liz Norland, faculty director at the South Downs College which provides the team's academy players. "There is some real deprivation in the area."
But at least every window has been decorated with a scarf or flag for the last week. Supporters climbed aboard their coaches at six in the morning in near silence, as if they could hardly believe what was happening.
"This is amazing," said a young boy in a white blue and yellow jester's hat. Liverpool was 266 miles away but it might as well have been Mars until yesterday.
The FA Cup has a remarkable history in generating sentimental tosh, but this really did feel like it wasn't about just football: it was about sport winning over money, honesty over hype and – the fans had to face it – hope over reality.
The seven-hour journey to Anfield was made by more than 10 times the number of Havant fans who usually watch the team in the Blue Square South. "We had to come," said Paul Hepple, a 46-year-old window fitter who travelled with his son Joe. "This is history."
The FA Cup has felt devalued for years, as the huge clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea treated it almost with contempt, fielding weakened teams and yet winning it anyway, time after time. Until this year.
The tide has turned. Shock results and a favourable draw guarantee that at least half the 16 teams going through when all this round's ties have been played will be from outside the Premiership. The Hawks are already giant-killers, having dispatched League One leaders Swansea 4-2.
Beating Liverpool would have made them the lowest-ranked side ever to win away in the history of the Cup. It would even eclipse the great victories of the past – like Hereford's 1972 win over Newcastle– because these days the players are a different species to their opponents. Special diets, constantly monitored fitness levels and sports psychologists guarantee that, even before you get to the wages of £50,000 a week or more.
Havant's Tony Taggart would take a long time to earn that, collecting rubbish bins. Even the manager, Shaun Gale, who once played for Portsmouth, had his day in the game before the money went mad.
The game finished 5-2 but the supporters and players celebrated anyway. Liverpool are trying to fight off a takeover bid from Dubai-based financiers.
Marcus Hackney, the 35-year-old chairman of Havant and Waterlooville, said: "They can have us for £2m."
It would cost a lot less than that, in truth. But as an example of the English love for the underdog, and the soul of the national game, yesterday was priceless.Reuse content