An hour before yesterday's second-round tie, as Brentford's players trod warily across the pock-marked surface of Hinckley United's pitch, no one moved more gingerly than John Salako. Some 65 minutes into a fiercely contested game, the former England winger stepped up to the penalty spot. To those who had witnessed his body language earlier, it was no great surprise when Salako rolled the ball feebly wide.
Afterwards, when a reporter asked Brentford's coach driver whether Salako was on board, the reply came: "No - he'll probably miss it." Dean Thomas, manager of the Conference North's 12th-placed club, provided a more respectful and measured perspective.
Thomas argued that Salako's aberration offered in microcosm a match that Hinckley's classic collection of window cleaners, college lecturers, plumbers, plasterers and insurance salesmen might well have won. "Him missing the penalty shows how Brentford thought about the game," he said. "They didn't really want to be here."
Salako, 35, was the most experienced player involved, his cv also including an FA Cup final with Crystal Palace. So he should not have been fazed by the challenge of beating Tommy Whittle, a trainee electrician, after Stewart Storer, the veteran sweeper for the side known as "The Knitters", was harshly adjudged to have handled his cross.
"I'm not going to blame the conditions," Salako said. "You should hit the target and at least make the keeper work. I can't remember missing one before - perhaps 20 years ago. But you have to say Hinckley were fantastic. They made the most of the conditions and the occasion."
The cramped confines of Middlefield Lane ought not to have been unduly discomfiting for a middling League One side. As a "relieved" Brentford manager, Martin Allen, volunteered later, several of his players were in non-League football last season, and until they were 18-years-old all would have performed regularly on what he termed "park pitches".
Nor did Allen's claim that his team appeared to be unnerved by playing front of the Match of the Day cameras stand up to scrutiny. Hinckley had enjoyed a just a few seconds in the television spotlight after their first-round defeat of Torquay United, whereas Brentford's replay against Bristol City was shown live on Sky.
Yet since when did the FA Cup have anything to do with logic? Despite the best efforts of the Football Association, the television companies and the biggest clubs, the great old competition retains the capacity to conjure the unexpected. Exeter City, who gleaned the ultimate reward of a trip to Manchester United for being the only non-League team to beat their supposed superiors over the weekend, will confirm as much.
As can the BBC, whose makeshift gantry at Hinckley had to be reconstructed after collapsing hours before Mark Lawrenson and Lee Dixon made their almost regal entrance. The armchair audience were treated to end-to-end fare, and even without a goal to savour, few in a full house in the penultimate fixture at the ground will have regretted braving the cold.
The Leicestershire club will open a new stadium a mile away on Boxing Day. Playing with names on their shirts for the first time ever, they were clearly determined to mark the last FA Cup match at the venue with a display befitting national exposure. Driven on by Wayne Dyer, who captains the volcanic Caribbean island of Montserrat, they created the better chances both before and after the game's main talking point.
As the visitors' morale visibly sagged after the penalty, their keeper Stuart Nelson blocked Paul Barnes's shot at point-blank range with his knees. Brentford's best chance came when Sam Sodje sent a free header over during the first half.
A third-round tie at Luton Town, whose manager, Mike Newell, was present to assess Brentford for tomorrow's League One match, was not what either club craved. For Hinckley, however, simply being in the draw with the Premiership giants was a thrill. And on this evidence, Salako and company will have to play much better to get The Knitters in a twist.
Hinckley United (3-5-2): Whittle; Willis, Storer, Stone; Cartwright, Burns (McMahon, 90), Lavery, Dyer (Jackson, 80), Lenton; Lewis (Marrison, 80), Barnes. Substitutes not used: Di Gregorio (gk), Pitham.
Brentford (4-4-2): Nelson; O'Connor, Sodje, Turner, Frampton; Lawrence (Rhodes, 75), Talbot, Hargreaves, Salako (Harrold, 88); Rankin (Tabb, 66), May. Substitutes not used: Julian (gk), Myers.
Referee: P Crossley (Bromley).
Bookings: Hinckley: Storer. Brentford: May.
Man of the match: Stone.
Attendance: 2,600.Reuse content