All supporters of Premier League football clubs should, in my humble opinion, go to see the odd game between teams several divisions lower. It's not only better for the wallet, it's also good for the soul.
A week ago yesterday I went to Edgar Street to see my local team, Hereford United of League Two, play Leeds United of League One in the first round of the FA Cup. It was wonderful. I had forgotten the spirit that envelops a small, ramshackle football stadium on cold, autumnal nights, not to mention the smell that envelops Edgar Street in particular; the smell of apples being pressed at the nearby Bulmer's cider factory.
My son Joe and I were invited by my friend Simon, whose company sponsored the match. Simon is a lifelong Hereford fan, and it would be wrong to compare his anticipation of the match with that of a child on Christmas Eve only in the sense that no child on Christmas Eve was ever as excited. He phoned umpteen times in the week before the match to remind me that it was the first time Hereford had ever played Leeds, and indeed the first time Leeds had played in the first round of the FA Cup for 86 years. I stoked Simon's excitement by telling him that the last time I saw Leeds play live, the opposition was Barcelona, in the group stages of the Champions League. It wasn't that long ago, either. Never mind the subsequent plummet in Leeds' fortunes, could Hereford beat the team that mighty Barcelona failed to beat seven years ago almost to the night at Elland Road?
In the first half I sat next to another friend of Simon's, a lovely fellow called Farmer. Only in Herefordshire are you likely to encounter a man whose first name, as well as his occupation, is Farmer. Incidentally, in 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain, Dr George Gallup, the man who gave his name to the Gallup poll, travelled around England asking people if they had heard of Winston Churchill. Surprisingly, only 96 per cent had. And the four per cent who had not were all Herefordshire farmers, with more important things to worry about, like getting the sheep fleeced and the cows to market. It's still that kind of county in many ways, which shows why the game against Leeds, still considered city slickers hereabouts, so gripped the imagination.
Moreover, it was an FA Cup tie, and it could be argued that Hereford have a more glorious Cup history than any other club, insofar as Hereford have no glorious history apart from the FA Cup. Simon is just about the only lifelong Bulls fan I know over the age of 40 who admits he wasn't there on the unforgettable afternoon of 5 February 1972 when Hereford, then a Southern League club, beat First Division Newcastle United in an FA Cup third-round replay.
My new friend Farmer was, however. He was 11 years old, and was accompanied to the match by his nine-year-old sister on the strict parental condition that he was not to let her out of his sight. But as soon as Ronnie Radford equalised Malcolm Macdonald's 82nd-minute opener, Farmer joined the pitch invasion and promptly lost his sister. "I didn't see her again until Ricky George scored the winner in extra time," he told me. "Then there was another pitch invasion and that's where I found her, on the pitch."
It is unlikely that any feat of FA Cup giant-killing will ever come close to matching that one, either at Edgar Street or anywhere else, especially in this skewed football world in which Premier League Manchester City beating Premier League Manchester United counts as giant-killing. All the same, if Leeds had been beaten it would have been another famous Edgar Street victory, and they nearly were: in an entertaining 0-0 draw Hereford were much the better side, which bodes well for Tuesday's replay ("the first time we've ever played at Elland Road," Simon tells me).
The match was my first sight of Hereford this season, and the first time I had seen 19-year-old Lionel Ainsworth, who signed in the summer after being released by Derby County. I fancy young Ainsworth might yet make an impact in the higher echelons, and my talent-spotting record isn't bad. In 1983, I went to Vancouver to visit my Canadian friend Bruce, who took me to watch Vancouver Whitecaps against San Jose Earthquakes in the North American Soccer League. A Whitecaps player let go by Manchester United the season before impressed me so much that I wrote to the Everton manager, Howard Kendall, recommending him. At the time I was a 21-year-old university student; even if my letter did reach Kendall it probably reached his bin seconds later. But eight years later the player did join Everton, from Liverpool, for a bargainous £1m.
Lionel Ainsworth probably won't have the career that Peter Beardsley did, but if he does, you read it here first. In the meantime, c'mon you Bulls...
Who I Like This Week...
Andy Fordham, the 2004 British Darts Organisation world champion whose various health scares provided the motivation for a remarkable weight-loss campaign. Nobody ever embodied the old Not The Nine o'Clock News Fatbelly Gutbucket sketch more than Fordham, who topped the scales – if he hadn't already broken them – at 30st. He has since shed about eight chins, and looks positively handsome. I salute him now for inspiring what will be surely be the most improbable best-seller of 2008, if he gets round to writing it: The Oche Diet Book.
And Who I Don't
Michael Owen, who's a nice young man and probably shouldn't be castigated for sticking up for poor old Steve McClaren, as he did on Wednesday, effectively calling on the FA to retain the England coach even should the 2008 campaign all go avocado pear-shaped in Israel today, with Russia putting qualification out of England's reach. But I can't help thinking that Owen should have kept his mouth shut. If England, with all their supposed world-class players, fail to qualify from a conspicuously easy group then of course McClaren must go.