It’s the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend, and it’s roasting hot. Spurning the more traditional activities of DIY and BBQs, I’m heading out into the Fens, to the northernmost tip of Cambridgeshire. It’s the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, and Ely City have been drawn away to Wisbech Town, the Fenmen. This is a rare treat for me – it’s the first time in six years that Ely have got this far. In fact, they’re normally out of the Cup before I’m back from my summer holiday. But all is well today – I’ve got the cricket on the radio and the windows down as I tootle along quiet roads. It’s not exactly On the Road but I’m quite sure that, had Kerouac reached the grand old age of 48, he’d be doing the same.
Actually, the cricket isn’t going so well – England’s attempt to save the Ashes is floundering, and two wickets fall in the time it takes me to cross the Washes at Welney. Never mind – it is a truly glorious day and even some of these grimly named outposts (Three Holes, Lakes End) are shining in the sun. It is a scrappy landscape, with houses and farms, barns and light industry, cheek by jowl so that it is hard to say where one village ends and the next one begins. They all blend into each other, and into the countryside in between. It’s shabby and grubby and rambling – I fall into a reverie, allowing myself to imagine living the good life in one of these quiet oases of tumble-down sheds, streams and willow trees. But I soon come to my senses as I arrive into the unexpectedly charming Upwell, with its magnificent looking church sitting on the banks of the Old River Nene. I make a mental note to stop in some day, and motor on. Kick off is approaching.
The Fenland Stadium isn’t much to shout about in appearance, but it is in pristine condition and the playing surface is immaculate. Friendly too! It has fantastic tin sheds at either end of the ground that will echo the sound around – it won’t need many people to get the place jumping. The place is well equipped – there are even a pair of hefty butterfly net type devices, presumably to scoop the ball out of the watery ditch that runs around the back of the ground. And it is against this backdrop that the two teams emerge from the cool of the changing rooms into the blazing sun. Both sides look terrific – Wisbech in a very smart all red kit with white trim, Ely in an unfamilar but nifty blue number, clearly modelled on France’s World Cup winning kit. Regardless of how the game turns out, it’s going to look fantastic.
The game ends up being a good ‘un. Wisbech are higher up the pyramid than Ely and, despite their disappointing start to the season (they have yet to score), their quality soon shows – their touch is truer, the passes more accurate, and they are creating chances. Impressive looking keeper too, safe hands and exuding a calm confidence. But, to be honest, the first half is poor fare – nobody has any time on the ball (despite all the players shouting “time!”, every time a team-mate has the ball, when that is generally exactly what they haven’t got – whatever happened to “man on!”?) and neither side are finding any rhythm. The game is briefly held up when one of the Ely defenders swallows a fly, which perhaps doesn’t get the sympathy it warrants. The game gets going again and the Wisbech winger, who is one of the more promising players on display, rather than shouting “time!”, yells, “c’mon boys, bouncy triangles!”. This is a new one on me, but it works – the Fenmen bounce their way into the penalty area, confusion reigns and a shocking defensive mix-up presents Wisbech with the first goal.
The Ely boss is issuing instruction from the touchline, deciding his players need to “trust each other!”, when passing to each other might be more appropriate. And after some more, “time, time, time!” I hear some old grumbler say, “bloody waste of time”. Strangely, despite going in at half time with the lead, it is the Wisbech players who seem unhappy with each other with some rather odd on-field bickering.
The second half is much better – the game opens up, spaces appear and, ironically, the players do now have time to play the ball, rather than just lumping it up the park. Both teams look more like scoring and it is an old favourite of mine, Steve Holder, who brings the ball down and places it past the Wisbech keeper from the edge of the box – it’s a smashing goal, and Ely are level. There is some fairly pathetic tit-for-tat diving, from both sides, which culminates in a soft penalty for the Fenmen, although it is well taken and with ten minutes left it is beginning to feel like Ely will be missing out. It’s a cracking game now and Ely are going for it – and with just a few minutes left they score. There is a melee, and the ball bounces off at least two players before squeezing into the goal. Oh, the joy!
It’s a great result for Ely – to travel to a club like Wisbech and avoid a tonking is no mean feat. Better than that, there is the replay to look forward to and the prospect of Cup football in September! As I leave the ground, an Ely fan slaps me on the back and assuming me to be a local says, “never mind mate, you can look forward to a trip to Ely”. Well, he’s not far wrong – it’s just that my trip will be sooner that he thinks. I head back over the Fens in high spirits, cranking up the radio for Sports Report. Astonishingly, Ipswich are top of the league whilst, equally amazing, England have not lost any more wickets and are beginning to dream of the impossible. Well, aren’t we all.