‘The biggest match in history.’
Those five words have been heard so often around Coles Park, home of Haringey Borough, over the last year or so that chairman Aki Achillea should perhaps inscribe them over the tunnel for the players to read as they walk out onto the pitch. Today, as his club prepared to take on Poole Town in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, they were being bandied about once more- and perhaps that was just as well, as with the odd exception Borough have responded very positively to the big occasion previously.
The side from White Hart Lane, lest we forget, are still relative newcomers to the Bostik League. Such progress has been made over the past few seasons that it almost seems as if they’ve been here forever, but it was only in 2014/15 that they first won promotion from the Essex Senior League by winning a rather astounding thirty-eight out of forty one fixtures. A season of North Division consolidation followed, before a playoff semi-final defeat in 2016/17. But it was last season that Tom Loizou really took his side to new heights.
Who is the Bell End?
The first ‘biggest match in history’ came at this stage of the cup. Heybridge Swifts arrived at Coles Park in a match which could have been televised by the BBC, the club turning down the Beeb so as not to disrupt the community car boot sale happening in their car park. Swifts departed with a 4-2 victory before heading off to Exeter City in the First Round Proper. This was soon followed by the visit of National League Leyton Orient in the FA Trophy- a day on which the home side outplayed their illustrious opponents before losing 2-1 to two late goals. Two big games and two defeats undoubtedly impacted on form, which was patchy for a while- but it then became magnificent, as victory in each of the last eight matches of the season gave them a chance of automatic promotion before landing them in the playoffs once more.
The next ‘biggest match in history’ came in the playoff semi-finals once again, and along came…Heybridge Swifts. This time there were no slip-ups, and Jody Brown’s side departed with nothing but memories to show for a magnificent season, having lost 2-0. So it was on to ‘biggest match’ number four for the season, a playoff final fixture against a Canvey Island side who, despite having finished two places and nine points behind Borough, were now thought to be favourites after- as one Borough fan put it at the time- ‘signing two Conference South lucky dips just to play in the end of season lottery.’ In a magnificent match played in sweltering conditions Borough once more made history, securing a 3-1 victory with goals from Mark Kirby, Ralston Gabriel and a controversial third from Michael Ademiluyi. The celebrations went on long into the night.
So now here we were again, for ‘the biggest match in history.’ It was once more the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, and once again victory would take Borough to a place they’d never previously been- the First Round Proper of the competition. Striker Chinedu McKenzie had scored in every round so far- could he make it five out of five?
Visitors Poole Town, newly relegated to Southern League Premier South (well, not all that newly, it is October after all), were looking to reach the First Round Proper not for the first time, but for the first time in 35 years. Sitting in ninth place, the Dolphins defeated Bostik South East side Horsham in the last round, and those of you who are avid readers of this feature (yes, both of you) will remember our account of the first match, a game played in atrocious conditions at Culver Road. Poole started that match extremely well, tearing the Hornets apart with some speedy approach play and closing them down so quickly that they struggled to get out of their own half. Then, after around 40 minutes, they went to sleep, allowing Horsham to equalise before skating on thin ice- or perhaps more realistically a wet carpet- before leaving with a replay, which they managed to win 2-1 the following Tuesday night.
Haringey Borough turnstile
Their form had been patchy all season. Occasionally very good- a six-nil defeat of Farnborough a standout moment- and occasionally awful (4-0 against a Wimborne Town side who have won only twice more), their supporters at Horsham were rather trepidatious about their chances, whilst never faltering in their raucous support for their side despite standing in the pouring rain for ninety minutes. Indeed, one of the most anticipated showdowns this afternoon would come off the pitch, as Haringey Borough’s famously enthusiastic fans- let’s call them the Cowbell Collective- took on their tin-foil FA Cup waving counterparts from the seaside.
There was a collective air of anticipation amongst supporters from both sides. The home faithful had even found themselves the subject of a two page article in The Sun, taking up the non-league space normally occupied by Billericay Town whilst pointing out, as does the sign above the bar at Coles Park, that they are the only club on White Hart Lane. Perhaps this publicity would boost the turnout? Whatever happened, Aki was- as always- full of bonhomie before kick off.
Preparing to announce a new stadium sponsor- stand up CVS Van Hire, the ground henceforth known as the CVS Van Hire Stadium- he stood in the autumn sunshine wearing a grin that suggested everything was coming up yellow. Two months in, had he changed his mind on his hopes for the season?
“Not at all. Consolidation is the name of the game this season, and I think we’re good enough to at least achieve that. We haven’t made too many changes from last season as we felt the team was good enough, and it’s gone well apart from a few results. If we’d got an equaliser against Harlow Town- we scored it, but it wasn’t given- we might have more points and be higher up, but it’s been ok. We’re progressing as we’d hoped.”
Had the last few matches demonstrated that the players were perhaps too focused on their forthcoming FA Cup fixture? A cup hangover, perhaps?
Aki the irrepressible
“No, I don’t think so. We’re not going to win every game. Tom is still looking to work out what his best side is, to get the right balance. He’ll find it soon enough and then we’ll push on. Perhaps today!“
Have you missed Ralston Gabriel (who left in the summer for St Albans City)?
“How can you not? He scored so many goals here. But we’ve replaced him very well, we now have two strikers who have proved good replacements. And we’re delighted with his success, he deserves it.”
Would today be the day that the club got to the First Round for the first time?
“I’m hopeful, but not overconfident. On this pitch we can beat anyone, and if we play to our potential we’ve got a good chance.”
The players arrived on the pitch to a crescendo of noise. “Red Army,” yelled the visitors. “Sing if you’re Haringey, sing if you’re happy that way,” replied the home fans, inventively. A coin toss, a change of ends, and we were off. “We love you Borough, we do,” echoed around the stand, backed by the cowbell, whilst the Dolphins went behind the goal and produced an air horn. It was like the 1970’s, only without the violence nor the terrible beer. Who else remembers Watney’s Red Barrel?
Aki with the generous folk from CVS Van Hire
Poole supporters had two ‘replica’ FA Cups, and these inanimate objects caused the first moment of controversy. Valery Pajetat was being blinded by the reflection they were giving off, and they had to be removed. The Dolphins fans readily complied with the referees request, and we were off again. The first ten minutes were devoid of any other incident, if not devoid of effort. Both teams worked hard, but created little.
The home side fashioned the first chance in the 11th minute. Joseph Staunton got the ball in the centre circle, powered forward and laid it to Joel Nouble. He manoeuvred into the box and made space for himself, but his shot was blocked and then cleared. The ball was soon at the other end, and Steve Devlin was on the receiving end of a foul five yards outside the box, but some stalwart defending saw the free kick blocked, and the follow up charged down.
Poole Town made a change. Richard Gillespie came on for Luke Roberts, who seemed to be limping. So, to some extent, was the game- twenty minutes gone and neither keeper had made a save- but Gillespie was soon to be the centre of attention.
Borough poured forward a moment later, a ball to the back post being met by the head of Mark Kirby, but his effort sailed over the bar leaving the centre back annoyed with himself. “We are Haringey, we are Haringey,” sang the fans, buoyed by the effort their team was making, if not impressed by the end product. Their side responded by applying some pressure, and fired in a couple of excellent crosses than nobody got on the end of.
A pod of dolphins- and a troublesome cup
Poole Town then came close. A cross from Sam Griffin was almost met by Steve Devlin, a defensive header just robbing him at the back post at the crucial moment. And then, shortly after the resulting corner was cleared, the moment came. Lionel Stone and Gillespie competed for a ball, the attacker went down, and the whistle went. Penalty to Poole! Devlin stepped up, and sent Pajatet the wrong way. 0-1! It was the first effort on target, and it was in the net.
Borough responded immediately. In the 34th minute a free kick to the back post, and a header from Kirby set up an effort from Staunton. Surely it was in? But no- it was cleared off the line with the keeper beaten. Borough had the next chance, too, but this time the header- from Scott Mitchell- was easily held by Luke Cairney in the Dolphins goal. “Shall we sing a song for you,” chorused the Poole fans. You just knew they were going to, even if we said no.
The best chance of an equaliser so far came right on the stroke of half time. Nouble held off a defender and sent the ball to Chinedu McKenzie, who laid it back to the onrushing Staunton. The goal gaped, but sadly the resulting shot went nowhere near it. The whistle blew, and the crowd headed off to queue for a burger.
Right from the restart, Borough had their chance. A cross found Nouble, entirely unmarked, with time to pick his spot. Perhaps too much time. He swung, and the ball went ten yards wide. A moment later Michael Ademiluyi did much better, forcing a fine save, and from the resulting corner Kirby headed just over. We’d had more goal chances in two minutes than in the previous 45- whatever Loizou had said to his players had clearly worked.
0-1: Poole Town celebrate
In the fifty fourth minute more excellent work from Ademiluyi- playing like a man possessed- set up McKenzie for a shot which was desperately deflected. The corner was followed by another, and an effort was cleared off the line. “It’s coming,” said a voice from the back row of the stand. But it wasn’t- at least not yet.
Poole made another change. Jez Bedford, who had made no noticeable impact up front, was replaced by Charlie Davis. But Borough continued to press, Ademiluyi still everywhere- as if he’d been instructed to win the game on his own. In the 65th minute the diminutive midfielder was only foiled by a combination of keeper and defender, both charging out to block his shot. It was all one way, but Poole still held the advantage.
Borough then made a change. Off came Staunton, on came Karl Akinwande. The substitute had 22 minutes to make an impact. Jorge Djassi Sambu joined him as Loizou shuffled his pack.
The impact almost came at the other end. A clearance found Gillespie, and he found himself with only the keeper to beat. He beat him, too- only to see the ball rebound off the post. Pajetat was able to gather the rebound, and the Poole man was still holding his head in disgust two minutes later. It should have been game over.
And then, just when you thought it wouldn’t be their day, Borough were level. Finally they got a little luck, a deflection finding Djassi-Sambu at the far post. He prodded the ball goalward, then wheeled away in delight. The pressure had finally told- and they had thirteen minutes to find a winner. The noise at the back of the stand became a crescendo- although someone seemed to have lost the clapper from the cowbell.
With ten minutes to go Haringey played their last card. Rakim Richards headed on, McKenzie off, his hopes of scoring in the fifth successive round over- unless there was a replay? A moment later Nouble did his best to put an end to such talk, and it was all that Borough deserved. A shot, deflected, the ball, looping towards the far post, and Nouble there to force it home. 2-1, and pandemonium!
Poole responded. Pajetat had to tip a shot wide, and the fans behind the goal held their heads in their hands. Suddenly the Dolphins were in a hurry. Into the last three minutes and they earned two corners, but when the second was held by Pajetat the relief was palpable. Still they came, and Borough defended deep. “Bus stop in Tottenham, we’re just a bus stop in Tottenham,” sang the home fans, as the W3 went past. Even the away fans laughed.
And then the whistle, and delight! And the team- and supporters- celebrated as if Wembley beckoned.
The biggest game in history? Perhaps that’s still to come, and we’ll find out on Monday night who is next in the Borough cup adventure.
But whatever happens, Tom, Aki and their side are history boys already.