Reflections of a big FA Cup day: Bracknell Town vs Ipswich Town

Bracknell Towns FA Cup squad for the game against Ipswich Town. Photo: Neil Graham.
Bracknell Towns FA Cup squad for the game against Ipswich Town. Photo: Neil Graham.

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As soon as the draw was made, I was desperate to be there. The town in which I live versus the one-time, English league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup champions. Could Bracknell Town have got a better draw? Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday would be comparable draws, for sure, but Ipswich Town at home was about as good as it could get for the Southern League Premier Division South side.

The excitement and intrigue surrounding the tie was palpable in the FiB WhatsApp group. Would Bracknell play at a larger ground to maximise takings? Would it be televised? Would I be able to get a ticket? No, yes, maybe.

Rumours about moving it to a larger ground – the Madejski Stadium being mooted – were quashed quickly by Robins chairman,  Kayne Steinborn-Busse. A larger stadium may have generated more earnings and ensured everyone who wanted a ticket could go but welcoming the Tractor Boys to Bottom Meadow was far more in keeping with the romance of the competition. The right decision.

Quite rightly, too, ITV saw to it that the game would be broadcast to the nation.

So, to the tickets! Understandably expecting a clamour for tickets, the club introduced a loyalty-influenced tier system. Season ticket holders would get first dibs, followed by those attending the two closest home games and, should any remain, then online sale. The midweek home game came too soon for me but, fearing I’d miss out, I looked into the weekend fixture – purely to buy entry into the game then get an Ipswich ticket and out of there (of course, I’d have been keen to watch the game but I had family plans that day).

As is the life of a parent of a young child, this option also disappeared so everything was kept crossed that the ballot would move to online sales. Happily, and somewhat surprisingly, it did and come the 6pm opening of sales, I was ready to pounce. Two tickets were bought (surely someone would want to accompany me, right?) and I was going to the biggest game in Bracknell Town’s 126-year history.

Despite the naysayers and some disrespectful moves by clubs in the recent past (Manchester United’s disgraceful non-participation in 2000 a particular low point), there is an enduring appeal to the FA Cup. The idea of following a route from the extra-preliminary rounds to the final is something I would love to do one season and appears to be gaining traction through the My Road to Wembley movement. This pursuit doesn’t marry up with my current situation but, each pre-season, I make a note of the draw and round dates on the off-chance a bid may be possible (or at the very least swinging a few rounds at conveniently located grounds).

The FA Cup dates are almost as important to me as Leeds United’s fixtures and on a par with those jotted down for local clubs and St Albans City, my hometown club. Since being able to go of my own volition, I have made attempts to see St Albans each time they have made the First Round of the cup – making the 8-1 and 5-3 defeats to Mansfield Town and Carlisle United, respectively, but falling to illness despite getting a ticket for their tie against Forest Green Rovers. What do you think happened the one time I couldn’t go? That’s right – third time lucky and a giant killing. A Monday night TV choice prevented me from seeing them live in unchartered waters away at Hertfordshire rivals, Boreham Wood, but I suppose I got to see both on TV, I suppose.

With the sour taste of not making one of St Albans’s greatest moments last season in the cup in my mouth, I’m relieved not to miss out on seeing my adopted club at the same stage this season (the Saints having been knocked out in the qualifying rounds).

Tickets secured, I find a like-minded individual to join me and thoughts turn to how to get there. For, despite representing the town I live in, Bracknell Town play down the road in Sandhurst. This move of venue, made to support the growing ambitions of the club, took place last year. 

I’d been to see Bracknell in their former home several times during the earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and enjoyed the experience. The club were, and are, on an upward trajectory and those visits persuaded me to keep an eye on developments since. Despite wanting to, and a promotion-securing season in the meantime, I had yet been to Bottom Meadow to try out the new surroundings.

Bottom Meadow, the home of Sandhurst Town and Bracknell Town. Photo: John Leakey.
Bottom Meadow, the home of Sandhurst Town and Bracknell Town. Photo: John Leakey.

For a game of this calibre, it’s felt Sandhurst may struggle to cope with the numbers needing parking near to the ground so the club announces that coaches will be put on from a pub in the centre of Bracknell. For ease of mind, my mate and I plump for this option adding a tenner onto the £25 spent to secure the ticket.

Come the day of the game, and somewhat unbelievably, tickets remain on sale. With a capacity of just under 2,000, you would expect the ‘sold out’ signs to have been put up almost as soon as tickets were put on sale but, ultimately, with the nation suffering financially, the inflated ticket prices perhaps prevented this outcome.

So it is that we arrive at the Admiral Cunningham pub for a first – getting on a coach for a home game from the town being represented in the game. A gaggle of us – maybe 10 in total – make our way onto the coach with the driver refusing to look at our online tickets. To add to the unique service, the driver tells a joke before setting off (‘anyone like venison? My mate’s got eight legs but I told him that’s two dear/deer’) and then nearly drives through the first red light of the journey. By hook or crook, we are transported near to the stadium with no instructions on where to find him/the coach after the game but that’s a problem for later – the floodlights are calling.

The two of us make our way to the ground, getting to an entrance only to be told we should go to a different entrance and, in the process, negotiating a virtual swamp with the puddles we can’t help but step in, in the dark, soaking through to our feet. Trench foot wasn’t part of the plan and, once in the ground, it turns out we can access the part of the ground the first entrance lets you into so we are moderately miffed.

Moderately, though, of course, because we are in and an evening of cup football awaits. But, first, a wander and then food. Bottom Meadow is a modest ground in a sizeable plot of land, with just the two small stands taking up a portion of each side of the ground. Not one for buying merch, in general, I get it in my head that I fancy a half-and-half scarf from the occasion but, in the absence of this and not swayed by the commemorative programme and Bracknell T-shirts and hats, I don’t reach for my wallet.

Dinner is the next priority and, following the signs, we find a marquee behind one of the goals. There are chicken pies, bratwurst and chocolate bars. Usually one for vegetarian food, the pangs of my stomach lead me to go for the bratwurst and it doesn’t disappoint. In a hot dog bun and the sausage on its own, it is flavourful and meaty, justifying the £6 spent. Two pints of Amstel at £5.90 each go down well too.

We’re almost enjoying this part too much and with kick-off moments away, we tear ourselves away from the marquee and seek a vantage point to watch the game from. Flat concourses behind advertising hoardings make it difficult to find somewhere suitable to get a good view (being not blessed in the height department doesn’t help either). We risk trying to pile into the small, and fairly full-looking, main stand and manage to squeeze onto the staircase, where we stay for the rest of the evening. We initially tried leaning against the hoardings in front of the stand but I’m manhandled and told to clear off by the steward who I remonstrate with before he suggests I try the stand. Managing the crowd traffic in this area, this steward is fighting a losing battle and later berates his supervisor for not providing him with support.

A packed Bottom Meadow. Photo: Neil Graham.
A packed Bottom Meadow. Photo: Neil Graham.

The ground is packed for kick-off. In keeping with the non-league traditions of the home team, there is no segregation with home and away fans happily mingling with each other. A Bracknell supporter whose head is painted in half-and-half red and black colours is a particularly noticeable and garrulous character. Former Tractor Boy and Irish international, Matt Holland, is spotted with selfie-seeking Ipswich fans. ITV triumvirate, Mark Pougatch, Darren Bent (receiving a lot of love from the away support) and Ian Wright attract lots of attention on the side of the pitch.

Longer grass than I’m used to seeing at football covers the pitch which has been generously soaked by the seasonal British weather.

Bracknell kick from left to right, shooting at the end where familiar red-and-black flags proudly cover hoardings. Down the other end, flags bearing the faces of Sirs Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey leave you in no doubt about the size and past glories of the opposition club, once managed by two former giants of English football. The fixture is simply another footnote in their current era, the humbling reality of early FA Cup rounds and participation in the EFL Trophy, becoming ever so slightly more familiar. Having said that, they are flying high in League One and well-placed to consign such evenings to history.

Once the ball is first kicked, the 22 players, despite the four-league gap, are competing at the same level – at least for this night only. Excitable utterances permeate the air and the home crowd are up for this one.

Ipswich start nervously, epitomised by Richard Keogh (harangued by one home supporter rather amusingly throughout the game) sloppily losing possession under no pressure on more than one occasion. For the first 20 minutes, the ball is mainly in the Ipswich half though openings don’t figure.

Michael Eacott. Photo: Neil Graham.
Michael Eacott. Photo: Neil Graham.

Slowly, the visitors find their composure and make greater headway up the pitch but the first-half is an encouraging one for the Robins. When called upon, goalkeeper Michael Eacott is up to the task, thwarting a less-than-ruthless Ipswich attack.

Shortly before half-time, Bracknell earn a free-kick high up the pitch. Could this be the moment? Noise levels build but nothing is doing. Ipswich have good reason to appeal for a penalty seconds before the referee blows for half-time but, to the great relief of the home support (and knowing looks between spectators), the challenge is missed by the officials.

0-0 at half-time and so far so good. Ipswich rarely show their greater quality and Bracknell are playing above their level. Not wanting to give up our vantage point, we stay rooted to our spot on the stairs in the stand and the second-half is upon us in no time.

Eacott continues to play out of his skin with the big man in goal looking impenetrable – to the point that 10 minutes in the second-half, my mate and I discuss trying to book time off work should the Robins earn a replay at Portman Road. Buxton at home await the victors and our minds wander to a potential 3rd Round tie where the biggest clubs in the land could face Bracknell.

Dan Bayliss. Photo: Neil Graham.
Dan Bayliss. Photo: Neil Graham.

In the 66th minute, this hopeful daydreaming is brought to a shuddering halt when Bracknell defender, and Waitrose driver in his day job, Dan Bayliss unfortunately turns the ball into his own net after a cut-back in the box from the Ipswich attacker. Having been on duty for FiB the previous day for Manchester City Women’s win at Reading FC Women, that is now the third own goal I’ve seen in two days. Must be something in the air…

Before the hosts can mount a comeback, Ipswich make it 2-0 through the lively Freddie Ladapo seven minutes later and Panutche Camara adds an undeserved gloss to the scoreline with 10 minutes to go.

Fearing the whereabouts of our coach, my mate and I leave a few minutes early, walking past the huge vans parked by the ground for the TV coverage. Eventually, we find a coach bearing the name of the company which drove us out to the game though notably more impressive. There’s a different driver too but he confirms he’ll be taking us back to the pub. We must be some of the lucky ones. Fewer people than headed out are on the return coach as we reflect on the occasion.

It was the night the footballing circus came to Sandhurst – which welcomes you with the sign letting you know that the town is the world tug-of-war champions (whatever that means). Bracknell may never play Ipswich again but, judging by the upward mobility and ambition of the club, you’d feel confident similar occasions will return for the Robins. For now, it’s a milestone achievement and crucially I can say ‘I was there’.

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