By Matt Badcock
Leeds United’s scouts hadn’t heard of Histon. In fact, they didn’t even know where it was until a google search revealed a small village just outside Cambridge.
Fans of the fallen Premier League giant may have wondered if they ever found it and managed to get a report back to then-manager Gary McAllister.
Much was made of the Yorkshire club’s slip down the ladder that led them to being in League One playing a Blue Square Premier team in the second round of the FA Cup.
McAllister, who lifted the trophy with Liverpool, even joked in the build-up he hadn’t realised the competition started in November.
When they turned up at the Glassworld Stadium that rainy November day in 2008, the former Scotland international probably didn’t expect what was to come.
The presence of ITV’s live cameras seemed to force the issue and the saturated pitch was passed playable. Ninety minutes later, the Stutes had claimed one of the FA Cup’s most famous shocks with Matt Langston’s header giving Steve Fallon’s men a 1-0 win. Leeds had never lost to a Non-League club.
While the papers feasted on postman puns – Langston’s day job – McAllister flew to Monaco for crisis talks with chairman Ken Bates and within a few weeks had lost his job.
In a recent FourFourTwo interview he reaffirmed his belief the game should never have been played.
Josh Simpson still has his shirt from that day but admits he wished he hadn’t had to wash it, such were the mud stains.
“It was a recipe for a Non-League club to go and cause an upset,” Simpson, now at Cambridge City, says. “The conditions were terrible, the changing rooms weren’t the best for a team like Leeds.
“We were riding high in the Conference and they weren’t doing too well at the time. Had the game been today, I don’t think it would have been on but back then, the cameras were there, it was. We battled, ruffled a few feathers and they didn’t like it.
“Langers, the postman, I’ll never forget the papers the next day talking about that – it was great for the club.”
Ten years on the memory still shines bright for all those involved. It came at a time when Histon were on a remarkable rise.
Manager Fallon took the village club from the Eastern Counties League to the brink of the Football League. In the same season they beat Swindon Town before the Leeds scalp and then losing out to Swansea City in the third round, Fallon’s part-timers reached the play-offs.
“We managed to get a very good bunch of players that were all capable of playing higher,” Fallon, who was ably assisted by John Beck, says.
“Every time you go up you need players capable of playing in the league above and we managed to do that. They gelled as a team, were good people – but they were also good players.
“The core of them were local. Neil Andrews, Josh Simpson, Mat Mitchel-King among others, who had been with us a while. You’ve got to get players sometimes that it means something to. Being local it will always mean a lot more to those players.
“You take a gamble on players, you see something that you like and we got lucky, I suppose, that what we did all knitted together and made us a good side.
“We’d beaten Swindon in the first round and they were in a similar position at the time as Leeds so we always felt we might have a little bit of a chance. Sometimes you have to take the name away and look at the team and in those days they were struggling a little bit.”
Histon launched many a career in that era. Simpson went onto play in the Championship with Peterborough and League One with Crawley Town, Mitchel King played for Crewe, Nat Knight-Percival is now at Bradford City and the lethal strike pairing of Jack Midson and Danny Wright both played League football in the following years, as did Gareth Gwillim.
Keeper Danny Naisbitt is now an agent to players in the Premier League and Championship, and says Histon had the perfect blend.
“We had a talented bunch of lads,” he says. “But combined with Fall and John Beck and the way they managed – Fall’s man management and JB’s discipline and organisation – we were just so well-drilled. The style of play wasn’t pretty; long ball and long throws. But we were so effective at it.
“Everybody knew when they played against Histon what sort of game they were going to be involved in. If they didn’t stand up and be counted we’d roll them over because we were a unit. At the right periods, the quality we had, the goals we had up front with Jack Midson and Danny Wright, it all gelled really nicely.”
Histon were used to detractors with opposition managers bemoaning their approach, often following defeats.
“We felt a little bit hard done by at times,” Fallon says.
“We’d get comments from managers we went to and you’d think, ‘What’s that got to do with it? It’s a game of football and we’re there to win a game of football, how we play is how we play’.
“John Beck is a fantastic coach and his organisation is second to none. He got us up for it as John could in those areas that made us very difficult to beat and gave us this hunger to win. It was great.
“You’d just laugh at some of the comments you’d read.
“I remember one was saying we just kept doing long throws. I thought, ‘Well, don’t kick it out then!’ It’s as simple as that really.
You put a free-kick into the box, you put a corner into the box so if you can throw it into the box, you throw it in.
“But we had good players and it showed as they went on to have good careers and some are still in it.”
Simpson says it shows the strength of Fallon and Beck’s recruitment.
“We were youthful, we were enthusiastic and we were hungry – that showed on the pitch,” he says.
“A lot of teams would train twice a week but we trained Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the evening.
“We all had our full-time jobs and then we’d come and train in the evenings. It was tough and hard work and because we were together a lot, we had a real tight-knit group.
“Because we were turning over bigger clubs in the Conference there was confidence.”
Histon’s fall was as quick as their rise. They now find themselves back at Step 5 with former goalkeeper Lance Key now the man charged with leading a revival.
This season is going well; they top the Thurlow Nunn Premier Division and breezed past Leverstock Green to reach the Fourth Round on Sunday.
A trip to Wembley is a way off but this corner of Cambridgeshire would no doubt love the spotlight to return.
“It was a big day for the area and the village,” Naisbitt says. “We had some fantastic supporters and people behind the scenes.
“Volunteers trying to get the pitch ready, sweeping the changing rooms out, putting barriers up, manning the ticket office, doing the catering and teas and coffees – everything you take for granted. There were a lot of volunteers behind the scenes doing great work so the wind was as much for them as it was for us.
“I remember Gary McAllister and his assistant Steve Staunton came in our dressing room after and said, ‘Well played, lads’. I thought that was very classy.”
Now, at long last, Histon were on the map.
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