Trophy fairytale awaits for glorious Gosport
AS fairytales go, they don’t get much better than what Gosport Borough are experiencing right now. And they may yet go on to achieve even more.
Sitting 20th in the Skrill South, they are huge underdogs against Cambridge United, who are second in the Conference Premier, in the FA Trophy final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
Having played in the Trophy many times in my career, I have always seen this competition as the easiest way of reaching Wembley. It is far easier than reaching it through the play-offs, as I have tried many times as well.
Nonetheless, Gosport haven’t had the easiest of rides reaching the final and have had to overcome some very difficult ties along the way. I really have to take my hat off to them.
Since their famous win in the semi-finals, winning 3-1 on aggregate against Hampshire rivals Havant & Waterlooville, they have had to endure a very intense schedule, with nine games in a short period of time. Matches postponed due to bad weather have resulted in a major fixture pile-up.
It takes hard work and dedication for any team to reach a cup final. Gosport have come a very long way in recent times when, only seven years ago, they were playing in the Wessex League at Step Five.
Their manager, Alex Pike, won the FA Vase with Wimborne Town in 1992, when a few players in his current team weren’t even born.
This season, on the way to Wembley, his team have knocked out Dorchester Town, Concord Rangers, Nuneaton Town, Hungerford Town, North Ferriby United and Havant.
From my experience in the Trophy, as I have stated in previous articles, it is the perfect incentive knowing that there is the chance of attaining your childhood dream of playing at Wembley. The way in which Gosport have made this emphatic journey really does encapsulate what Non-League football is all about.
OK, the game on Sunday has been described as “David v Goliath”. However, I believe anything can happen on the day and the part-time players of Gosport certainly won’t be giving anything less than 100 per cent.
In the past, I have been on the receiving end of a shock cup defeat from an underdog team, when we were expected to cruise through the game. But this wasn’t always the case.
This week, I caught up with Gosport’s Dan Wooden, Justin Bennett and Sam Pearce. Obviously, with my identity protected, I stuck to emailing a few of the players while they were relaxing in London at their hotel in preparation for the final on Sunday.
It was no surprise that these players were buzzing about the next few days ahead. They were about to embark on the best experience of their lives and careers.
Nevertheless, these modest and humble lads tried not to let the occasion get the better of them when answering my questions.
I asked them the inevitable, which was if they had been dreaming about scoring the winning goal at Wembley?
“Yes, definitely,” said striker Bennett. “All my family and friends are talking about it. But just to get there is a dream come true. To score there, and for it to be the winner, would be unthinkable!”
Wooden, also a striker, answered: “I would be lying if I say I haven’t thought about scoring the winner 100 times over. It plays on your mind, no matter who you are.”
Defender Pearce also expressed his desire of scoring and getting a clean sheet at Wembley. “To be totally honest with you, it has been a little bit of both,” he said. “A cheeky little 1-0 win and scoring the winner, so I’m dreaming big this week.”
I was interested in finding out what their plans were and how they were preparing themselves ahead of the final.
Dan said: “We’re travelling up as a squad and have a few things planned over the four days to keep us in high spirits in the build-up to the game. The club have been good and sorted out tickets to a rugby match the day before.”
It appears that Gosport have planned to take care of their players by offering them the best lead-up to the game in terms of taking their minds off it and, ultimately, hoping to play like it is a regular game as opposed to the occasion.
With the team playing six league games in nine days, it is evident that they haven’t been able to train within this time, so relaxing as much as they can is probably the best form of preparation for Sunday.
Having played in some big games over my career, I have often felt nerves leading up to the game. And when I was younger, they occasionally got the better of me.
With the expectation of playing at a big stadium in front of the most fans that they would have ever played in front of, I was keen to know if any of the players were feeling that way.
Former Havant defender Pearce said: “At this very moment, no, but I’m sure that, come Sunday, that will change. But as soon as the whistle goes to start the game, all that will go and I will just get on with playing football and enjoying the occasion.”
Bennett, 31, wasn’t shy to express his feelings. “Yes, there are some nerves,” he said. “We will be playing in front of thousands of people and I think my most so far is just under 2,000. I just want to go out there and enjoy it, hopefully with a win.”
Let’s not forget about Cambridge here. It has been a remarkable journey for the “Amber Army”, who have met some tough teams along the way.
And with head coach Richard Money criticising the competition earlier in the season, I’m sure he will forget about that when he steps on to the Wembley turf at 3pm.
In my previous Trophy article, I made my thoughts clear when I heard that Money came out after his team’s match against St Albans City and slammed the Trophy for distracting the focus from the league and that the games shouldn’t be played on Saturdays but, instead, should feature in midweek.
Money also said that draws should be played to a conclusion and not replayed as extra fixtures would result in more distraction as well as tire his players.
Almost three months on, we have seen Cambridge lose their position on top of the Skrill Premier – and possible promotion to the Football League – and yet now face a Trophy final, which I’m sure wasn’t at the head of Money’s New Year’s resolutions. Still, I’m sure that he will try to enjoy the occasion.
Continuing with my questions to the Gosport players, I asked if they had been to Wembley before … as a fan.
Bennett: “Yeah, a few times. I went to watch Team GB in the Olympics and have been to a couple of England games. I was at the Denmark game a few weeks ago so we were checking the stadium out knowing that I’d be there this Sunday.
“Closest I came to the pitch was a Killers gig I went to last year. It was covered, though, so it doesn’t count!”
Wooden: “I think this is the second time I have been to the new Wembley. The first time was when Portsmouth beat West Brom in the semi-final of the FA Cup. What a great day that was!”
And what are their thoughts on the game against Cambridge?
Bennett: “The game is a huge occasion for all of us involved at Gosport. Apparently, most of the town are coming to watch. I just hope we can do them proud.
“I don’t know too much about Cambridge. They are doing well in the league but it’s a one-off game and anything can happen.”
Pearce: “Cambridge are obviously a good side. They are second in the Conference and you aren’t in that position at this time of the season if you’re not a good side.
“As for the game, we are trying to treat it as any other game. We have been underdogs in every round of the Trophy this year and that isn’t going to change now.
“We will stick to our game plan and, hopefully, on the day it comes off and we can win the game. We are confident and believe that we are good enough to win the Trophy.”
Wooden: “I think the game is going to be extremely tough. Cambridge are a good side and are deserved favourites. We don’t do things the easy way at Gosport, and have already beaten teams we weren’t supposed to have to get us this far, so I’m quietly confident.
“If I’m honest, I have faith in us to pull off a massive upset and go home with the trophy.”
Sunday will not only be a great experience for the players but also a great day out for fans who have been loyal and supportive throughout the season. It will be a nice way for them to celebrate and cheer on their teams in a big stadium.
I will be attending the game on Sunday. What better way than getting involved as a neutral and watching two teams compete to win silverware.
Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced playing in a final at Wembley, but it makes me even more hungrier and motivated to compete next season. Just to get there.
I’m sure this will be more of a competitive game than it looks on paper.
And I would encourage anyone who fancies watching it to go along and support Non-League football, to watch players cherish every moment playing at a stadium that dominated their childhood dreams.
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