FA Cup Flashback: University Challenge (2002/03)

The oldest cup competition in the world begins in earnest this weekend, as eighty teams from Leagues One and Two and beyond meet in the FA Cup First Round Proper. For many, dreams of lucrative cup runs and David v Goliath upsets will have turned to ash by 5pm on Saturday, but for now, seasoned journeymen and part-time Pele’s alike will be hoping to fire their team one step closer to that impossible dream. To celebrate this season’s competition, we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (there’ll be no tired old mentions of Ronnie Radford or Wrexham here), nor even the most entertaining games (Ryan Giggs’ chest hair will have to get its annual airing elsewhere), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. Today, we’re beginning at the beginning, in Round One. 

For some teams, the wait to appear in the FA Cup can seem like an eternity. Ask Winslow Town, the Spartan South Midlands Football League Divsion One side who, though founded in 1891, had to wait until August of this year to make their cup debut in the Extra Preliminary Round – they were knocked out in a replay against Easington Sports. For others, however, a surprising cup run can arrive before you know it. Take Team Bath, for example. Founded in 1999, and embarking on their first league season in 2000/01, they were eligible to qualify for the FA Cup by 2002, and grabbed the opportunity with gusto.

Their remarkable journey to the first round began on the last weekend of August, as they travelled down to Barnstaple Town and marked their FA Cup debut with a 4-0 win in the Preliminary Round. From then, momentum began to gather. Backwell United were disposed of in the First Qualifying Round, and Bemerton Heath Harlequins were hit for six in the Second. Whilst already an impressive feat, it was their performance in the following round that made the pundits sit up and take notice.

Drawn away to Newport County who, after rising from the ashes of a financial catastrophe in the late 80s were now on course to return to the Football League, Team Bath ran their opponents ragged, despite plying their trade two levels below in the football pyramid. A 3-0 win at Rodney Parade was the standout result of the Third Qualifying Round. In the final qualifier, a goalless draw at Horsham FC’s Queen Street ground gave Team Bath a second opportunity to reach the First Round Proper at the first time of trying and, after a nail-biting Somerset evening, The Crescents won through in a penalty shootout.

The appearance in the first round of a team founded just three years earlier, playing in the ninth tier of English football and embarking on their very first FA Cup campaign is phenomenal in itself, but Team Bath’s historic run to the First Round Proper was also the first time a University team had qualified for the competition since Oxford University in 1880. The name Team Bath referred to the sports department of the University of Bath, and the football club was set up to allow its players to study full-time, as well as try and compete for league football in the long-term. Managed by the University Sports Director Ged Roddy, most of the team was made up of students studying at the University, though part-time professionals were also drafted into the squad, which perhaps goes some way to explaining their rapid success.

Team Bath were picked out of the hat to host Division Two (now League One) Mansfield Town in the First Round and, despite the offer from the Stags to move the match to Field Mill, received police and council permission to erect a temporary stand at the University’s Twerton Park. Almost 5,500 supporters crammed into the ground to watch their local scholars take on a team including former Manchester United ‘keeper Kevin Pikington, and future Sunderland winger Liam Lawrence. Any chance of a major shock was squashed in a dominant first half for the Stags, as Lawrence showed his Premier League class with a brace, before Politics and Economics graduate Peter Tisdale put through his own net to give the visitors a three goal lead at the break.

Iyseden Christie added a fourth shortly after half-time, before a late rally from the undergraduates finally gave the assembled thousands something to cheer. Carl Heiniger whipped in a curling effort in the 71st minute, before Caleb Kamara-Taylor nodded in with seven mintues to go to give the scoreline a touch of respectability. There was still time for Pilkington to deny Kamara-Taylor a second, but eventually the enduring class of the team seven divisions above their hosts shone through.

Mansfield Town would be knocked out in the following round, as Farnborough Town became the big story of the 2002/03 FA Cup, making their way to a Fourth Round meeting with Arsenal, before succumbing 5-1. The Gunners would go on to lift the trophy at the Millenium Stadium against Southampton, thanks to a Robert Pires goal.

Team Bath’s incredible journey didn’t end against Mansfield, as they swiftly made their way up the football pyramid, reaching the Conference South in 2008, less than ten years after forming. Their cup exploits also continued, reaching the First Round in 2007 and 2008, but losing out to Chasetown and Forest Green Rovers respectively. Despite finishing mid-table in their first season in the sixth tier, the Conference and Football League ruled that the club were no longer eligible for promotion or to compete in the FA Cup and, as a result, Team Bath resigned from the league.

The Crescents’ brief existence was much like the average university experience. Beginning with boundless optimism and limitless possibilities, early success soon gave way to crushing reality, until, at the end, the powers that be stood in the way of their dreams. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

 

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