By PHILIP BARKER
Last weekend’s FA Cup ties were played to a finish with no replays after the Football Association decision took the decision ‘in the wider interest of English football to alleviate the possibility of fixture congestion and continued uncertainty ahead due to COVID-19’. Matters were very different 50 years ago.
An FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie between Oxford City of the Isthmian League and Alvechurch of the Midland Combination went to no fewer than five replays. It is still listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest FA Cup tie on record.
Every kick was witnessed by Jim Rosenthal, then a very young sports reporter on the Oxford Mail, a glittering career in radio and television still ahead of him. That might also be a record.
“It was a heck of a saga,” he said. “With the current fixture schedule it’s completely laughable to think you could do that now in any competition. It would be just unworkable.”
Penalty shoot-outs had already been introduced for some matches in European club competition, though in England, they had only been seen in the televised pre-season Watney Cup. Many of the players involved were amateurs, all were part-timers.
Jim’s preview of the original tie highlighted the return of one such player after long term injury, Oxford City defender Alan Goucher, an army corporal. It was, according to Jim, ‘the biggest gamble of John Fisher’s managerial career’.
There were no concessions for Goucher from his army paymasters. He was on guard duty the night before the tie, so snatched only two hours sleep but still played his part in a 2-2 draw at Alvechurch’s Lye Meadow.
The return at Oxford’s White House ground attracted only 1,200 to see a 1-1 draw, ‘a sad reflection on Oxford’s sporting public’, suggested Jim.
The third match was at St Andrews, home of Birmingham City. This produced another episode of the ‘gripping serial’. It again finished 1-1 and was ‘the best of the three meetings.’ Yet extra-time again failed to separate the two sides.
It was back to Oxford but to United’s Manor Ground for the fourth match. This time newsroom protocol decreed that the paper’s senior football writer Bill Beckett wrote the report.
After another 0-0 draw Beckett suggested tongue in cheek that ‘the FA Cup final might have to be postponed’ and that ‘there should be an annual reunion of all those who had attended every match.’ These included Jim who was back on reporting duty for match number five. “City saga heads into infinity.” was the headline for yet another 0-0 draw.
He described it as: ‘this timeless qualifying round. Nine matches in 18 days is an awesomely demanding programme and many players were showing the effects during Saturday’s goalless draw. I suggest a single strike will win this marathon unless one side collapses completely which is a fairly remote possibility.’
After 18 minutes of the sixth match the winner finally came. Only 1,952 were there to see the sixth match on a freezing night at Villa Park. It came after 18 minutes when Graham Allner’s cross found the head of Bobby Hope to give Alvechurch the lead.
“The goal was daubed with that mixture of fortune and calamity which has swayed so many cup epics,” wrote Rosenthal.
It was hard on Oxford City keeper Peter Harris, who had played superbly throughout the series.
“Shocked that he had been given a chance of saving the attempt, Harris got his right hand to it, but the ball wriggled loose, hit him on the heel, and crawled like a scolded child just over the line,” read the report.
It was perhaps little surprise that when Alvechurch finally did meet Aldershot in the first round they were comfortably beaten 4-2 by Aldershot.
Jim covered his fair share of replays in his later career with BBC Radio and ITV Sport but nothing quite like this unusual slice of history.
“I can rest on that and think no-one’s ever going to do that again because it is never going to happen again,” he added.
“The guys who played created a unique record. I probably should have hung onto the programmes. A complete collection would be quite valuable.” Certainly worth more than threepence the price paid by spectators paid on the day.
That season’s competition did include a penalty shoot out, although only in the short lived ‘third and fourth place play off’ contested by beaten semi-finalists Birmingham and Stoke City, curiously played at the beginning of the following season.