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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

FA Cup: Ashington In Sight Of Glory

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It's that time of year again. No, not the Champions League group stages or mega games in the Premier League, although those matches do have some interest, I'll admit. But for many football fans in England - the ones who follow their local sides - it's the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup that really matters.

All the teams in this round are one win from a place in the First Round proper. For the big boys of the Blue Square Premier this is the only game they have to negotiate, but others have been chasing this goal since the cricket season was still in full swing.

There are many compelling stories among the minnows but Ashington stand out. The team from the Northern League were once a Football League club but they haven't been in the FA Cup First Round since way back in 1961 - and they haven't even been in Fourth Qualifying since 1975.

Their odyssey began as far back as August 20 at Ryton and Crawcrook Albion, where the Colliers scraped home 1-0. It has encompassed a penalty shootout win over Shildon and victories over two clubs who stand three divisions above them in the non-league pyramid - Vauxhall Motors and Guiseley of the Blue Square North.

The tie with Vauxhall Motors began with a 3-3 draw at Ashington's Woodhorn Lane ground. After that sterling effort it seemed the run was over, but the Northern Leaguers came up with a single goal victory in Cheshire. After despatching Guiseley back on home soil it's five ties won and just one to go.

After a couple of home draws Ashington's fortune ran out and they have to travel to Blue Square Premier Grimsby Town this Saturday. So now the challenge is to defeat a side fully four divisions above them in the pyramid.

This is one of those ties that has all the unique feel that only the FA Cup offers. Ashington are a club and town steeped in football history - birth place of the great Milburn/Charlton clan - but fallen on hard times. Only three years ago the club had to leave their Portland Park ground.

With no bad wishes to Grimsby Town - who have been through their own recent troubles - it would be a stunning story for Ashington to progress through six qualifying ties to get into the draw for the First Round proper.

There is a Cup pedigree in this Ashington squad; they reached the finals of the Northern League and Northumberland Senior Cup competitions in 2010, unfortunately losing both matches. Clearly, this is a squad that digs deep in knockout football, so it will be Grimsby who face all the pressure this weekend.

38-year-old vetean striker Jamie Clarke has been having a ball since joining in September from Norton and Stockton Ancients. His winner against Guiseley in Third Qualifying is one of the five nominations for an award from sponsors Budweiser - and with 10 goals already for his new club, the striker will be looking for another nomination at Blundell Park. 

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Hugh Larkin



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