Chichester City attracted a deserved bumper crowd for their attempt to reach the last sixteen of the FA Vase for the first time, but it appears that their fame has not yet reached all of the citizens of this fine cathedral city. One wonders how many first time supporters failed to reach the ground at all, as Google Maps directed them towards a collection of rugby pitches at the far side of Oaklands Park.
“Football Club? You’re the third person to ask that. I didn’t even know we had one.”
“Chichester doesn’t have a football club. They went out of business years ago.”
“What do you mean, they’re four wins from Wembley? Are you sure?”
It would seem that, in this city at least, rugby and football don’t seem to mix.
Those who actually found the ground (it’s right behind the Festival Theatre, by the way, next to the tennis courts) were treated to ninety minutes of passion, tension and skill, as both teams gave their all throughout despite the slippery conditions. It was the kind of match that you couldn’t afford to take your eyes off for a single moment, and an excellent advertisement not only for the FA Vase but for the lower echelons of Non League Football as a whole. Far more entertaining, it must be said, that any of the live FA Cup action that graced our screens over the weekend.
City, and opponents Buckland Athletic, both came into this match in exceptional form; the home side having suffered only one defeat in their last eight matches (and that to National League South Eastbourne Borough), their opponents on a run of ten matches unbeaten (including nine victories). Confidence was unlikely to be in short supply, and that showed in an opening twenty five minutes during which both sides had chances and the pace never slackened.
City were perhaps just slightly on top when they fell behind in the 26th minute. Athletic winger Lloyd Gardner received the ball just in from the touchline and, finding that no defender came to apply pressure, advanced infield five yards before walloping a twenty yard strike that was heading for the top corner as soon as it left his boot. City responded, and launched wave after wave of attacks, but they committed many men forward and that- along with some sublime skill from Athletic midfielder Richard Groves, was to be their undoing.
With thirty six minutes on the clock and the home side pressing, Groves received the ball deep in his own half and went on a run, opponents trailing in his wake. Just as it seemed he might run into trouble he played a beautiful one-two with Gavin Hammon, found himself in the clear down the right hand side, and was able to pick out an unmarked Jared Lewington on the edge of the box. Lewington had time on his side and gave keeper Dave Hook little chance with his finish.
Chichester appeared a little shell-shocked and became rather frustrated. They could have gone further behind a minute before the interval, as Gardner got away from full back Dan Watts and sent a teasing cross to the back post. Groves was quickest to react, but his header went wide of the upright and Chi hearts were able to beat again. There was still time for home winger Josh Clack to beat three men on a run down the left before being pulled up- to his obvious frustration- for a foul that only the referee seemed to notice, but Buckland went into the break two goals to the good.
Chichester striker Scott Jones had done everything but score during the first half. With a style (and a haircut) reminiscent of West Ham striker Andy Carroll- although, unlike the West Ham man, he managed an entire ninety minutes without getting injured- he had forced fouls from both Buckland centre-backs and a number of saves from keeper Grant Fisher. He continued in this vein after the interval, having another header saved and firing a shot just wide of the far post, before finally getting the reward his performance deserved in the sixty fourth minute, leaping to meet a long ball at the far post before heading expertly home.
The home side could easily have been level a minute later. A surging run delivered a cross which found midfielder Dan Heggarty unmarked and, indeed, with no defender within five yards. Heggarty headed the ball goalward with some force, and either side of keeper Fisher may well have scored, but unfortunately for Chi he was only able to direct his effort straight down the middle and the keeper held easily.
The game then see-sawed at breakneck speed from one end to the other. Clack fired wide of the post from the edge of the box for City, Lewington headed over for Athletic, before City substitute Chris Hooker and then Groves once more went close. The next goal would be all- important, and Athletic were to score it, Lewington charging in to pounce on a loose ball and fire expertly home from just outside the box.
City weren’t done. Jones had an effort disallowed for offside, and soon afterwards fired a low shot which forced Fisher into a save low to his right. Then, two minutes into added time, Clack got to the byline before firing a cross which was crying out for a finishing touch but couldn’t find one.
Athletic could have rubbed salt in the wound just before the end, when City keeper Hook was forced to make a double save from Danny Griffiths and substitute Charlie Johansen, but the contest came came to a close with the scoreline unchanged and, for the second round in a row, the Devonians headed home from Sussex with a spring in their step- and a deserved step closer to Wembley.
City fans can be proud of their team, who could have given no more- and, perhaps, if they continue with their fine form, they might actually attract more support from within the town in future- even from amongst their neighbours with funny shaped balls.
If, of course, those new fans can actually find them!
Original- vastly abridged version- of this report appears in the Non League Paper dated 8th January 2017.
Published on in Cup.