Alex Sharp is, by his own admission, an anxious person. So when the Hornchurch chairman takes his seat at Wembley on Saturday to watch his humble seventh-tier club from the eastern edge of London face Hereford in the FA Trophy final, will his nails already be bitten to the quick?
“Normally when we play I get quite nervous,” he says, but apparently not on the day of the club’s biggest game. “Because, well, we’ve no right to be here really.”
Yet Hornchurch are here, on the cusp of the greatest moment in their 98-year history having not played a league game since November 3. Eight weeks will have passed since their semi-final win away to Notts County, who play two tiers above, because the Isthmian League stopped in the autumn and that has presented myriad problems and challenges.
The club battled with the FA for an exemption to train through the winter lockdown because they were still in this competition and there were a number of weeks where the players were jogging alone in local parks. Three left to join clubs higher up the pyramid, although two returned on dual registration.
Since then seven teams from higher divisions, which continued, have been knocked out. There has been good fortune (Notts County sacking their manager two days before the semi-final), exceptional performances (goalkeeper Joe Wright saving all three penalties in a last-32 shootout against King’s Lynn Town) and they have played every game knowing defeat will make it their last.
Much of it is down to their manager, the former Tottenham Hotspur defender Mark Stimson, whose success in this competition is unparalleled. The 53-year-old won the Trophy once as a player, with Canvey Island in 2001, and managed Grays Athletic (twice) and Stevenage to three consecutive triumphs between 05 and 07.
Leading Hornchurch, a club that has had as many flirtations with extinction as significant pieces of silverware, to this final may be the most remarkable triumph of all. “It’s nothing short of amazing,” he says. “The equivalent of Gillingham getting to the FA Cup final. It doesn’t happen. If you look back through history, a team two levels below doesn’t make it to the final. One, maybe. Two? Amazing.”
The captain Lewwis Spence has watched his sister, the Chelsea midfielder Drew, play there several times and never thought their parents would be turning out to see him. Chris Dickson, the 36-year-old striker described by his manager as the dressing room’s biggest character, turned out in the Champions League for AEL Limassol and had a spell in China.
But not one member of a squad made up of construction workers and insurance brokers – “the normal range of jobs you see mentioned when a non-League team is on TV,” Spence says – has played at Wembley before.
That helps to explain why some players have been giddily calling each other up, putting on fake accents and pretending to be reporters in the past month. Or why one player, who shall remain nameless, asked for 140 tickets for friends and family.
Stimson’s biggest job will be ensuring they are not overwhelmed and past experience tells him that unlikely figures can freeze under the arch. When Stevenage faced Kidderminster in 2007, the first final at the rebuilt stadium, his team were 2-0 down at the break having found the surroundings too daunting but stern half-time words led to them winning 3-2.
“We have some guys who talk too much, some who don’t talk enough,” Stimson says of ensuring Hornchurch are prepared. “We need to try and be normal but have excitement. It is special. The stadium is the one. When you walk out, it will hit you. Take it in, you’ve earned the right to be here but do what you’re here for. You won’t know until 15 minutes into the game how it affects them. Within 20 minutes there’ll probably be a couple of players who freeze.”
For Spence and many of his team-mates Saturday afternoon will be the culmination of years of hard graft, an opportunity some of the older players thought had passed them by. They also know it is unlikely to happen again. His sister, who has won and lost at the national stadium, has offered one simple piece of advice with that in mind.
“She was truthful: you never thought you’d have got there but be a winner, don’t come away with a loss,” the 33-year-old midfielder says. “At this time of year, play-off season, you normally know someone involved when you’ve been in the game as long as I have.
“As kids we’d play Wembley [the street game], we’d even go to our park and call certain parts of it Wembley. Seeing friends score and win there – you’d think that is out of your reach when you drop down the pyramid. You don’t think it’s achievable but it’s incredible to think at this point now I could be leading the team out there.”
Hereford, whose National League North campaign collapsed in mid-February, are marginal favourites but the Hornchurch coaching staff will do their research. Their manager Josh Gowling was signed by Stimson at Gillingham in 2009.
“He was decent,” Stimson says. “They are a good team with pace. It’s going to be tough. They play a level above us but we need to perform to our maximum. We’ll do all we can to be aware of what we’re facing but it’s more important that we’ll be right.”
Spence does not know too much about them yet and does not seem too bothered to find out. “I don’t mean this disrespectfully but I’m not interested in them – it’s about us and how we turn up,” he says. “I’m sure they have good players, they are one step above us and have their own story to try and fulfill. But it’s about us.”
Hornchurch, with a hardcore support of about 500 according to Sharp, received 3,000 tickets from the FA and they sold out swiftly last week. “If it’s a normal situation I believe we’d get 15,000 going off past experience in finals,” Stimson says. That is about a quarter of the suburb’s population.
Spence lives locally and can sense anticipation is building. There are posters on the walls of local cafes, bunting is being hung from Romford to Upminster and people who had no idea the club existed a couple of weeks back are promising to watch it live on TV and even turn up to catch them in league action next season.
They have also benefited from the generosity of West Ham United, who have opened up their training ground for their neighbours in the past couple of weeks. Owner David Sullivan, who grew up in Hornchurch, had already made two donations to cover hotel stays before the quarter-final away to Darlington and the Notts County game.
When it looked like the squad would have to travel on the day of the Darlington game rather than stay in a hotel the night before due to a lack of funds, some supporters set up an online donation page which Sullivan spotted. He voluntarily coughed up enough money to cover the costs, then posted a message on West Ham’s website wishing Hornchurch luck before making another donation ahead of the semi-final.
“We as a board were going to cover the costs unbeknownst to the fans at the time – it would have been just another hit to us – but then David Sullivan made a contribution,” Sharp says. “I contacted him to say thanks and he said that if we get to the next round he’d cover the costs again. He then put a note on West Ham’s website asking fans to support us, leading to more contributions.
“For me having that support is so important for us – not just financially but getting people engaged with the club. West Ham have now allowed us to use their training ground in the build-up. It’s a great experience for the players, allowing them to get into that professional frame of mind as well. I can’t speak highly enough of West Ham, they’ve been a great support to us.”
Availing of the slick pitches at Rush Green, far closer to the grass at Wembley than their own ground which also doubles up as a track for the local athletics club, has been a significant boost for the players. “The surface is a bit flatter than our home ground,” Spence says and while training has been typically purposeful Stimson is extra wary of players getting injured before the big day.
“I have everything crossed that no one will miss out,” he says. “That’s my biggest concern and fear. It would be devastating.” A few days out, final preparations underway, there have been no such concerns. Whether Sharp and company can keep their emotions in check is another story altogether.
Source by Football London