Draw to a close

Andrew Ward tells the story of the 1971 FA Cup tie between Alvechurch and Oxford City, which remains the longest match in the competition’s history

Forty years ago, in November 1971, Alvechurch and Oxford City played six matches in 17 days to decide an FA Cup tie. It was more a World Series than sudden-death. At Villa Park, at the end of the fifth replay, Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis poured champagne for all the players, to celebrate their entry into the Guinness Book of Records. The record will never be broken.

Over those 17 days Alvechurch and Oxford City merged into one squad. During the frequent stoppages for cramp or exhaustion, opponents chatted amicably on first-name terms. “It was almost like going to work every day,” said one Alvechurch player, “the same teams, the same players, the same result.” Eleven men played for all 11 hours. One of them, Alvechurch goalkeeper Chris Ward, threw his cap and gloves into the net before the sixth match and shouted “Here we go again” to Oxford City fans he recognised.

After this final qualifying round tie had finally been settled, the Oxford City manager John Fisher said: “We got to know them so well that some people were suggesting we should agree to a merger.”

It was a formative experience for young Oxford Mail reporter Jim Rosenthal, who had the honour of describing Bobby Hope’s 588th-minute winning goal for Alvechurch: “Shocked that he had been given a chance of saving the attempt, [the goalkeeper] Peter Harris got his right hand to it, but the ball wriggled loose, hit him on the heel, and crawled like a scolded dog just over the line.”

Maybe Alvechurch won because their manager, schoolteacher Rhys Davies, understood endurance. He had run the marathon for Wales at the 1956 Commonwealth Games. Oxford City’s four servicemen played six matches a week (including army matches) and one of them was on night-time guard duty. City’s John Woodley, a bricklayer who played over 900 matches for the club, and Alvechurch’s Kevin Lyne, a brewery drayman, were two of many who had to take time off work.

During the tie, some players had two Sunday league outings and one league game besides the six Cup matches. Four Alvechurch players represented the Birmingham County XI between the first and second replays. Alvechurch striker Graham Allner, who later managed Kidderminster Harriers and Cheltenham Town, saw it as a real character-hardening experience. The two teams kept using the same tactics, he said, so it all came down to attitude.

Two years later, Allner scored a very late winner to give Alvechurch a remarkable 1-0 FA Cup first-round win at Exeter City. Later still, as manager of Kidderminster, he made it to the last 16 of the FA Cup in the 1993-94 season, before losing 1-0 to West Ham.

The six matches were played at five different grounds – Alvechurch’s sloping Lye Meadow (2-2), Oxford City’s White House (1-1), Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s (1-1), Oxford United’s Manor Ground (0-0 and 0-0) and finally Villa Park (1-0 to Alvechurch). All but the first and last went to extra time. The most dramatic moment of the tie came in the 449th minute, the last minute of extra time in the fourth match, when City’s Tommy Eales headed a corner against the underside of the bar and the ball was scrambled away. Eales also had a goal ruled out for offside (359th minute) and hit the crossbar (388th minute).

The most serious injury came after ten minutes of the fifth match, when Oxford City’s Eric Metcalfe suffered a hairline fibula fracture. But the saddest moment came a few minutes after that fifth game, when a 64-year-old Alvechurch factory driver collapsed and died in London Road, Oxford. The match had been played in bitterly cold weather, the players drenched by rain and sleet while the crowd sang Keep Right on to the End of the Road and Auld Lang Syne.

The Aldershot commercial manager Colin Pinder kept travelling to replays with a bundle of tickets for the first-round tie – Aldershot v Alvechurch or Oxford City. After the fourth replay he gave the tickets to Oxford City officials with a request to hand them over if they lost. By then the two teams were more than a round behind. Aldershot manager Jimmy Melia watched the teams in their first replay, unaware that he had four more chances to study his opponents.

Alvechurch were the first Midlands Combination team to reach the FA Cup first round proper, but there was only a day’s rest before the Aldershot tie and the players were worn out. Defender Ralph Punsheon had played all six matches against Oxford City but he missed the first-round match with carbuncles brought on by fatigue. Alvechurch lost 4-2 at Aldershot.

From WSC 298 December 2011