Living the dream

It is now 19 years since a non-League team knocked a top-flight side out of the FA Cup, but at Anfield David Nicholls saw Havant & Waterlooville come closer than anyone dared imagine

Comments flooding on to the forum after the 4-2 replay win over Swansea suggested that the success had reaffirmed many fans’ faith in the FA Cup. Away ties had meant that Cup fever took a while to build, especially as the Hawks always have to fight Pompey for elbow room in the local press. The Hawks have struggled to establish a distinct identity, given their location on the edge of a large estate built to accommodate Portsmouth families displaced by Second World War bombs – the social housing is still administered by Portsmouth City Council, despite being well inside Havant Borough. However, the Cup run has now put H&W on the map, even internationally: magazines in Canada, Australia and Japan requested accreditation, while Spanish daily Marca dedicated a full page to the Anfield build-up.

National coverage teetered on the thin divide between giddy and patronising. Never tiring of discussing the players’ day jobs, Sky created a computerised graphic with them placed alongside the tools of their trade: Mo Harkin was surrounded by eight 6ft spanners, couriers Neil Sharp and Phil Warner firmed up the defence with both of their vans, while surveyor Jay Smith stood at centre-half between colleague Tom Jordan and a theodolite.

Tony Taggart became the most celebrated dustman since Lonnie Donegan managed to squeeze his dad’s hat, trousers and living arrangements into the same chorus. Rocky Baptiste, scorer of the equaliser at Swansea, was also a media godsend. His nickname enabled him to be decked out in boxing garb by the News of the World, while his pursuit of “the Knowledge” meant Football Focus locked him in the back of a taxi with Damien Johnson for an awkward chat.

Building up the hype for the Liverpool game, the Hampshire towns came off a distant second-best in direct comparison to the Capital of Culture, while the contrasts in player wages were presented so thoroughly that it appeared the Hawks had handed their bank statements over to the Press Association. The Mirror, meanwhile, compared Steven Gerrard’s Bentley convertible with fellow captain Jamie Collins’s Vauxhall Astra to underline the underdog credentials. Yes, this was a cliche, but it was ­easier to bear than the plethora of “Havant they done well” puns cranked out by sub-editors, reporters and a giggling Gary Lineker.

Fan-wise, much was made of our adoption of Showaddywaddy’s version of Under the Moon of Love. Soccer Saturday even wheeled in ’Waddy singer Dave Bartram to point at the camera and growl “C’mon, you can do it”, like a bank manager revving himself up for a potentially tense meeting by doing a Hulk Hogan impression in a mirror.

On the Wednesday night before Anfield, the Hawks had a hastily rearranged league game at Thurrock designed to clear Justin Gregory’s suspension, a gambit rendered irrelevant by both the FA’s Scrooge-like intervention and floodlight failure. In the 20 minutes before the lights went, freelance snappers and TV crews queued up to get some behind-the-goal reaction. After coaxing Justin on to the terrace, Sky’s Gary Cotterill tried to cajole the player into joining the 30 travelling fans in song, like a mother getting their toddler to flash a birthday smile into their video camera.

It is to be hoped that the astonishing run will leave a lasting legacy and it has shown that an amalgamation of two rival clubs can be a great success. Waterlooville had been the more successful of the two, with four FA Cup runs to the first round proper between 1968 and 1989. Havant Town’s promotion from the Wessex League in 1991 and Ville’s eventual relegation from the Southern League Premier saw them meet in league competition for the first time in 1994. The merger four years later was largely harmonious, aside from a few early disagreements over kit design and such. “You can have whatever shirts you like, it’s the players inside ’em that counts,” harrumphed manager Billy Gilbert at the time.

Even the most militant naysayers have since got behind the new club – most felt that it was better to have one club moving forward than two stubbornly acquiescing to stagnation. Attendances have gradually increased and there has been steady progress up to Conference South. The ambition is to go further still and with an academy running, a community scheme about to begin and a few quid deposited in the bank, there may never be a better time to realise it.

From WSC 253 March 2008