Magpies sunk in mire
Needham Market 2, Dereham 1: A few tons of Antiguan sand, no longer needed at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadim, could have been put to good use at Bloomfields, where Dereham's great FA Vase adventure ended in conditions which left manager Matty Henman fuming.
A few tons of Antiguan sand, no longer needed at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadim, could have been put to good use at Bloomfields, where Dereham's great FA Vase adventure ended in conditions which left manager Matty Henman fuming.
Needham booked themselves a home quarter-final against Chalfont St Peter when substitute Jonathan Sparkes pounced on a ball which had stuck in the mud to score their 85th minute winner.
"That probably sums the day up," said Henman, who added: "I stress this is not sour grapes. When we arrived and saw the pitch I went to the referee and expressed a big concern that it was not playable. He was adamant that it was - but this is a premier competition. It's one thing playing on a pitch that is wet or muddy, but you had to see this pitch to believe it. There's no way a league game would have been played on it. It was a bog."
Ironically the decisive goal in this fifth round lottery was scored at the relatively good end - merely gooey compared to the ankle deep sticky toffee pudding which made up almost the entire other half.
To be fair to Needham, who were worthy winners on the day - creating far more chances and adapting better and with more conviction to the freak conditions - it was some feat even to get the pitch in the state that it was.
With a little army of helpers they managed to sponged away most of the standing water which covered much of the surface in the hours before referee Chris Miller gave his 9am verdict.
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Club secretary Mark Easlea proudly showed me film of the pre-breakfast mopping up operation.
But Henman was left wishing they had saved themselves the trouble.
The muddiest end was a defender's worst nightmare, with the ball difficult to either control or get away as it skidded or stuck fast and any attempt to turn quickly likely to end in an embarrassing and costly pratfall.
The best that can be said is that it was the same for both sides. And having been asked to defend that end first, Dereham must have felt the lottery was going in their favour when they had held out for 43 minutes under something of a Needham siege based upon some canny use of the firmer flanks.
Even when Craig Parker emerged through a ruck of players to head Needham in front from a cross by former West Ham, Ipswich and Manchester City star Kevin Horlock the omens were encouraging for the Norfolk side.
True they had had taken 35 minutes to escape from their own half to deliver a shot of any kind. And they had lost experienced goalkeeper John Higgs after 25 minutes to a side injury sustained when making one of several brave saves.
But Higgs' young replacement, Nathan Baker, swiftly inspired confidence by diving nervously through a sea of legs to claim a free-kick hammered into his crowded six yard box.
And Dereham had not only finished the first half strongly - Olly Willis twice gong close to putting them in front and Danny Beaumont's fierce shot from wide left forcing a fumble by Liam Jones. They had shipped only one goal when defending in the worst of the conditions.
In the second half it was Needham's turn to see how they fared defending the swamp - and it was undoubtedly a much more even 45 minutes.
Beaumont and Lee Howell both had chances to equalise, the former not surprisingly unable to dribble round Jones on the edge of the area while the latter fired wide, before Graham Barrett emphatically did so with a goal of the highest quality.
Nobody in the Magpies ranks would deserve a chance to play at Wembley more than long serving club captain Barrett, whose service goes right back to their Anglian Combination days.
And that dream was suddenly alive again when he reacted quickest to seize on a loose ball which had plopped in the penalty area mire and, in an instance, created room to fire in an unstoppable drive which seemed to harness every ounce of his team's previous exasperation.
With 15 minutes to go a neutral might have fancied Dereham to go on and win it, especially after a let-off five minutes later, when Evans, a constant thorn in their left side, crossed to Danny Smy. Instead of volleying in from five yards Smy made the mistake of allowing the ball to drop - and then couldn't get it out of the mud to beat Baker, who smothered heroically.
Ironically the conditions which made a fool of Smy made a hero of Sparkes as Rhys Barber's low cross got through a knot of players at the near post but, instead of flashing safely past the far one, stuck fast to present the substitute with a Valentine's Day gift he could not refuse.