My chosen FA Cup game this midweek was Shifnal Town taking on Alvechurch in a game that, due to Covid restrictions, was all ticket and sold out. Living so far away and not being able to say for certain that I could make the game until Monday, I am very grateful to Shifnal Twitter man, programme designer, and photographer James Baylis for getting a space put aside for me.
Shifnal play their home games at The Acoustafoam Stadium, situated on the North-Eastern edge of the town. There is a small amount of parking at the ground but on this evening this was not open to the public. Instead parking was available at neighbouring Idsal School. It did cost £2 to park but all of the proceeds, I am told, go to the school.
Access to the stadium is through a gate in the South-Eastern corner of the ground, where you can find the programme seller and immediately to your left a snack bar. First impressions of the ground is that it is well above the standard of an average Step 6 club.
It's actually hard to find anything wrong with the entire setup at Shifnal. The ground has plenty of character, the volunteers (certainly the ones I met) are friendly and helpful and the matchday programme (a souvenir edition for this match) was, in keeping with everything else, of a very high standard. Any ground-hopper out there reading this, if you haven't paid Shifnal a visit I would encourage you to do so.
One of the things that attracted me to this game was the fact that the sides are three divisions apart with home advantage to the lower ranked team. No disrespect to Alvechurch but everyone loves the possibility of a cup upset, right? To add to the mix, even though the sides are currently three divisions apart, that would almost certainly have not been the case if Covid-19 had not curtailed last season. When the abandonment happened Alvechurch were looking doomed to relegation and Shifnal were nailed on for promotion. This would have meant that they could have started 20-21 just one Step apart.
Shifnal have never made it out of FA Cup qualifying, although they did come close in 1982-83, going down 4-1 at Boston United in the 4th Qualifying Round. They've picked up this season where they left off last, winning their first league game 5-1 at Smethwick Rangers and turfing both Chelmsley Town and AFC Bridgnorth out of the FA Cup.
Alvechurch lost their opening league 5-1 at Hitchin Town. However, as far as the FA Cup goes, they far outweigh their hosts. Their best run came in the 1973-74 season when they reached the Third Round. In qualifying they completed a hat-trick of local derby wins, beating Halesowen Town, Bromsgrove Sporting and Stourbridge before eventually succumbing 4-2 away at Bradford City in Round 3. Church were also involved in one the marathon cup ties that occasionally occurred before limits were placed on the number of replays. In the 1971-72 season they drew 2-2 at home to Oxford City. The second replay was also drawn, 1-1. There followed 4 more ties, one at St Andrews, two at Oxford United's Manor Ground, and one at Villa Park, the final one of which saw Church triumph 1-0 only to lose at Aldershot in the following round.
There was a real buzz around the stadium when the players came onto the pitch. Shifnal in their cup kit of yellow and blue hoops with blue shorts and socks, Alvechurch in their change kit of all green. You could feel the expectation of the home crowd, although there were a fair few Church supporters in the 320 capacity too.
As with all games of this significance, there was an initial period of feeling each other out. After his hat-trick in the previous round, Brad Sharman was clearly someone who Alvechurch needed to keep an eye on. Alvechurch, with Ian Long back at the helm after his spell at Stourbridge, also had a number of players back from the Glassboys, who followed Long there but have since returned. It was one of these returning players, Kieran Cook, who fired in the opening few salvos, breaking from midfield, causing the defence all sorts of problems and forcing the first save of the match from Jake James.
As the game settled into its rhythm, it was the Step 3 side who began to take some control, knocking the ball around quickly in midfield but without unduly worrying James in the home goal. However, when Shifnal did get the ball, they were looking lively, getting it forward to Montague and Hill quickly and accurately.
It was, however, the away side who finally made the breakthrough on 20 minutes when Jacob Wakeling, a former West Brom academy player, was quickest to react under the shadow of the giant West Brom flag behind the school end goal, stabbing the ball home to make it 0-1. It was Wakeling who had been fouled for the free-kick that led to the goal, a challenge that saw Dan Lloyd pick up a yellow card for the home side.
The goal was a blow to Shifnal but heads certainly did not drop. In fact, within 2 minutes of going behind they could easily have been level when Tom Hill was sent clean through only to be denied by a very good block from Jono Brown.
It was another former Stourbridge player who almost had the final say of the half for the visitors, centre-half and captain Jamie Willets heading narrowly wide as the half drew to close.
HT Shifnal Town 0 Alvechurch 1. Church showed their higher division pedigree at times and, in all fairness, controlled the game for large periods. However, Shifnal created chances and certainly couldn't be written off.
James headed off to prepare for what I am sure he hoped was photographs of at least two second-half goals for Shifnal. I took up a position alongside the main stand and after five minutes or so was beginning to think that James knew something that I didn't. Shifnal looked like they really meant business in the second-half. They were clearly determined to either pull the goal back or, at the least, go down fighting.
Just past the hour mark they came close to grabbing the elusive equaliser when Hill got his head to a right-wing corner only to see his effort go narrowly over the bar. The tide had certainly turned. Shifnal looked quicker to the ball, sharper in the tackle and full of ideas. They had Alvechurch on the ropes, although still had to show some caution against being hit on the break.
That was until a piece of individual class finally swayed the tie completely in favour of the Step 3 side and again it was Wakeling who was the difference. The striker held off a challenge from his marker and deftly slipped the ball past James to deliver the killer blow. 0-2. It was harsh on Shifnal who, until that goal went in, were really starting to build a head of steam and looked highly likely to get an equaliser at some point. It was also disappointing to the neutrals in the crowd as it effectively ended the match as a contest. However, you have to hand it to Alvechurch who had been under the cosh but managed to soak up the pressure and still have enough in the tank to go up the other end and win it.
Shifnal still gave it a shot, piling everyone forward in an attempt to get back into the game but, in all fairness, the second goal was always going to be enough. Alvechurch, boosted by the two goal cushion began to look more dangerous on the break, almost demonstrated to perfection when Kieran Cook latched onto a ball in his own half, outstripped everyone only for his low drive to hit the side-netting.
There was to be no miraculous comeback and no 'cupset' for Shifnal.
FT Shifnal Town 0 Alvechurch 2. A valiant effort from the home side, especially in the second half. Ultimately, they were undone by a classic piece of poaching and determination from a Church's Jacob Wakeling. For Alvechurch next up is a home league game with Royston Town on Saturday where they will be hoping to get some points on the board. Shifnal travel to Cradley Town in the league looking to retain their 100% record.
So, did anyone get the significance of both the blog title and the reference to Mirror in the Bathroom in the introduction? The answer being Wakeling. Birmingham-based ska band The Beat are fronted by Dave Wakeling and both goals for Alvechurch were scored by Jacob Wakeling. I wonder if they are related? Alvechurch is not a million miles from Birmingham.
Shifnal Town: James, Uppal, Pinnock(c), Cunningham, Lloyd, Smith, Franco, Sharman, Hill, Montague, Wedderburn. Subs: Jones, Perks, Craner, McCarthy, Howarth, Webb, Holdcroft
Alvechurch: Brown, Hill, Suane, Birch, Hull, Willets(c), Bellis, Monteiro, Wakeling, Townsend, Cook. Subs: Cassidy, Daley, Lloyd, Brown-Hill, Botfield, McFarlane, Marselia
Ground Number: 244
Programme: £2.00 (Souvenir Issue)