The magic of the Cup was never better illustrated than one lockdown night in Liverpool
Cray Valley Paper Mills, Sheppey United, Ramsgate… The First Round of the FA Cup is always a lucky bag of unlikely names and former winners, the Portsmouths and Derbys of this world negotiating tricky visits to the lesser lights.
Of the 40 games taking place this weekend, one pits non-league Marine against League Two side Harrogate. The winners will be 90 minutes closer to the holy grail, the Third Round, and a possible meeting with a Manchester United, a Liverpool or an Arsenal.
By way of classic example, one of the most endearing mismatches at that stage involved Marine at the height of the pandemic. With the whole country in lockdown for months, a record-breaking run by this venerable club from Liverpool paired them with José Mourinho’s Tottenham.
It wasn’t just the statistics, the 161 places in the league pyramid separating the two clubs or the 402 international caps won by Marine’s opponents on that frosty night, it was the generosity of spirit that went with the occasion. To recoup the losses from having no paying fans present, Marine sold 32,202 virtual tickets at £10 each for a game that was taking place at the 3,185-capacity Rossett Park, aka the Marine Travel Arena.
Spurs put out a full team and the TV images of frosty-breathed residents gawping at the magic of the Cup, live before their eyes, from bathroom windows and the roofs of garden sheds, remain among the most heart-warming of this terrible time. After the final whistle, Marine’s players applauded the fans who had been supporting the team, 0-5 down after 60 minutes, from their back gardens.
The Spurs team, meanwhile, Gareth Bale, Lucas Moura, Dele Alli and all, had prepared a fresh set of match shirts to give to their opponents as Covid protocol prevented the customary post-game swap.
Marine have always swum against the tide. Named after a hotel that stood in this riverside district of Waterloo – itself named after a hotel, opened the year after the battle – Marine moved into their present home on Jubilee Road in 1903. Rossett Park, grandly renamed Marine Travel Arena due to sponsorship, first witnessed games in the wonderfully named I Zingari (‘The Gypsies’) league for local amateur sides, later called the Liverpool Combination.
This then became the Liverpool County Premier, by which time Marine had long been knocking on the door of the de facto Fifth Division, winning the Northern Premier twice in the 1990s only to be denied promotion due to the failings of their stadium.
By the time the Spurs fixture came along, the Mariners had not long dropped down to the tier below the Northern Premier, a first ever relegation in the club’s history. Winning a promotional play-off in 2022 – losing them had become a habit – Marine then brushed aside Everton’s second XI and Southport to win the Liverpool Senior Cup in 2023.
Another run in the FA Cup past top non-league opposition now brings Marine back into the competition proper, although sorely missed on Saturday will be the club’s once long-term president, David Wotherspoon, who died shortly after Hyde United were being seen off in the previous round.
On the board of the club from the 1970s – his father was president the decade before – Wotherspoon was as integral to the club as Roly Howard, the longest serving manager in post-war English football. His stint of 1,975 games ran from 1972 to 2005.
Wotherspoon’s passing brought out an outpouring of tributes and anecdotes – certainly, he was not a man who would have been dismayed that some of the profits from the Tottenham fixture of 2021 were ploughed into the 1894 club bar at the Marine Travel Arena.
As current incumbent, Marine Chairman Paul Leary, put it on that frosty night during the pandemic: “Who said the FA Cup is losing its magic?”
To visit Marine, take the train from Liverpool Central to Blundellsands & Crosby (£5, every 20mins, journey time 20mins), then walk up Blundellsands Road East, right down Kenilworth Road, left at the end onto Mersey Road, right at the roundabout onto College Road. Allow 15mins.
The other side of the ground from the station, The Edinburgh is a classic pub from the Victorian era, its interior recarved and refitted around 1900 when nearby resident Captain Smith of Titanic fame may have been an occasional customer. Today, ‘The Bug’ is everything a local pub should be, with a vast digital jukebox to boot.
Marine AFC v Harrogate Town, Saturday, November 4, 3pm. Marine Travel Arena, College Road, Liverpool L23 3AS. A limited number of tickets (£12/£8 discounted) is still available online.