ANDREW SINCLAIR recounts the footballing events of this week in 1979 when the local non-league club came within a game of being in the FA Cup third-round draw alongside the Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and Tottenhams
Forty years ago this week, Croydon FC were in the midst of what remains the club’s finest hour and a half.
It was the season when they managed to make it all the way to the second round of the world’s oldest cup competition, the FA Cup. The non-league side had battled their way through the preliminary rounds and into the draw alongside the full-time professionals of what was then the Third and Fourth Divisions, and were just one more win away from being in the draw alongside the giants of the game, the Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and Tottenhams of the top division.
Although they were founded in 1953, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, Croydon didn’t actually enter the FA Cup until that most historic year in English football history, 1966.
In the first two seasons entering the competition, they lost in their opening match. It was not until early in the 1968-1969 season that they managed to win their first FA Cup tie, against Staines.
Relatively middling results followed in the seasons to follow before, in the words of the club’s historian and programme editor, Stephen Tyler, Croydon came “within a boot’s length of getting to the first round” in 1975.
Croydon had progressed through the preliminary stages of the cup, seeing off Erith and Belvedere (after a replay), Bromley and then Molesley, to reach the fourth qualifying round for the first time in the club’s history.
The draw was formidable, with Croydon Arena playing host to Wycombe Wanderers. This was long before Martin O’Neill transformed that club into a Football League side, but when Wycombe were a considerable force in amateur football, arriving in south London as the Isthmian League champions.
Late in the game, and the score was 2-2. The ball was flashed across the Wycombe penalty area, only for a Croydon player to fall agonisingly short of making it 3-2. Wycombe won 5-2 in the replay a few days later, and were to go on to take First Division Middlesbrough to a replay in the third round.
For Croydon, that 1975-1976 season was sublime, as they finished their league campaign unbeaten. In contrast, the 1979-1980 season their FA Cup run served as a welcome distraction from their poor Isthmian League campaign, where they finished 20th in a league of 22.
The Croydon team in 1979, managed by Ted Shepherd, was a mixture of players promoted from the club’s youth set-up and talents that the manager had recruited. Goalkeeper Dave Cobb was the team’s oldest and most experienced player, having previously played as an England amateur international while at Tooting.
Full-backs Barry Walker and Barry Constable were both products of the youth team, as was Andy Ward, the player of the season, utility player Steve Sales, Rod Ward (no relation to Andy) and tricky winger Ray Sunnucks. Constable, who had started his career as a winger, was still working as a service engineer for British Gas in the Croydon area during the cup run.
Charlie Pooley was the club’s leading striker in the ’78-’79 season, scoring 23 goals after his move from Dulwich Hamlet, but his form dipped during the 1979-1980 season and he often found himself confined to the bench.
The star of the Croydon side was pacy winger Alec Jackson. He began his career with Dartford Amateurs and after a brief spell with Croydon in the 1971-1972 season, he spent a few years under the stewardship of Jimmy Rose at Dulwich, where the attacking midfielder attracted the attention from scouts for Chelsea, who even took him on trial. Jackson later returned to Croydon and became a central figure in their midfield on the way to making a club record number of appearances, with 452 games played in all competitions.
Croydon opened that 1979-1980 cup campaign in early September with a trip to Sussex County side Bexhill Town. The game was played at the ground of Eastbourne United rather than that of Bexhill, with Croydon emerging 2-0 winners. It was another away game in the next round as they made the trip to Ashford United. Ted Shepherd’s side once again triumphed by a two-goal margin.
The third qualifying round saw Croydon on the road again, to Southern League club Bognor Regis Town. Croydon won 1-0 to book a game with Leatherhead in the fourth qualifying round – a fourth successive away game and a fourth successive fixture against a team playing in green.
Leatherhead boasted a decent side at the time, containing a couple of former amateur internationals and they initially took the lead but Croydon equalised from the penalty spot to secure a replay on the following Monday at the Arena. The home side took the lead just before the break and then two goals in the second half secured them a relatively comfortable win and a piece of club history – a place in the FA Cup first round proper for the first time.
In a twist of fate, Croydon were drawn away at Wycombe.
There were 1,832 fans at Loakes Park to see Croydon secure a resounding 3-0 win over Wycombe. Rod Ward got Croydon on the board after five minutes before two goals in the second half from Constable and Andy Ward ensured the victory and a potentially lucrative south London derby cup tie with Millwall.
Croydon’s founding chairman Jack Milsted had always dreamed of hosting a Football League side at the Arena and extensive work was done, in conjunction with the local constabulary, to try and get the ground in an appropriate state to host the game.
The corrugated iron cover on the far side of the ground was taken down and a number of the local press came down to see the work, including the Observer’s Julie Welch. But despite the efforts, it was decided on safety grounds to have the game played up the road, at Selhurst Park.
The weather that December was atrocious, forcing several second-round games to be called off. But on December 15, 1979, 9,809 people passed through the Selhurst Park turnstiles to see the match – including a large contingent of Portsmouth fans who had travelled up from the coast to watch their side face Wimbledon, and detour to Selhurst when Plough Lane was ruled unfit for their game to go ahead.
Croydon’s cup dream looked a real possibility when Rod Ward gave the non-league side the lead, but Millwall pulled a goal back. The teams would replay at The Den on Tuesday, December 18.
In the replay, Croydon were far from overawed, once again taking the lead, Barry Constable scoring directly from a free-kick. Millwall then equalised and went ahead thanks to a penalty, only for Croydon to equalise with a spot-kick of their own, by Constable.
The game headed into extra time, and as Croydon’s part-timers’ legs wearied, so Millwall’s professionals took control, winning the tie 3-2.
Manager Ted Shepherd left the club during the 1983-1984 season and although Croydon would go on to reach the fourth qualifying round on two other occasions (in 1985, lost 4-1 to Bath City, and 1987, lost 3-0 to Merthyr Tydfil), they have never achieved anything like their FA Cup run in 1979, when they garnered a degree of national attention, dared to dream and came agonisingly close to the promised land of the third round.
Of course, the club is now in the 10th tier of English football, with even the possibility of rising to the dizzying levels of Isthmian League football seeming out of their grasp. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the magic of the FA Cup, when it gives players and staff, and their supporters, a chance once or twice a season to dream.
• The Croydon FC Class of 2019 – their under-18s – face the biggest match yet of their young careers as footballers when they travel north tomorrow for their FA Youth Cup third-round tie at Wigan. It’s a daunting prospect against players drawn from what was, until recently, a Premier League academy team.
The winners will have a home tie in January against Tottenham.
• Special thanks goes to Stephen Tyler, whose knowledge, information and records contributed significantly to this article
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