Friday, January 18, 2008

Havant & Waterlooville

I am an avid follower of English football (soccer.) These days, thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, I have countless ways to feed my passion for the game.

In England most attention is paid to the top level Premier League. A close second is the FA Cup, a competition open to hundreds of teams at all levels that play in virtually every village and borough across the land. This year 731 teams have participated in FA Cup games, including some of your favorites such as Almondsbury Town, Holmer Green and Tividale.

Teams from the top two levels, the Premier League and the Championship, receive byes until the Third Round. Before that, in a series of qualifying rounds and Rounds One and Two, lower ranked teams from Levels 3-8 (the bottom) knock each other off in what is a single elimination tournament.

Which brings us to Havant & Waterlooville. Havant and Waterlooville are small towns in Hampshire on England’s Southeast coast. Until 1998 when their football clubs merged, each had been home to a team, Havant since 1883 and Waterlooville since 1905. They are called the Hawks.

Havant & Waterlooville is presently in 12th place in the 22-team Conference South, a Level 6 league. At Level 6 we’re talking about semi-pro teams. The players and staff all have day jobs. They are teachers or beekeepers or policemen or farmers – you name it. These guys play for fun, usually in front of crowds that number in the hundreds.

On January 26, the Hawks will travel to Liverpool to play at Anfield in a 4th Round FA Cup game. Liverpool, a storied team that has won more trophies than any English club, a perennial Premier League powerhouse, winners of the European championship in 2005 and runners-up in 2007, will play host to Havant & Waterlooville. If Anfield is full, and it likely will be, more than 45,000 people will watch this David and Goliath contest.

The Hawks had to work hard to get this far. They had to win five games just to get to the 3rd Round. They confronted a veritable Who’s Who of opponents:
9/21/07: Bognor Regis Town
10/13/07: Fleet Town
10/27/07: Leighton Town
11/10/07: York City
12/1/07: Notts County

These victories qualified them for a 3rd Round match against Swansea, the top team in League One (Level 3). Nobody gave them a chance, especially since they were playing the game in Swansea. But lo and behold, the final score was 1-1. This meant there would be a replay, this time at West Leigh Park in Havant.

4,400 ecstatic true believers, by far the largest crowd in West Leigh Park history, watched the unbelievable happen. The impossible dream became reality. Havant & Waterlooville beat Swansea 4-2. As the British would say, the Hawks had booked their place in the 4th Round. Of the 731 teams that began, 32 remain in the competition.

Does it matter what the final score is at Anfield on the 26th? A little, but not much. For Havant & Waterlooville, what matters has already happened.


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