“We are equal in dreams – underdogs and overachievers,” the revered British poet Lemn Sissay wrote in his ode to the FA Cup. “We are nothing without adventure believers.”
No competition across the planet’s most popular sport fetishises the plucky courage of an underdog more than the FA Cup. Since its inception in 1871, when the first games were played before the corner kick had been introduced to the rulebook, there has been an enchanting sense of unpredictability.
The third round of this season’s FA Cup proved no different, as Premier League and Championship clubs entered the competition and were swiftly dumped out of it.
Maidstone United were up against League One’s Stevenage but any positive result for the Stones would have constituted a major upset. Chasing promotion from the sixth tier of English football, the semi-professional outfit took the lead at home to Stevenage on the cusp of half-time thanks to Sam Corne’s penalty.
The midfielder who equalised against League Two Barrow in the previous round, spanked his spot kick past Stevenage’s Taye Ashby-Hammond while he still had a cotton bud stuffed in his bleeding nostril.
Those watching the action unfold on the Gallagher’s plastic pitch, wherever they may have been perched, erupted. However, some onlookers took a dim view of the officiating that led to Corne’s penalty.
Maidstone clung on to their slender lead, prompting fans to stream from their seats and the trees onto the artificial surface.
When non-League Eastleigh had George Langston sent off in the 38th minute of their tie against fourth-tier Newport County, the chances of a shock dramatically dwindled. The Rodney Parade Crowd may have even been guilty of casting their minds towards the imminent draw when James Clarke gave the hosts a second-half lead.
However, Clarke conceded a penalty which Chris Maguire converted in the 82nd minute to earn Eastleigh a famous draw and, more importantly, a replay at their own Silverlake Stadium.
Much like Maidstone’s shock, the Spitfires’ fightback was not broadcast live in the UK.
Ash Palmer buried his face into the Vicarage Road turf and slapped his fist in frustration. Chesterfield’s centre-back had hauled his frame in front of the ball but Tom Dele-Bashiru saw it coming, swerving around the lunge before poking in a cruel, 95th-minute winner for the Championship hosts.
Chesterfield are one division above Maidstone but still outside the Football League. Paul Cook, manager of the fifth-tier leaders, pledged to “attack the occasion” and his side duly followed suit, taking the lead in Hertfordshire. Joe Quigley opened the scoring within half an hour, nodding in at the back post to ignite a heaving away end.
Chesterfield still led with 15 minutes to play before Mileta Rajovic equalised for Watford. Despite the late heartache, some fans could still view the admirable performance with a positive perspective.
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