It’s over...but what a remarkable FA Cup experience it’s been for Chichester City – the first team in 70 years to make it to the second round of the world’s oldest football knockout competition having begun their cup adventure in the extra-preliminary round.
In a run laced with the kind of fairy tale qualities that define the FA Cup, Chi battled through six rounds of qualifying to get to the ‘proper’ rounds, beating three opponents from the step above on the way.
There were other extraordinary pinch yourself moments for a club that was on the brink of bankruptcy 18 months ago – getting a unique bye into the second round and then hosting the draw for that stage of the competition with the BBC broadcasting live from Oaklands Park.
Mark Chapman hailed surfing striker Scott Jones “the best footballer I’ve ever interviewed” and footage of this went viral together with video of the Chichester players celebrating at Clacket Lane services after the win at Bowers & Pitsea. Over one million people viewed BBC South Today presenter Tony Husband’s video of the reaction to the bye and millions more responded to the club’s gesture on Twitter to donate some of the prize money to a Bury FC phoenix group.
The national press spoke to players and staff, there were radio interviews, a documentary was released about Chichester’s cup journey and BT Sport selected the game for their live 3pm slot.
It was the cup that kept giving but this all came to an end on Sunday 1st December when a second half hat-trick from Morgan Ferrier sandwiched between two Corey Blackett-Taylor goals crushed Chi cup dreams.
Ferrier had equalised for ten-men Tranmere in their first round replay with Wycombe Wanderers in what was a dramatic comeback win sealed by Rovers’ Kieron Morris in extra-time and both Ferrier and Morris featured in manager Micky Mellon’s line-up against Chichester, alongside most of the players that beat League One leaders Wycombe.
Miles Rutherford & Co made just one change to the starting XI last time out in the cup – Jones coming in for Matt Axell.
Ahead of the game Chi boss Rutherford was concerned about the occasion overwhelming his side with players not getting as much of the ball as they’d like.
He need not have worried about that early doors – it was Roy of the Rovers stuff from the start as the visitors forged the first real chance of the game when Jones got on the end of a super cross from Josh Clack only to head wide of Scott Davies’ left hand post with barely ten minutes on the clock.
Jones had almost got in earlier after a neat exchange between Gicu Iordache and Rob Hutchings and a cheeky Clack flick. Darren Potter’s timely interception went out for a corner that Lloyd Rowlatt whipped in only for Davies to punch clear.
Ryan Davidson then fed a ball through towards Kaleem Haitham but it was too strong for Chi’s top scorer.
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy got a shot off on the turn for the hosts on 12 minutes after good work from Blackett-Taylor before Jones met a Rowlatt free-kick.
Dave Perkins’ shot was charged down and City’s keeper Steve Mowthorpe gathered a low cross from Jake Caprice. It wouldn’t be the last time Caprice caused Chi problems.
Next Corey Heath recovered brilliantly to deny the home side an opportunity and Iordache drove into the box at the other end only to lose control and concede a free-kick.
Tranmere, no strangers to the latter stages of the FA Cup having made the quarter finals in 2000, 2001 and 2004, were being matched by opponents some 100 odd places below them in the league pyramid.
Captain Connor Cody and Ferrier were involved in a number of duels and Cody did well mid-way through the half to divert a Morris effort for a corner.
Then on 32 minutes Blackett-Taylor clipped the bar with a fierce drive before Morris tried his luck from distance. Mowthorpe gathered this easily enough and then pulled off an excellent save tipping Hepburn-Murphy’s effort over to ensure it was level at the break.
The last, and until now, only time, a Chichester side made it to the ‘proper’ rounds of the competition was six decades ago. Then Chi trailed Bristol City 8-0 at the interval but here they were having a real go.
Tranmere brought on Connor Jennings for Hepburn-Murphy. It was Jennings’ goal in the last minute of extra-time in the League Two play-off final at Wembley in May that helped Rovers to a successive promotion.
And Jennings was soon in the thick of it and Chi had defending to do.
Davidson cleared a Morris cross and then made an excellent challenge on Ferrier.
Blackett-Taylor had an effort blocked as the home side pressed and then headed straight into Mowthorpe’s arms.
A long range attempt from Iordache popped up off the surface and gave Davies something to think about before Horncastle picked up the first yellow card of the game when he impeded Ferrier.
And then with Cody off receiving treatment Ferrier headed a Caprice cross against the woodwork. Blackett-Taylor was first to the rebound and steered the ball into the back of the net.
It was 2-0 two minutes later when a mistake at the back let Ferrier in for his first of the day – a composed finish.
Haitham’s shot on 65 minutes was to be his last involvement of the game as Rutherford changed it up bringing on Axell into midfield.
Ferrier forced a smart save out of Mowthorpe before Chi were undone by route one and another mix-up that allowed Ferrier to grab his second with a clever lob.
Moments later Mowthorpe was called on once more denying Morris who cracked one with his left foot.
Ferrier then completed an 11minute hat-trick turning in Caprice’s delivery.
Cody was replaced by Ryan Peake with 15 to go and Paul Mullin came on for Ferrier who left the field to a standing ovation from the Rovers fans.
Horncastle’s speculative effort was wide of the mark and a nice piece of skill from Iordache got him away but he tried to do too much and the move broke down.
And then Chichester, separated by five tiers of English football from Tranmere, were five goals adrift when Blackett-Taylor turned in another cross from Caprice on 85 minutes.
Blackett-Taylor might have been the second Rovers hat-trick hero after a Mowthorpe mistake but the Chi shot-stopper redeemed himself with a fine save.
Mullin blasted one over before another history making moment in this cup run when Peake, an 88-1 outside bet to score, glanced in an Axell corner in the last minute of normal time in front of the away supporters.
The Chi fans went nuts.
Inflatables – a cow, a palm tree, a surf board, a beach ball or two, bounced around between the 450 City supporters who burst into a rendition of “Let’s all have a disco” and the players all raced to celebrate with the club’s first ever scorer of a ‘proper’ round goal.
The fans hung around for as long as they could after Darren Drysdale blew the final whistle to applaud the team before heading towards the coaches and a long drive back to Sussex.
Plaudits poured in from the football world for the Chichester players, management and staff.
Phil Annets of FA Fact File commented on Twitter, “Bad luck today guys, but everyone involved with the club can be mightily proud of your FA Cup achievements this season”, Bognor Regis Town FC tweeted “Great effort, you should be proud, well done!” and a Tranmere supporter added, “Credit to you. Gave us a good game”.
Chichester – Mowthorpe, Davidson, Hutchings, Cody, Heath, Clack, Horncastle, Jones, Rowlatt, Haitham, Iordache. Subs – (Bennetts, Axell, Peake, Wild, Dunn, Biggs, Ender)