Thursday 01st September 2005

The Real Deal - Wembley Manuscript
by Tommy Sampson

Chapter 9

Mossley is just outside Manchester and I drove up to watch them play at home to Salford on a Tuesday evening late in February.

Manchester United were playing at home the same evening and I had a devil of a job finding a decent hotel.  I eventually booked into one in Chester about fifty miles away.  

Roy sanctioned all mine and Keith’s travel and accommodation enabling us to watch our opponents wherever they were in the country.    I would normally go midweek and because of work commitments Keith would go on Saturdays. 

This policy certainly went a long way to our eventual triumph because we made sure that nothing would surprise us 

Roly Graham had been suffering with a bad toe injury and because of our heavy programme of matches I decided to cover myself by signing another midfielder.   Tony Eeles was my target. 

Tony was at Ashford Town from whom I had already signed Jon Warden.  I knew they had financial difficulties so I chanced my arm with “Eelsey”. 

Tony Reynolds, Ashford’s manager, reluctantly agreed to let me  talk to Tony quickly because of the deadline for our quarter final tie against Mossley.   Tony was a talented player, who had famously scored the goal that kept Gillingham in the Football League a few years earlier.

I met him in the Stakis Hotel, Maidstone, the afternoon after I had traveled to Manchester.   We virtually agreed everything over a pot of tea and Tony was looking forward to joining our Wembley adventure. 

I phoned Reynolds to tell him everything had gone through and all we needed to complete was the paperwork.  The following morning I got a call from the Ashford manager, who sheepishly told me everything was ok bar one issue.

I listened open-mouthed as Tony informed me that his Chairman, who had agreed to release Eeles from his contract two days earlier, suddenly wanted £5,000 for his signature. 

Tony Reynolds knew my answer without me uttering a word.  He knew that with only six weeks of the season and Tony Eeles’s contract left it would be daft of me to carry on with the deal.  

Luckily “Eelesy” not coming didn’t prove too costly as we managed to nurse Roly through but I have teased Tony every since over his non-appearance at Wembley. 

Keith carried out the usual scouting reconnaissance and we both agreed that Mossley, from the North Western Trains League, would be our hardest test to date.  Our progress would be decided by how well we could stand up for ourselves on the day. 

By co-incidence Ramsgate had also drawn a team from the same league, Newcastle Town who had won through after a replay against Chasetown.

Jim Ward and I were taken out to lunch by local journalist Mark Stokes to chat about our prospective matches.  It was the first time Kent had two teams into the last eight.  

Jim’s superstition was to wear the same suit to all his games while mine was making sure I always carried photos of my late wife and mother.   With Mark’s notebook full to the brim we shook hands and genuinely wished each other the best of luck.  Each hoping we would meet again soon at Craven Cottage for Monday’s semi-final draw.

Close to 1,000 people watched us defeat our northern opponents 3-1 in a hard-fought but good quality football match. 

Meridian TV covered the game with the local hacks being joined by gentlemen from the national press.  

During the week I decided on an unusual method of relieving the nerves and tension before the game by making the players wear womens underwear under their match day clothing.

Strangely enough the suggestion was met with more enthusiasm than I anticipated and after training on Thursday everybody left for home with other things on their mind rather than our North Western League opponents.

Come the Saturday both sets of players were inspecting the playing surface and I couldn't help raise a chuckle wondering what our opponents would think if they knew the attire my players were concealing.

The big moment came at 1.45pm when everybody assembled in the home team dressing room and ordered to strip at the same time revealing all.

The howls of laughter and derisive comments would have filtered through to the away teams dressing room and who knows what they were making of the din.

In front of me stood the team I was hoping would push us through to the FA Vase semi-finals dressed in an assortment of stockings, suspenders, tights, teddies, cami-knickers and the like, some looking like they were enjoying it and others uncomfortable.

My own thoughts were that no-one had "bottled" if and this was another indication of the camaraderie we had as well as thier minds had been relieved for a short while of the tension brought on by such a big game.

My own regret is that there is no photographic record of the occasion.

I am sure I could have extorted money out of people like Steve Lovell, Steve Best, Jon Warden, Marc Seager and Colin Ford who all looked as they were enjoying it far too much!!!!

However, it was time for the fun to end and we turned our mind to the job in hand.

I burnt nervous energy by the truckload as the game tilted one way and then the other.  We produced an outstanding first-half performance to lead 1-0 only to come out for the second half look as though we were afraid of winning.  

Wave after wave of attacks saw us defend deeper and deeper until the inevitable happened and they scored.  Fortunately for us the effort was disallowed for what looked like an imaginary foul on our goalkeeper Craig Tucker. 

Soon after we secured a stronger foothold on the game and despite a last minute scare when they scored we just waltzed up the other end scoring again to ease ourselves into the semi-finals.

Scenes of joyous celebration followed as the realisation sunk in all around the ground and I embraced everybody and anybody who fancied being intimate. 

“Taunton 1 Vauxhall Motors 5” blared out from the tanoy and despite my euphoria I was alert enough to appreciate the ramifications of one of the real favourites going out of the competition.

As the celebrations settled down someone in the dressing room asked “how did Ramsgate get on?”.  Amazingly I had totally forgot about their game but suddenly it became imperative to find out how they were doing.   With us already in the semis what price a two-legged tie with our East Kent rivals or perhaps we could do battle at Wembley?

I let my mind wonder a bit and the thought of Jim and I walking out together at Wembley appealed to me.   Reaching the directors’ area, I avoided the bar because if I had gone in I probably wouldn’t have got out of there.  I asked the same question that had been asked in our dressing room.  

“Extra time” someone said; “nil-nil at ninety minutes” said another.   I looked at my watch which said 5.20pm.  Could it really have been half-an-hour since we had prevailed?  I know the agonies you endure as a manager on days as special as this one and Jim was having his emotions stretched even further only a few miles down the road. 

A mouthful of sandwich and one scotch and american later, the news came through. Ramsgate had lost.   “1-0”, I heard someone say. “Is that right?” I enquired knowing that rogue results over phones are commonplace.  “You sure they’re not still playing?  Find out, ring the ground” I pushed. 

As you can imagine Ramsgate’s phone was red hot so son-one could confirm the result one way or the other.   Finally about 5.45pm confirmation came through, the result was correct, we were the only Kent team left.  I made a conscious decision not to ring Jim that night.  What could I say that would be of any consolation? 

I know I would have tried to find a hole somewhere and buried myself away because this year of all years to get so close and to lose so narrowly would have really hurt.  I got Jim the following day and we talked loosely about our games and he wished me well. 

My sense of achievement at steering us to this vital stage was intensified in a strange way because of the depth and nature of Jim’s disappointment.