The season boss Chris Hardy brought back cup fever back for Whitby Town
"If we hadn’t have got that goal I’d have been disappointed for everyone that day, for more than just the reasons you have as a football manager. Everyone in there deserved that goal.”
That goal in question wasn’t just any goal. It was the goal that kept the dream alive. The goal that sent over 1,000 Whitby fans into raptures and produced the loudest noise the ground had heard for many a year.
Arms were flying everywhere, fans were on the pitch, bodies all blended into one motion as simply everybody bar the hundred-odd Stourbridge fans jumped up and down in pandemonium. FA Cup fever was back at the Turnbull Ground and we were all behind it.
And while we could all be forgiven for feeling relief after the chaos - after all the first round dream was still alive –one man who could be forgiven more so is Chris Hardy
Under his stewardship, FA Cup wins have come almost at a premium. In fact, when it comes to moments to forget, there’s one that will stick firmly in the mind of any supporter in recent years – that of the trip to minnows Penistone Church, when the Blues fell to a late goal from Andy Ring – a man who wouldn’t look out of place in your local greasy spoon.
With results like that – and the fact that Hardy had only got past the first qualifying round once in his three attempts to that point, there was naturally pressure to see a progression this season.
It’s forever noted the benefits of winning in the FA Cup, but for 16 years, Whitby have had real trouble cracking that case, and so had Hardy.
His only previous progression with Whitby past the first qualifying round came in 2016 – a replay win at Winsford United, who had held the Seasiders the previous Saturday in a 3-3 draw, a game in which Whitby led.
The 4-0 win at Widnes looked routine – and always will do on paper. Whitby scored early and built from there, though they could have been a goal down before the scoring was opened.
A win was a win, however, and the reward was another trip on the road – their fifth consecutive FA Cup tie away from home – to 1874 Northwich of the North West Counties League, two steps below the Seasiders in the pyramid.
While difficult conditions threatened to get in the way of Whitby’s progression, they weren’t going to let it.
Backed by an army of rowdy, drum-wielding supporters, the Blues fought their way to a 1-0 win.
It was National League North opposition up next for Whitby and this time they’d been drawn at the Towbar Express Stadium at the Turnbull Ground against Gloucester City.
The Blues battled well when the Tigers made their long journey north, Dan Rowe putting them ahead with 25 minutes left on the clock
The lead wasn’t to see out the remainder of the time on the clock, however, with the visitors dealing a bitter blow to Whitby’s dreams with a leveller in the game’s dying seconds.
The heartbreak of having to go to a replay wasn’t something that was on the mind of Hardy – or rather allowed to get to the forefront of his mind – the following day.
“The Sunday, the day after, was actually my birthday. The missus had planned a day out for us but that had to go by the wayside.
“You have to remember too, at one point we only had seven players available, and that included the keepers. It was a real headache trying to work with people to get days off work and the like.
“In the end we managed to get a squad of 14 together, three of those being goalkeepers.”
Despite what many would consider being a scratch squad making the journey, Hardy and his side all had faith that the job could be done.
As it panned out, Whitby ran out 3-1 winners on the night, Kieran Weledji getting two, with Adam Gell adding the other, to ensure a night that would go down in Whitby Town and FA Cup folklore.
“Everyone to a man was excellent. They had to be. Everyone had to be seven out of ten otherwise we weren’t getting anything from the game.
“The lads really rose to the occasion that night and gave it everything they had. They headed and kicked every ball that came their way.
“It maybe wasn’t a great performance from the footballing purist point of view, where we dominated the ball, probed and asked questions, but from an organisational point of view and a grit and determination point of view the boys were excellent. In fact they were that and more.”
The following day saw Hardy and the club’s chairman fielding calls from both national and local media – including TalkSport – all of who had jumped on what was seemingly the story of the competition so far.
“It was a real romance of the cup kind of story. Finishing the game with the centre-half up front who scores two and two goalkeepers on the field.
“I can get why people would jump all over it and people would want to know the story. It had everything that the FA Cup is about written all over it.
“Sometimes it’s maybe played down a bit, saying ‘they had three goalkeepers out of 14’ and there’s maybe a little bit of a laugh and a joke about it, but the shifts that the guys put in that night, regardless of having three goalkeepers, was fantastic.
“It had to be a massive effort to win in the back yard of opponents in the division above, and the lads did just that.
“As much as I appreciate the novelty of it, it’s important that we don’t overlook how much of a massive achievement it was as well.”
On the way to Evesham to face the Tigers - Whitby learned their fate should they win - a home tie with Stourbridge.
Going into the Stourbridge game, the mood around the town was one of excitement.
This was the first time in 16 years that the Blues had reached this stage of the competition, and they’d done it in a fashion that
“At this point what we’re doing is gathering momentum. We’d seen a good crowd in the previous round against Gloucester, and we’d seen an upturn in crowds at the Turnbull in general.
Then on that particular day there was a real buzz about the place.
“The support that day was special, and as good as I’ve seen it. We’ve seen Scarborough and those derby-type games, but this had a different feel about it.
“It had a real FA Cup feel about it - it ticked loads of boxes and I feel it gave us a good platform to beat a Stourbridge side that I don’t feel were as dominant as they’d maybe been over recent years.
“There was a big prize there for us, it was one that we were all focused on and one we were all geared towards a positive outcome. That day, the support outlined that it was a big occasion.
“We didn’t really get to where I’d have liked us to have got at times. We didn’t really find that breakthrough or that extra gear that we needed. It wasn’t through a lack of effort, the boys put everything into it, but the occasion was maybe just a bit too big for us.”
Whitby went a goal behind in the clash, though heads around the ground refused to drop. The packed Shed kept working its way through an extensive repertoire that any Football League terrace would be proud of, and got their moment twelve minutes from time, as Matty Tymon managed to get the ball between the Stourbridge keeper and the right-hand upright - cue limbs.
“We were freely scoring goals up until then so you felt we had a chance. The lads were asking questions, they were knocking at the door and you just hoped that something went in from somewhere because in getting one, you’ve then got a little bit of momentum to go and get another that potentially wins you the game. We weren’t quite able to do that but we had the opportunities.
“But it kept the cup run alive and it kept the opportunity to go to Stourbridge on the Monday and have another go at it and be in the hat for the first round.
“With all that in mind, it would have been my biggest disappointment in that game, had we not scored and given the Turnbull something to shout about. If we’d have petered out to a 1-0 defeat and seen that unbelievable atmosphere and everyone in there go home disappointed that would have been a real shame, so with an equaliser we kept the dream alive for the fans and everyone at the club."
It was another Monday night trip for Whitby, again little over 48 hours after the original game, for the replay, on first round draw night.
Eastleigh or Welling United at home lay in wait for whoever progressed and Whitby got themselves out of the traps quickest, taking the lead through Matty Tymon, the Blues striker charging down the Stourbridge goalkeeper’s clearance, with his block ricocheting into the net via the post.
Dan Rowe’s saved penalty did little to dampen the spirits of Whitby’s rowdy travelling faithful, who kept singing, and on 40 minutes they were cheering louder than ever before as Adam Gell tapped into an empty net.
From there, though, the Glassboys had the running, immediately replying via Dave Bellis’ shin to half the deficit going into the break and change the course of momentum in the clash.
The second half, you could see what was coming and the luck of the green Whitby had in their previous replay with Gloucester had gone in Stourbridge’s favour this time, with a fortuitous leveller from Alex Nicholls, before Kristian Green poked home Chay Tilt’s corner to send the home supporters into raptures, ending Whitby’s FA Cup dream in the process.
“Over the ninety minutes Stourbridge were the better side - we were beaten by the better side, but that’s not to say that had we delivered in our key moments, the outcome would have been different.
“There were two key moments in the game that spring to mind, that change the outcome. The penalty miss, which was huge, but maybe even bigger than that, the three-on-one situation that we had, where we’ve taken a shot on instead of making sure the ball finds the back of the net.
“They’re probably the two moments in the game that you think, if we can do better in one of them, or both of them, then the outcome could have been different.
“You get a point where potentially you could have been 3-0 up when Gelly scores instead of 2-0 up, there’s a huge amount of difference between those two scorelines, but that’s what football is about. It’s about moments and it’s about goals changing games, which is what happened.
“But on reflection on the game, at the end of the tie involving us at home, which I thought was a fairly even affair, I thought they were the better team on the night down there and deserved to win the game and progress to the first round.”