The road to Wembley: my FA Cup odyssey
John Stoneman's addicted - to the FA Cup. Last season he watched a game in each round, from grungy Haringey Borough to super-shiny Wembley. And he's still fixated.
John Stoneman's addicted - to the FA Cup. Last season he watched a game in each round, from grungy Haringey Borough to super-shiny Wembley. And he's still fixated. Steven Russell meets Essex's very own Nick Hornby
“I COME across as a real harpy, don't I?” grins Vanessa Stoneman, peeping around the study doorway. Not at all - though, as an FA Cup widow with three children, a couple of Jack Russells and a three-legged cat to care for, she's had fair cause to become a bit tetchy over the past year. It goes back to July, 2007, when hubby John found himself sitting in this very same room, browsing the Football Association website for reasons he can't recall. His eye was caught by the fixtures for the Extra Preliminary Round of the Cup. The journey to Wembley was starting again only two months or so after Chelsea and Manchester United had slugged it out in the revamped stadium's first final.
There was a record entry of 731 teams, he noted: sides with evocative names such as Glasshoughton Welfare and Jarrow Roofing Boldon Community Association - all with the glint of the iconic Wembley arch in their eyes, however unrealistic the dream.
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That's the magic of the FA Cup, muses John. It's like the Holy Grail, “a mythical quest seemingly out of reach, promising great riches but where the journey itself is the actual reward”. Sitting in his study that summer's day, he made a snap decision: he'd embark on that journey. And where better to start than match 104: Haringey Borough v Wembley FC?
The idea was to follow the winner to the end of their Cup trail, whenever that might come - and then follow subsequent victors until they got knocked out or reach Wembley. John's quest would see him travel more than 2,000 miles, spend about £1,000, watch more than 1,700 minutes of football and witness 63 goals in the lead-up to the final on Saturday, May 17, 2008. And he'd use the dead time of his daily commute from Essex to London writing a book about it, with accounts on his adventures mixed with chapters about his life and what football's meant to him over the years.
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He'd visit some of the game's most hallowed arenas and also experience “some real stinkers, at stadiums which are barely worthy of the title, watching players whose pre-match build-up is a doner kebab, five pints of lager and half a packet of Marlboro Lights”.
He'd swear, cheer, sing and jeer, tasting “the adrenaline rush of the last-minute goal, the sudden, all-encompassing misery of the late winner and the slow, lingering death of the plucky but outclassed minnow”. And, most importantly, he'd rediscover his love of football - “something that I had lived and breathed for, taken for granted, and then with disillusionment discarded”.
He'd make a transatlantic dash to watch Southend get turfed out by Barnsley, even buy a season ticket at the Yorkshire club so he could experience one of the biggest games in the club's history, and then come within touching distance of the famous old pot itself as it passed by his fancy “corporate” seat at Wembley.
But first, the beginning. Haringey Borough's Coles Park Stadium, on August 18, 2007, is “as dilapidated a sporting venue as you could wish for”. A 2-2 is played out before 62 spectators. That night, full of enthusiasm, John phones his dad and tells him of both the adventure he's just embarked upon and his idea for a book. “Not that old chestnut,” his father says. “It's been done. Loads of people have done it.” It will cost a fortune. “What's the point, son?”
“I wished I hadn't mentioned it to him. His arguments were all valid,” reflects John. “And put his way it seemed like a completely pointless exercise.”
Things didn't get much better when he phoned wife Vanessa, on holiday with children Eden, Evie and Jonathan in France, where her parents lived. Time to break the news of his new-found passion . . .
It isn't a totally comfortable conversation. Vanessa's not convinced and John realises his reasoning is starting to sound a bit lame. “This is so typical of you,” he hears down the phoneline from the middle of nowhere. “Where exactly are you going to find the time? And who do you expect to look after the kids while you are swanning off to football?”
To be fair, he concedes after bidding goodbye, his life has been littered with a series of obsessions that eventually petered out: the violin when young, war games in his teens and early 20s, a summer of playing baseball, and then the relaunch of a speedway team in Hertfordshire. And a couple of marathons, in Stockholm and Rome. Still, this would be different.
The Tuesday night brought the replay: a 3-0 triumph (and £500 prize-money) for Wembley in front of a
57-strong “crowd”. (Before that, he slipped off to a Sunday game - the first all-Asian FA Cup match between Sporting Bengal and London APSA at the Mile End Stadium.)
September 1, the date of the preliminary round, proves a pivotal day - the genesis of an enduring relationship with Ware Football Club. Before going off to their game at Wembley, John takes two of the children to their swimming lessons and then throws himself into household chores to earn some Brownie points. The Hertfordshire lads clinch an emphatic 4-1 win.
And so the FA Cup trundles on, with our adventurer marching to the beat of a fortnightly tune: researching the match, enjoying the mounting sense of anticipation, watching the game, writing about it. Even at this stage there are signs of addiction: logging on to the web, via mobile phone and while travelling on a Central Line tube train, to discover the Second Qualifying Round match-ups.
A bit later, the kids are enlisted to bring a touch of drama to the draw, which at this early stage of the competition is simply published on the FA website, rather than being given the big TV build-up with bags and balls. So the Stonemans added its own pizzazz: the two girls reading out the teams and Jonathan and dad supplying theatrical oohs! and ahhs!
Ware march on past Great Wakering Rovers (a nine-goal thriller), Thurrock and Hythe Town. The latter's ground is next to a Ministry of Defence firing range - operating on the afternoon of the game, too. On the morning of the Fourth Qualifying Round clash against Tonbridge Angels, a happy John suspects he's becoming a Ware fan . . .
There's been a lovely freedom during the early games - the ability, as a spectator, to walk around the sparsely-populated grounds, taking pictures. That's more limited at this match, where 816 folk watch the Ware boys come from behind to win 3-1 and bank £10,000.
The next round, Ware v Kidderminster Harriers, is all-ticket and prices have gone up another £4 to £12. More than 2,000 throng Wodson Park. John, fretting about his underdogs, takes Eden with him. “I've watched Ware so many times now that I'm starting to like them and I think we're going to lose today. Eden gives me a long, hard look and I wonder what she is thinking. You never expect your parents to show any frailties, any weaknesses. Eden is moving towards her teens; one term at senior school and she has already shed all semblance of childhood. Not quite a teenager, but no longer my little girl. 'It will be all right,' she says reassuringly, our parent-child roles momentarily reversed.”
His anxiety isn't misplaced: Ware are knocked out by two latish goals. But he does go home with an official FA ball, caught when a Kidderminster striker tossed it into the crowd at the final whistle. Naturally, he's still got this memento at home near Braintree.
In November, the whole family watches the second round draw on TV. “'It feels like we're all a part of this now,' Vanessa said . . . and a warm glow spread through my body.”
The Harriers are drawn at Dagenham & Redbridge. Cue great joy and an inexplicable chorus or two of Knees Up Mother Brown. John had played a charity match there when he was a reporter on a local paper - nutmegging Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley in the process - and had also witnessed a rollercoaster FA Cup match against Orient in 1992. He could unequivocally throw his support behind the Daggers.
D&R follow the script by winning 3-1, and are then pitted against . . . Southend. More memories. A match at Roots Hall in 2000 was the first time he'd watched live football in six years. It was three weeks after the birth of middle child Evie - a mini mid-life crisis, maybe. John went to a few more Southend games, and then didn't attend more live clashes until 2005, when Eden began an interest in football.
This time, the whole family makes the short trip across Essex. He reckons there's been a bit of a sea-change in Vanessa, who can see it's not just a passing fancy. John puts it down to him making the kids happy with the staging of the mock draws; when her children are happy, so is she.
The seasiders triumph 5-2 to earn a home tie against Barnsley.
Trouble is, the game has been brought forward to a Friday night, and Thursday morning sees him sitting in a hotel room in Boston, America. “I have a full day of work meetings arranged for Thursday but I'm going to have to bunk off and make a dash to New York for the only scheduled direct flight which can get me back to Stansted in time to make it to Southend.”
He makes it, thanks to a four-hour train ride to New York and a subway trip, but feels a tad second-hand at the game, where Southend's huffing and puffing and possession is trumped by the visitors' class.
Round five sends Barnsley to Liverpool, and our man into despondency. Fearing tickets will be like gold dust he gambles £45 on an online tout promising a seat, and also applies for places in corporate hospitality sections.
Both come through, in the event, and Eden accompanies Dad to Anfield. John's friend Nick, an American, also travels to Merseyside, banking on the tout's ticket being genuine. (It is.) Father and daughter find themselves close to the action in the front row, and he feels the hairs on the back of his legs standing up when the Scousers raise their scarves and sing the Liverpool anthem You'll Never Walk Alone.
It looks as if a draw is on the cards - the worst result, since it presents the challenge of getting a ticket for the replay - but Barnsley slay the giants with a goal from nothing in the dying seconds. “The only thing all three of us can muster, as 40,000 disappointed Liverpool fans stream by, is a bemused 'Wow'.”
Monday's draw pits the Tykes against Chelsea. John's hatched an elaborate plan over the weekend and now phones Barnsley to buy a season ticket, despite there being only three months or so of the season left. But, crucially, it entitles him to buy two FA Cup tickets. “At just over £200 I admit it was a bit steep . . . The only thing left to do now was to break the news of this latest spend to Vanessa.”
In the event he makes three trips to Yorkshire: one to get the season ticket, a second to secure his match seats, and finally to attend the game. Against the odds, the underdogs send Roman Abramovich's rich boys scurrying back to London.
“The journey from Oakwell Stadium to where my car was parked across the town centre was one of the happiest experiences of my life. It wasn't just that I was happy, but rather that everyone around me was ecstatic.”
Along the way, he'd also shelled out £100 to join Barnsley's Oakwell Centenary Club and would thus be entitled to six tickets for the Wembley semi-final. The whole family could go.
On the day tickets go on sale, he rises at 4am to drive to Yorkshire, aiming to be back in Essex by noon for a work-related conference call. But on arrival at the stadium he sees hundreds of people waiting.
The process is painfully slow and it will be nearly seven hours before he reaches a turnstile. He forgets about his conference call until texted by his boss. “For another forty minutes I stood in the cold with my mobile phone to my ear, occasionally coming off mute to spout on about advertising banners, click-through rates, fill rates and revenue recognition, in clipped Thames Estuary tones, and to the total bemusement of the Yorkshire locals around me.”
Game day in April dawns and a thick layer of snow has fallen overnight. Jonathan decides he doesn't want to go to the match and mum stays with him. John forgets to charge his camera battery and Barnsley lose 1-0 to Cardiff. Evie's sick on the way back and then the car loses all power and he has to call Green Flag. They get home at 10pm, four hours after leaving Wembley.
John has a few anxious thoughts about tickets for the final, but a chance chat with a colleague by the coffee machine sows seeds that will bear fruit. Clive's friend of a friend, a City bloke, has access to Wembley's posh Corinthian Club corporate entertaining area. John could have a padded seat for £250. “I went to the cash machine at lunchtime, withdrew the money, and bought myself a cup final ticket for one of the best seats in the stadium, and all the booze I could manage.”
His FA Cup fare has gone from tea and cheeseburger at Haringey to fillet steak and champagne at Wembley.
May 17 comes around and John, sporting his blue Ware FA Cup T-shirt, feels a bit hollow. Maybe it's because he has no affiliation to the finalists. It's also dull and misty, rather than the blue-sky day of his daydreams. “But probably the most accurate answer is that I simply don't want this journey to come to an end.”
The sense of occasion begins to seep into his veins, however. Katherine Jenkins sings Land of My Fathers, and he joins in with Lesley Garrett's God Save the Queen. But he still can't get overly-enthusiastic about two teams he barely recognises.
Kanu's 37th-minute goal-line poke puts Portsmouth in the driving seat. “I find myself staring at the giant electronic scoreboard, whose clock is slowly counting down, measuring out the final few yards of my mythical quest. I can feel that sense of emptiness filling my soul . . . I am probably the only person in the stadium who wants this game to continue ad infinitum.” It can't, of course, and Pompey triumph.
They think it's all over, but it's not quite. John's Corinthian Club perch places him next to the steps down from the royal box. The deflated Cardiff players traipse by, followed by the victors.
“Finally, at the back of the line, smiling from ear to ear and mobbed by well-wishers, comes (manager) Harry Redknapp. In his hands is the Holy Grail. As he walks past me, and I snap furiously with my Nikon in one hand, the Football Association Challenge Cup is so close to me I can reach out and touch it . . .”
MISSION accomplished - final whistle blown, book written and printed - you'd have thought that would be it. But the last chapter gives the address of his website: www.roadfromwembley.com. A click brings up what looks like suspiciously like reports from this season's FA Cup rounds. So he's been going this season as well . . .
“Yeah.” A slightly sheepish look. “Thing is, the FA Cup became an absolute obsession.”
Friendships were renewed on August 16, 2008. Holidaying on the south coast, John went with son Jonathan and his dad to see Wessex Premier League team VT FC lose 0-2 to Newport Pagnell Town. From then it's been, among other stopping-off points, Royston, Saffron Walden, Sudbury, Ware (naturally), and Bury Town at the end of October. So, what happened? John's posting, recounting a conversation with long-suffering Vanessa the night before the Extra Preliminary Round, reveals all.
“'You're not doing it again are you?' she asked, suspiciously. 'No, no of course not . . .' Pregnant pause.
'You're doing it again, aren't you?' 'Just a couple of rounds,' I replied meekly, 'just the early ones. I'm not going all the way again.' 'You'd better not be.'
“The problem was, or rather the problem is, that I do want to do it again. I had wanted to do it again from the minute the final whistle had blown between Portsmouth and Cardiff at Wembley three months ago. The gaping void of what happens next had been the worst part of the whole odyssey.
“I can't speak for any of the other Road To Wembleyians out there, but for me the FA Cup has become like a drug, and I was desperate for another fix.”
He flicks through the calendar in his study. Alongside the birthdays and friends' visits, the rounds of the 2008/09 FA Cup are highlighted. “Nothing else happens on these ones!” he chuckles.
John's not writing a book this time, limiting himself to his web postings, and admits this year's campaign is not the same. Because he's not following particular teams, there isn't that intense emotional attachment.
So is there a chance this new journey might peter out before Wembley?
“Well, the minute you miss one, you're done . . . but you never want to miss one! There are definitely elements of obsessive compulsion in my character.”
And how is Vanessa taking it in practice? Does she tut?
“Yeah. We bargain like any couple. I took Eden and Evie with me to Colchester (a second-round defeat by Leyton Orient) and she had the afternoon sitting watching Agatha Christie and Poirot without me bothering her!”
The lady herself admits: “I can't put my foot down with John, I'm afraid! When I first met him, he was into baseball, I think. Then there was speedway. That was the worst.”
She doesn't agitate, though. “I don't really, do I?” she says, glancing at her husband. “I'm quite forgiving. Sometimes I do, when I've forgotten it's the day. He'll say three weeks back that he'll be going that day, and I forget, and then he'll say on the day . . .”
“That's why I'm putting it on the calendar!”
“Actually, I'll always know it's the day, because I'll get breakfast in bed. John is totally transparent. But I've got the dogs and the kids; that's all I need,” she smiles.
Time is in short supply in the Stoneman household. As Nokia Media Network's head of sales in Europe, the Middle East and Africa - putting information and advertising on mobile phone services - he travels widely. Today, before meeting the EADT, he flew in from Cairo. Trips to Switzerland and Barcelona are next up.
Vanessa's had the last laugh with all this football frippery, though. John recently got a call from Barnsley Football Club, saying the Stoneman household was £1,000 better off after winning the Centenary Club draw. It more or less exactly covered the money he'd spend on his FA Cup dream.
“But the catch was that I'd joined using Vanessa's name, and so it was her name on the cheque, and she banked the £1,000 and said 'Thank you very much; I'll take that!' So we've kind of reached a quid pro quo on that one.”
Up for the Cup
John Stoneman spent £928.25 on tickets and programmes
He travelled 2,055 miles
His book, The Road From Wembley, is published by Matador at £9.99
Teamsheet: John Stoneman
Grew up in Harold Wood
Mum was a teacher, Dad an accountant
Discovered the FA Cup in 1979, when seven
Alan Sunderland's goal saw Arsenal beat Manchester United
Obsessed with playing football as a child
As a sixth-former, was invited to play for Braintree & Bocking United in the Mid-Essex League
Many of his teachers played for the side
Scored a goal in cup final
Later played a season at a higher level, the Essex Intermediate League, 'but nothing beats that moment'
Worked as a reporter on east London newspapers after leaving school in 1990, starting on £6,600
Later went into the internet- and mobile-phone based advertising business
Met wife Vanessa when he was a journalist and she was a Metropolitan Police press officer
Daughter Eden is 12, Evie about to turn nine and Jonathan soon to be seven