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AWAY DAYS



Birchall's Finest Hour
So we'd made the third round of the FA Cup again, for the the second year running that is. Everyone was eagerly anticipating who we'd be drawn against. The prospect of another Man Utd, or an Arsenal or a Liverpool was too much excitement for your average League Two supporter. So imagine the disappointment, the empty feeling, the horror when Swindon Town were pulled out of the hat. I mean, Swindon are bigger than us obviously, but it's like the poor bloke on Bullseye who won £20 and then gets a motorboat wheeled out in front of him under the sickening cry of 'let's have a look at what you could have won!'

However, undeterred to let this affect one of the best days in the annual footballing calendar, a big trip to Swindon was planned. It seemed like everyone had piled onto the train for this, with around twenty of us meeting another ten just off the platform at Kings' Cross. The sight of thirty men, each of them with a bag containing tins of alcohol of which some had already been opened, meeting and shaking hands in the middle of train station at 10am araised some glaring views from the nearby Police Officers. You can just imagine what it must have looked like to them, but of course, such activity is not the order of the day.

Anyhow, we moved through London's Underground swiftly onto Paddington where a carriage was taken over with Barnet supporters on their big day out. Fortunately there was no such thing as a dry train in this instance and alcohol was flowing nicely, but that goes without saying by now doesn't it?

We had arrived in Swindon by 12 and holed up in the local Walkabout. More Barnet fans joined us here, and it seemed like everyone was out and about. It's rare for lots of people to go to a Barnet away game these days y'know. Some eventually moved on and some stayed put but we had made it to the ground for around half two.

It was great to notice that the concourse served alcohol, however it was one of those where you cannot be in sight of the pitch whilst carrying an alcoholic beverage. Needless to say that the doorway guarding the stairs into the seating area was hastily slammed shut by the nearby steward when the slightest whiff of Strongbow filled the air. Heaven forbid that people were actually allowed to look into the ground, though such is the way of English football nowadays with its silly, trivial regulations which are of course, not a problem in other countries or sports. Save it for another day...

The league season had hit a low after a promising start so the FA Cup was a nice little distraction away from some dreadful league performances. Well, in fact it was a pretty massive distraction, and pretty enjoyable at that. We had played Swindon in the season previous as they got promoted to League One, including a rather harsh last minute defeat at The County Ground. Hopes were OK, if not overly optimistic, but we managed to hold our own without posing much of a threat in a first half lacking in incident at either end.

The second half livened up somewhat, but around the hour mark we fell behind after some increasing Swindon pressure. It was such a messy, sloppy goal and very frustrating. At that point, the atmosphere amongst the Barnet fans turned from that of loud, jovial FA Cup enjoyment to one of annoyance at the 4-5-1 with Cliff Akurang up front formation that dogged us for months. Eventually, we changed to 4-4-2 with the introduction of Adam Birchall and Anthony Thomas.

Whilst there was a slight improvement to our play, we never looked like seriously threating the Swindon goal, until a moment of sheer magic around five minutes from time. I mean, the phrase 'The Magic Of The FA Cup' gets banded around a lot these days, but this was pretty high up in the stakes for us.

A long punt from Rob Beckwith was neatly plucked out of the air by the foot of Adam Birchall. Ignoring his innate ability to hold the ball up and wait for support, Birchall sensed his chance. He had time towards goal, pick his spot and curl the ball beautifully into the corner of the Swindon net.

It's hard to put the reaction of myself, those around me and the rest of the Barnet fans in the top section of the away enclosure into words, though with some thought I could talk about it all day and all night. The place just went ballistic, mad, mental, crazy. Our group had split up in the stand but I've heard many similar descriptions of what happened after that goal. It just sums up what it is to be a football fan. To go through all these terrible experiences of woeful matches miles from home and seeing your team get beat week after week is bad, but it is countered very strongly by moments like Adam Birchall's goal at Swindon.

The world just became a mad blur when that ball hit the net. I jumped around like a lunatic, I knocked Barrington's glasses off, I jumped into the row in front of me, hugged some of the others, climbed back to my row and jumped around some more hugging people in the row behind. The others who were elsewhere in the stand later described how they fell over stairs, seats, eachother in a state of pure bliss for a matter of just half a minute or so. Nothing matches that buzz, nothing, and at the risk of rambling further, I'll cut it short now. Needless to say, Adam Birchall's goal will always live in the memory.

The next five or so minutes were spent with some rowdy celebration of the equalising goal. Neal Bishop very nearly scored a winner from close to his own half, the mind boggles...! By the end, a draw felt like a win and those raucous celebrations spilled out of the ground and onto the streets of Swindon as we walked back to the train station.

Much celebration was had in the adjacent pub and the Londonbound platform. The replay wasn't for a week or so but we were in the fourth round draw once more and it was felt necessary to let everyone in Swindon station know with drunken, noisy tributes to our FA Cup heroes.

The group parted on arrival back in London, some continuing the party long into the night whereas some called it quits while they were ahead. For all involved though it was a superb day out, crowned by one of my favourite Barnet moments ever ever ever.

We won the replay on penalties, by the way.



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