FA SUNDAY CUP (ROUND 1 PREVIEW): PART 2 – SKEW BRIDGE -v- HIGHGATE ALBION (Hertfordshire –v- Middlesex)
The FA Sunday Cup is probably the most maligned and under-appreciated of the FA’s competitions. A cup competition that has featured professional top flight footballers and that has a 57 year history, is deserving of more attention and respect. The FA Sunday Cup is like the Champions League of Sunday football, and features the best Sunday teams from across England. For those who expect it to feature a group of hung over, unfit, out of shape middle aged men – you will be very pleasantly surprised at the quality of play. A bystander who watched a game in this competition some years ago confessed: “I was very, very, very shocked just how good the football was”.
In a series of articles I will preview this year’s truncated tournament that features only 64 teams (down from the usual entrant list of about 100 teams).
Due to the geographic regionalisation of the early rounds, almost 30% of the first round games feature local league derbies between teams in the same division as each other. In the previous article I previewed the Luton derby between last year’s beaten finalists St Joseph’s and Club Lewsey.
The second tie I am previewing features the respective champions of the Hertfordshire Advertiser Sunday League and the Barnet Sunday League in north London.
SKEW BRIDGE -v- HIGHGATE ALBION
Date: Sunday December 5, 2021
Venue: Harpenden Town FC, Rothamsted Park, Amenbury Lane, Harpenden, Hertfordshire AL5 2EF (host stadium’s club plays at Step 5 of the National League System in the Premier Division of the Spartan South Midlands League)
When pub landlord Barry Gray took over the rundown Queen’s Head pub on Southdown Road in Harpenden in Hertfordshire, he renovated it and changed its name to Skew Bridge. Gray’s acquisition of the pub indirecty led to the formation of Hertfordshire’s best Sunday football team. After redecorating the newly renamed pub, he added a restaurant and extension to it. To increase custom and interest at the pub, Gray contacted Les Crabtree who had been involved in local football for many years, and asked Crabtree to set up a football team based from the pub. Crabtree had years of experience with football teams in the area and was the secretary of semi-professional football team Harpenden Town (who play at Step 5 of the National League System; in the Premier Division of the Spartan South Midlands League).
From this pub, Skew Bridge Rothamsted Football Club was born. The club started life in the now defunct Verulam & District Sunday League and then later joined the St Albans Observer and Review Sunday League (which later renamed itself the Hertfordshire Advertiser Sunday League). This league has had several names and was also formerly known as the St Albans Sunday League.
After being promoted from Division 5 to Division 4, the club formed a reserve team; mostly from a group of youth players from Harpenden Colts’ under-17 team. This group of young players eventually graduated together into the senior team and started a sequence of winning trophies. They won the Premier Division title twice in their first two seasons as the club’s first team (in the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons). This success made the club a magnet and as other players started to join, the club increased to three teams in the 2006-2007 season.
Five in a Row
Les Crabtree resigned as manager and asked some senior players to take over management of the first team so that he could concentrate purely on the club’s administrative side as its secretary. After Crabtree stepped down, Chris Gregory and Simon Andrews became joint player-managers of Skew Bridge. The club dropped down to Division 1 in the 2008-2009 season, but won Division 1 at the first attempt with several games to spare and returned to the Premier Division in the 2009- 2010 season. Since then the club has been a trophy winning machine.
After losing the 2013 Hertfordshire FA Sunday Senior Cup final 1-2 to AFC Boars, Skew Bridge avenged that loss by not only beating AFC Boars in the next year’s final to win the Sunday Senior Cup for the first time, but also kept hold of the trophy for half a decade by winning the Sunday Senior Cup an incredible five seasons in a row between 2014 and 2018. Their run of 6 consecutive Sunday Senior Cup finals and 5 consecutive Sunday Senior Cup wins is a Hertfordshire FA record.
Skew Bridge won the Hertfordshire Advertiser Sunday League (again!) last season, and this season is already top of the table having won every league and cup game it has played. Yet strangely, Skew Bridge has not been able to translate its regional dominance in Hertfordshire to the national stage. The club has entered the FA Sunday Cup 5 times, and has lost in the first round each time. This is really odd and makes them vulnerable to an accusation of being a big fish in a little pond. They can refute that charge if they beat their very impressive first round opponents in this season’s competition.
Highgate Albion are the three time consecutive champions of the Barnet Sunday League. The club entered the FA Sunday Cup for the first time last season and reached the last 16. Last season, Highgate retained the Barnet Sunday League championship in dramatic fashion on goal difference by beating top placed Takers FC twice on the same day in a double header to decide the championship on the last day of the season.
Before the Covid lockdown, Highgate were victims of their own success. They had a big fixture pile up in the 2019-20 season after reaching the semi-final of the London Sunday Challenge Cup, the final of the Middlesex Sunday Premier Cup (after beating highly rated AFC Hammersmith Town in the semi-final), and last sixteen of FA Sunday Cup.
This fixture pile-up cost them. They lost the London Sunday Challenge Cup semi-final to Gower All Stars after extra time, drew 2-2 with Wixams Wanderers of Bedfordshire at full-time in the FA Sunday Cup then lost 4-3 on penalties, and they never got to play the final of the Middlesex Sunday Premier Cup as the Middlesex FA suspended the competition due to Covid.
Highgate Albion is yet to build up a head of steam this season and is only two places above the relegation zone in the Barnet Sunday League. They also suffered a shock 1-2 loss in round 2 of the London Sunday Challenge Cup to their Barnet Sunday League rivals Trabzonspor UK. I think being knocked out of the London Sunday Challenge Cup may be a blessing in disguise for Highgate. Without the distraction of a long London cup campaign, Highgate can prioritise the FA Sunday Cup and avoid the fixture pile up they had last year when competing on multiple fronts in the Barnet Sunday Leaguue, London FA, Middlesex FA, and the FA Sunday Cup.
Highgate has the quality to go far in this competition. Some of its players also play on Saturdays for Barnet based Hadley FC in the Premier Division of the Spartan South Midlands League. These include their rapid forward Solomon Ofori; who is usually a handful for opposition defences and averages a goal a game this season. Prior to joining Highgate, Ofori also has a successful stint with Black Meteors of the Hackney & Leyton Sunday League. Another forward; Excellence Muhemba is not far behind with his goals to games ratio and also plays on Saturdays for Windsor in the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League. Highgate also signed midfielder Jayden Clarke from their league rivals Rising Ballers. Clarke also plays semi-professionally on Saturdays at Step 3 for Hendon FC of the Southern League’s Premier Division.
This should be a really good game between two strong teams that have never faced each other before. Home draws are critical in this competition. Being drawn at home (and Highgate’s challenge of getting to Hertfordshire in time for the kick-off!) is a big advantage for Skew Bridge. Will this be the game where they finally break their first round barrier and get to round 2 for the first time?