It costs £160 to hire the Arriva Suite at Marine AFC on a Sunday – resident DJ and security included – and the club website lists weddings, family parties and christenings among options for “the best facility in the area”. The suite will not generate any income this Sunday, nor any day soon, but will serve as Tottenham’s changing room for the FA Cup tie that borders on fantasy, invokes joy and regret, and gives those who dedicate themselves to a non-league club in Crosby the greatest moment of their football lives.
“I think I will shed one or two tears when we kick off,” admits Paul Leary who, as a committee member since 1978, treasurer for quarter of a century and chairman for the past 16 years, embodies the commitment on which non-league football stands. “It will be quite emotional for me.”
It has been a demanding time, too, since the draw brought together clubs separated by 160 places in the pyramid, the biggest third-round disparity in the competition’s 149-year history, and brought José Mourinho to the Marine Travel Arena. The last time Spurs’ manager competed on Merseyside there was a £114m main stand with more than 20,000 seats behind him at Anfield. This time it will be the gardens of 19 and 21 Rossett Road. A small fence and netting, installed to keep balls inside the ground and reduce the number of smashed windows, are all that stand between one of the most decorated managers in the game and local residents in the three-sided ground.
Marine, of the Northern Premier League Division One North West, are only the second team from the eighth tier of English football to get this far. They have won seven ties – one more than Spurs require to win the trophy – to get here. They were allowed to play friendlies when the league was suspended only after acquiring elite club status by reaching the first round. They have not played since Boxing Day, training was disrupted this week by the lockdown and freezing temperatures, their squad doesn’t stretch to a nine-man substitutes’ bench, their final Covid test results will not be known until Saturday, and £100,000 in potential revenue, vital to a club of Marine’s stature, was jeopardised when the game moved behind closed doors.
The return of lockdown also denied 500 fans entry to the game of their lifetime. But try telling Leary, the manager, Neil Young, the 30 volunteers who have spent weeks preparing and perhaps even those with tickets that will never be used, that the romance of the FA Cup is a cliche. This tie has single-handedly, and despite everything, rekindled the flame.
“We are very fortunate to have had the FA Cup run of our lives at this time,” the Marine chairman says. “To be quite honest, I don’t know where we would be without it. Our clubhouse has been closed since the first national lockdown in March. We were able to open for a couple of weeks in August but had to close down again very quickly. We’ve had no clubroom revenue, the stadium was shut from the middle of March to May so we had no football revenue. It was a difficult summer and here we are entering another lockdown and another period without fans. The financial uncertainty is very worrying and the income we are enjoying because of the Cup run is an absolute godsend.”
Marine have lost an estimated £300,000 because of lockdown. And they pay players only £100-£300 a week. FA prize money and TV money, both cut due to the pandemic, will make up roughly £200,000 of the shortfall. Most non-league clubs have not been so fortunate. “A lot of clubs at our level are hanging on by their fingernails,” says Young. “A lot of funding has gone into the Conference North and National League and rightly so, but absolutely nothing has gone into our level. This run has been vital, it’s everything, and not only from a financial perspective. It has been vital to keeping everyone together.”
Some sponsors pulled out when it was announced fans would not be allowed but Marine have felt the power of the football community. Jamie Carragher stepped in when a £20,000 advertising package fell through and his charitable JC23 Foundation will sponsor the dugouts and Marine’s warm-up tops. Everton invited the squad to train at Finch Farm on Thursday when a planned session at a leisure centre had to be cancelled. Liverpool have done the same for Saturday. The support from Tottenham – fans and club alike – has, in Leary’s words, “been quite overwhelming”.
“When the decision was made that there would be no fans we launched a virtual match ticket and the response from around the world has been absolutely fantastic, especially among the Tottenham Hotspur fans,” he says. “The sale has now surpassed 5,700 tickets. Our record attendance is 6,000 when we played a touring Nigeria team [in 1949] and our target is to break the record. Tottenham themselves have provided vouchers for stadium tours at their ground and tickets for their ‘Dare Walk’ on the roof of the stadium. We have invited Tottenham fans to come to a game here with our compliments when they are allowed.” On Friday night, the club confirmed they had sold 6,400 virtual tickets.
David Wotherspoon is another of those selfless supporters who keep 127-year-old clubs such as Marine alive. He was a committee member for more than 30 years, the president (like his father, William, before him), club historian, a life member and, at 81, in receipt of a ticket for “undoubtedly the biggest game in Marine’s history”. He recalls: “The first game I remember was an FA Cup first-round tie in 1947 away at New Brighton, who were a league team back then and played at the Tower. We lost 5-0 and I cried all the way home on the ferry. That was 74 years ago and I remember that ferry ride vividly.
“It is very sad there will not be a full house on Sunday but I’m sad mostly for the players who deserve to experience a magical occasion. I just hope Marine’s day in the sun will illustrate to people more of what non-league is about. It’s about lots of people coming together to enjoy something special, working together and forming lifelong friendships. It is all dependent on the involvement of people.”
Young has been contemplating his final message to his players having taken a week off work to study video analysis of Spurs supplied by Liverpool and to handle media requests from Australia, Russia, South America and the US. A manager at Merseyrail, he won five promotions and three consecutive league titles with Chester and took over at Marine midway through the 2018-19 season that ended with the first relegation in their history. Faith and patience have been rewarded, victories over Barnoldswick Town, Frickley Athletic, Runcorn Linnets, Nantwich Town, Chester, Colchester United and Havant and Waterlooville delivering a date with Mourinho.
“People keep asking me if I’m looking forward to it and of course I am,” says Marine’s manager, who started out in the Birkenhead Sunday League with Queen’s Park more than 20 years ago. “But you’ve also got that worry that potentially, given what we are facing, we could get a good hiding. My role is to prepare my players so that we don’t embarrass ourselves on national television. I’m positive we won’t.
“That’s the negative side of me. The other side of me, the one that doesn’t shout from the rooftops, is the one that knows how well these lads have done in this competition. What they have achieved so far is phenomenal. I just hope on Sunday that everyone sees a group of lads giving everything they possibly can, irrespective of the result.”
Many clubs in the pyramid have sent good-luck messages, but Young’s greatest reward will be on the faces of the few people dotted around the stands.
“To see Paul Leary, Dave McMillan [vice-chairman], Richard Cross [secretary], and all the other people at the football club whose life’s work this has been, have an FA Cup third-round tie at home against Tottenham Hotspur means everything to me,” he says. “This football club is a life’s work for these people. They have run the football club, funded the football club, kept it going when it’s been on its arse – and this is true of all clubs at this level. It is their life. I get more satisfaction out of their delight and their tears than anything else.”
‘I will shed a tear or two at kick-off’: Marine get ready for their greatest day The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Guardian.