Marine’s 2021 FA Cup run was so far detached from reality that their manager, Neil Young, remembers every kick like a vivid dream. He can still see the last penalty of the shootout which shocked League Two Colchester United on their own patch in the first round, “one of my greatest memories in football”. He can still picture Niall Cummins’ dramatic 120th-minute winner against Havant & Waterlooville in the second round which sparked “bedlam”, even in an empty stadium in lockdown.
That result was their ninth knockout win of the competition and it put Marine AFC, a volunteer-led club playing in the Northern Premier League Division One North West, into the hat for the third round with some of the biggest team in the world. It was only the second time an eighth-tier side had ever reached that stage of the FA Cup.
On the face of it, the third-round draw is a ludicrous enterprise. Here was a team made up of plumbers, teachers, factory workers and a car salesman, paid a total weekly wage of £750, with the possibility of being competitively matched against some of the best footballers on the planet.
“When you get to the third round, let’s be honest, it’s likely that you’re not going to go any further,” Young tells The Independent. “You are hoping for one of the big teams. I go back to when I was growing up, the third round was always the one you were waiting for. I was a Liverpool fan and you were always wondering who you were gonna get. Now I was looking at it from the other side.”
The possibilities were remote. The chances of drawing one of the so-called big six was around nine per cent. The chances of drawing the team on top of the Premier League and the manager he most wanted to pit his wits against, Jose Mourinho? Only 1.6 per cent. But after such a rare run into the cup’s deepest waters, Marine were desperate to get lucky.
The draw itself was made in a studio, but the BBC’s programme was hosted by Mark Chapman at Marine’s ground, immediately after their televised second-round win over Havant & Waterlooville. “It was outside, and it was absolutely bloody freezing,” remembers Young.
The manager was stood with his captain, Cummins, and the BBC production team, watching the draw on what turned out to be a slightly delayed picture on a giant TV screen. He watched as Robbie Savage fished out No 58, Marine, followed by No 39, Tottenham Hotspur.
“Once the ball got drawn out, we heard a massive cheer go up,” Young says. “We didn’t just hear it from our directors in the stand below us – our ground’s got houses on top of it and you could hear the cheering from the houses. I could actually hear the cheer before the name came up on the bottom of the screen.
“It was a surreal moment. And as soon as that draw was made, the phone never stopped ringing.”
Young was live on Sky Sports News 15 minutes later, and hopped between radio shows all night. It was relentless, and Young was forced to take a week off work – he works for a local train operator – to cope with the build-up. Liverpool invited him to watch Spurs at Anfield the week before the tie and offered up their footage of Spurs and detailed analytics.
He had hoped for an away trip, but on reflection: “You’re thinking, away at Tottenham, for example, it could be a bloody cricket score with the size of the pitch and everything.”
The game itself is another crystal clear memory. The gap between the two clubs was 161 places, the biggest in FA Cup history, but Mourinho took the game seriously and named a strong side. International stars like Dele Alli, Joe Hart, Toby Alderweireld, Lucas Moura and Gareth Bale all graced Marine’s Rossett Park.
Before kick-off, Mourinho sought out Marine’s one Portuguese player, a reserve goalkeeper, and gifted him a signed Spurs shirt with his name printed on the back.
“He also got me a shirt with my name on the back which he signed for me, which is framed in my house,” says Young. “He came out of his way before the game to talk with me, we spent half an hour on the pitch making general conversation. He was a really nice guy, humble, not what people see on the telly. He assumed we’d only played two or three games to get there and was amazed it was our 10th game, he could not believe it.
“He said, ‘I hope you know if you beat us today, I’ll be back here tomorrow morning looking for a job’.”
Spurs were too good, of course, winning 5-0. Yet Marine hit the woodwork at 0-0 and fans still ask Young what might have been had that shot found the net. “I tell them we would have lost 5-1 instead,” he laughs.
Young has great respect and appreciation for the way Tottenham approached the tie. “It was freezing, there were no supporters, but they sent a real strong team and then they brought Bale on. We were chasing after them for most of the game but what an experience for our players. And it’s changed our football club.”
Tottenham fans bought “virtual” away tickets to raise £300,000 for Marine, and Spurs later treated Marine’s players and staff to a trip to north London to watch their FA Cup third-round tie the following season.
Marine’s old facilities essentially made it a part-time social club; now they have two restaurants open all day, every day, generating life-giving revenue for the club. So does the new 4G pitch which is used by local teams and schools. The average gate has jumped from around 200 before the Cup tie to around 1,300 now, and buses full of travelling supporters follow the team on the road.
The magic of the FA Cup is a well-worn cliché but there is little else in sport quite like the third round, little that can replicate the sheer otherworldly possibility of that draw. That moment, stood in the bitter cold as cheers rang out from the houses and Tottenham Hotspur flashed up on the screen, will live with Young forever.
“It was a special moment in my life. I played a bit myself non-league, and then I got a bad injury and took the decision to pack it in at a very early age and go into the management side. My career started on Sunday mornings at Birkenhead. Things progressed and for that to all come together, in the third-round draw of the FA Cup against Tottenham Hotspur, to be playing against a guy who’s won everything and one of the best that’s ever done it in Jose Mourinho… it was unbelievable.”