- Eighth-tier Marine face Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup on 10 January
- COVID restrictions have prevented fans attending
- Rival supporters have stunned the club’s chairman by coming to Marine’s aid
Marine FC have played thousands of matches in their 126-year history but tomorrow’s, says chairman Paul Leary, will be their “biggest by far”. The visit of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur is also, Leary argues, the most romantic fixture in the history of the world’s oldest cup competition.
The FA Cup’s legend has, of course, been built on such David v Goliath encounters. But never in 150 years of this famous old tournament has there been a bigger gap between opponents than the 168 league places separating Spurs from their eighth-tier hosts.
Mourinho’s Marine counterpart, Neil Young, earns his living as a railway worker, and the day jobs of his players range from teacher to refuse collector. The club’s dugouts, meanwhile, back on to a row of houses, with fencing numbered along the side so their ball boys know which door to knock on following any wayward clearances.
Given the contrast between this volunteer-run community club and the visiting team of star millionaires, it’s easy to see why this third-round tie has caught the national imagination. But the match has been denied the unique atmosphere it deserves by COVID-19, with the UK government’s latest lockdown having put paid to hopes of fans attending.
“We’ve no complaints,” Leary told FIFA.com. “It’s just the way it is at the moment, with the virus so rampant. We know that, in the grand scheme of things, there are much bigger things at stake than a football match.
“It is a real pity all the same that there will be no fans as it’s such a massive game for the club, and we’ve supporters who’ve waited their whole lives for a game like this. Even in terms of the FA Cup, with all the history that it has, tomorrow’s match really is something special.”
Beyond sadness at the occasion being diminished, the restrictions also raised more immediate and pressing financial concerns. Drawing Spurs had been described as a “godsend” by Leary in that respect, with the recent absence of paying customers at the turnstiles and in the clubhouse bar having begun to bite.
Marine, in fact, will see their season effectively end – and their players placed on furlough – unless they spring the mother of all shocks against Harry Kane and Co tomorrow. The league in which they play, the Northern Premier League Division One North West division, does not fall under the category of 'elite sport' that enables England’s upper tiers to play on amid the pandemic. The club could ill afford, in other words, the estimated £100,000 that will be lost by facing Spurs behind closed doors.
Yet out of that grim reality has sprung a different kind of FA Cup fairy tale. Football fans, and Spurs supporters in particular, have emerged as its heroes, rallying to a call from the Merseyside outfit to recoup some of that lost revenue. A ‘virtual ticket’ fundraising campaign, with an accompanying raffle, has proved particularly popular, with the numbers sold already surpassing the capacity of the club’s Rossett Park stadium. Spurs fans have also established several GoFundMe pages to help raise funds, while a USA-based Spurs fans blog has committed to sponsoring the team’s shorts. Former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher, who lives in the area and was the guest of honour at Marine’s 125th anniversary dinner, has stepped forward too to sponsor the dugouts and pre-match warm-up tops via his JC23 Foundation.
“We’ve been absolutely bowled over by the worldwide response,” Leary enthused. “The Tottenham fans especially have been absolutely fantastic. They’ve been a real credit to football, and there’s a friendship that’s been struck up between the two sides now – both at club level and between the clubs’ fans.
“My son, James, is the CEO here at Marine and he had the idea of offering an open invitation to Spurs fans to come to a game free of charge next year. We’ve had a great response to that too, and I hope we’ll have lots of visits from Spurs fans once this pandemic is over.
“The whole story of the tie really has been magical. Even amid all the doom and gloom in the country, and the disappointment at playing behind closed doors, it’s been wonderful. I feel so lucky to be chairman of Marine at this particular moment. And while it’s such a shame that fans won’t be there to enjoy it, I hope people will be able to tune into the game on TV and watch a really special football occasion.”