FA Cup Third Round
Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough
Match rating: 4
Having always had a soft spot for Hastings United, with many family connections in the town and seeing many of their games in my younger days, this was a game I was never going to miss, particularly as I had not previously visited the Riverside Stadium. After the fantastic achievement of a Ryman League Premier Division club reaching the Third Round of the FA Cup, a round trip of almost 700 miles to visit a club outside of the Premiership may not have been a dream draw, but it still promised to be a fabulous day out, to play in a stadium and in front of a crowd beyond their wildest dreams.
With train fares being prohibitively expensive and scheduled coach services not convenient, I booked a seat on one of the eight coaches organised by Hastings United to ferry supporters to the game, leaving the Pilot Field at 6am for the cost of £30, with the journey taking a total of just over seven hours. After driving through some pretty uninspiring scenery through the town, the stadium looks rather out of place as it stand out looking bright, fresh and rather impressive, located on its own about a ten minute walk east of the town's rail station. Nice touches just outside the stadium are two statues of Middlesbrough greats, Wilf Mannion and George Hardwick, placed either side of the entrance gates from the club's previous ground, Ayresome Park. It's a nice touch to have a some tokens of the club's past present close by a fairly unremarkable modern stadium similar to many others. Inside the stadium could be described much as most other newly built stadia - excellent unobstructed views, plenty of legroom and with a neat design. Seating continues all the way around the stadium, and one stand, the West Stand, is slightly taller than the other three. Away fans are located behind one of the goals, in the South Stand. Basic scoreboards are placed on the top of both the North and South stands. For today's game, Middlesbrough produced a different programme to usual. Priced slightly less than usual, at £2.50 for 52 pages, and this was the first edition that they produced a fairly small square sized programme. The content was interesting with little advertising.
To reach this stage, Hastings United have had to play eight games, starting on 6th September, and have beaten Chatham Town 3-1 at home, Staines Town 3-2 away, Hitchin Town 2-1 away after a 2-2 draw at home, Blackfield and Langley 3-0 at home in the qualifying rounds. In the First Round, the draw was not kind, sending Hastings to Bishop's Stortford of the Conference North, but won 2-1 away after falling behind, and the draw was even less kind in the Second Round, sending them to Harrogate Town, and after the match finished 1-1, Hastings won on penalties 5-4 after another 1-1 draw at the Pilot Field. This season's run in the FA Cup has been all the more remarkable considering that Hastings had not won a single tie in the FA Cup for the previous six seasons. In the league, Hastings United are in 17th place in the 22 team division, but are unbeaten in their last seven games - all of which were draws. Middlesbrough have been having a good season so far in the Championship, in fourth place and have won their last four home games, although they did lose their most recent match at Derby. A gulf of five divisions or 131 places in the football pyramid demonstrated just what a tall order it would be for Hastings to extend their remarkable FA Cup adventure yet further.
On a a bright, fairly sunny afternoon, the game took a fairly predictable pattern with Middlesbrough dominating possession and spent most of the time in Hastings' half, with their players showing good touch and ball retention. Although Hastings understandably looked slightly in awe and nervy, they defended well and importantly did not concede an early goal which would have extinguished their dreams early on. On 17 minutes, Middlesbrough were awarded a penalty when Ishmael Miller was fouled by Jamie Crellin. Miller himself took the penalty, an awful one, soft and low which the Hastings' keeper, Jamie O'Brien, comfortably saved to his right, to send the Hastings fans into raptures. The reprieve only lasted five minutes, when Moroccan Merouane Zemama curled a classy shot into the top corner from just outside the area. Happily that did not open the floodights, and indeed Hastings came close to equalising just before half time, but a marginal off-side decision denied a certain goal. Still, a half time scoreline of just 1-0 to Middlesbrough was a fantastic achievement for Hastings, and gave real hope that a shock could still be on the cards.
That hope evaporated just a couple of minutes later, when a corner fell to the feet of Andy Halliday, who poked home from close range. Again Hastings came agonisingly close to scoring, when Lee Carey hit a bullet of a shot from outside the area, but the keeper Jason Steele did excellently to palm the ball onto the post and away. Middlesbrough scored a third on 68 minutes when Zemama hit a speculative shot which took a large deflection to wrong foot the keeper. However, less than a minute later and the Hastings fans got what they dreamt of with the goal of the game, when Bradley Goldberg drove forward and smashed the ball into the roof of the net from fully 25 yards, which sent the Hastings fans into wild celebrations. Hastings did threaten to score again on a couple of occasions, however they looked dead on their feet in the last ten minutes, and Ishmael Miller scored Middlesbrough's fourth five minutes from time when he drove low into the corner.
So predictably comfortable progress for Middlesbrough, but it would certainly be a day no player or fan of Hastings Unted will ever forget. The gulf in class was abundantly clear, but the Hastings players gave their absolute all throughout the contest and deserve enormous credit for trying to take the game to Middlesbrough and managing to create several chances. They fully deserved the lengthy standing ovation they received from the travelling fans at the final whistle, whilst the fans would embark on the long return journey south feeling very proud of their players, savouring the memory of seeing their team score a glorious goal at a Championship venue.
Video highlights can be found here