The FA Cup returns this weekend, and the tie of the second round sees Isthmian League Premier Division Leatherhead – the lowest ranked side left in the competition – go to Adams Park to face Wycombe Wanderers. Sports Gazette spoke to the Tanners goalkeeper Zaki Oualah ahead of their biggest match for 40 years.
As sure as night follows day, the FA Cup invites cliches. We are told each year that form books go out of the window as sides battle to get their name in the hat for the draw, and dream of reaching the hallowed turf of Wembley in the oldest cup competition in the world, which is also, apparently, magic.
All of these pale into insignificance, however, when it comes to the fabled giant-killing. The cup upset is back in a big way, after the unprecedented feats last year of Lincoln City and Sutton United, and one of the stories of the tournament so far this year has been Leatherhead.
The Isthmian League Premier side – the seventh tier of English football – have already played six times in the competition this season, coming through four qualifying rounds before beating Billericay in the first round proper with the help of a replay. Their opponents on Sunday – fourth tier Wycombe Wanderers – have, in contrast, played just once.
“It’s a bit of a David and Goliath in comparison of club statures, but look, nothing’s impossible. We’re not writing off our chances, but we’re going to enjoy the day,” according to Oualah.
Leatherhead have, in fact, got experience of reaching this stage before. During the 1970s the club made a name for themselves when they reached the fourth round of the cup in 1975, eventually losing away to First Division Leicester City after at one point being 2-0 up. They went on to reach the second round in three out of the next four seasons, a run that ended in 1978-79, and they have only made the first round twice in the intervening years.
Despite all of the hype surrounding the club’s cup run, Oualah is not allowing himself to get carried away.
“The FA Cup has been a bit of a distraction – a really good distraction by the way – [and] a bit of focus has gone on that. It’s a once in a club’s history opportunity to get to the second round proper of the FA Cup from the seventh tier of England.”
Indeed, the competition can prove hugely significant for clubs from the non-league, capturing the nation’s imagination and catapulting a previously unknown name into the limelight.
“You always hope it’s going to be your team that manages to do it,” says Oualah. “This year we are one of the non-league teams that are in it, so it’s a great thing for non-league, the FA Cup.”
Leatherhead currently sit 13th in their division, with a number of games in hand thanks to their cup exploits, and retain the goal of promotion this season – a potential first for a club that has never reached the sixth tier in the English football pyramid. It will be a difficult feat to retain motivation, however, given the comparative glamour of their cup ties.
“When you go from playing maybe in front of two, three thousand in some of the games we’ve played in the FA Cup, to going back on a Wednesday night when there’s only 300 it’s a big anti-climax so it’s tough for the boys.”
Oualah admitted a similar reaction when he and his teammates discovered that they had drawn Billericay in the first round.
“We had Billericay – the big spenders – in the first round proper, so that was a bit of an anti-climax. Obviously you’re hoping you’re going to draw someone from the league in the first round and we got Billericay from our league, and that was going to be a tough game.”
Despite a 1-1 draw at home, Leatherhead came from a goal behind to beat a side that boasts the likes of Kevin Foley, Jamie O’Hara and Jermaine Pennant in the replay.
Whilst downing Billericay, and a number of former Premier League names to boot, Oualah concedes that, come the first round proper, non-league sides favour a big-name draw over a winnable tie.
“You want to get a nice day out really, but if you get someone you can beat that’s great as well. So if we beat Wycombe on Sunday, we can get anyone then. We can get someone from the Premier League.
“We’ll go there full of confidence, we’re not going there just for the day out, even though it will be a great day out.”
Wycombe also know a little about cup upsets, however. Striker Roy Essandoh – who, according to footballing folklore, was signed via Teletext – scored the winner for the Chairboys away to Premier League Leicester in the 2001 quarter-finals. Now, however, tables have turned, and come Sunday Wycombe will assume the role of the giant.
When asked whether this game will be the highlight of his career so far, therefore, Oualah didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely, definitely. Playing against Wycombe, hopefully there’ll be three to five thousand there, so it’ll probably be the biggest attendance I’ve ever played in front of as well.”
And if – just if – there is to be one of those aforementioned giant-killings on Sunday?
“[The] dream draw would be Tottenham away to play at Wembley, or United away for a huge crowd. But [I] would be happy with anyone away in the Premier League.”
Whilst the FA Cup does receive it’s share of criticism for some of the over-indulgent – often bordering on the unintentionally condescending – coverage and cliche-ridden debates, the magic of the competition lives on for those who see it, rightly, as a unique chance to test themselves against the game’s elite.