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exclusive No room to park the bus, a mudheap pitch and changing in the bar - welcome to Marine


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Two local young Marine FC fans pose for a photograph with their match day scarves in front of the club’s board displaying their next home game against Tottenham in the FA Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Two local young Marine FC fans pose for a photograph with their match day scarves in front of the club’s board displaying their next home game against Tottenham in the FA Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Two local young Marine FC fans pose for a photograph with their match day scarves in front of the club’s board displaying their next home game against Tottenham in the FA Cup. Photo: Getty Images

You won't have heard of Barry Lenton but, trust me, for Marine FC he is the closest the club has to a celebrity.

There are superfans and there is Barry. Over 57 years he has been Marine's community officer, programme writer, vice-president, ground staff worker, supporters' club co-founder, club liaison, fans' travel coordinator and official historian, and tomorrow turns out as a steward as the club pursues the biggest shock in FA Cup history against Tottenham Hotspur.

Barry also happens to be my old teacher at Savio High in Bootle. In the early '90s, Mr Lenton - as we knew him then - taught me geography on Monday mornings. But there was a problem: he was easily distracted by those of us more interested in football than schoolwork.

"You and your cousin would sit directly in front of me, immediately put your hand up and ask, 'How did Marine get on on Saturday?'" Barry, now 69, reminded me this week. "You sidetracked me and I spoke more about football than geography."

Barry's anecdotes about a life dedicated to football's grassroots ensured I have always been well-informed about Marine's fortunes, past and present. There is the story of how he once played against Marine when the opponent, Dukinfield, turned up with only seven men.

Saddled

"I didn't get a kick and Marine won 8-1," he told me. Or when, after a period of ill health, he was told one of Marine's committee members was a doctor. "I saddled up and told him my complaints and was politely given some advice about looking after myself. It was only years later I was told the guy in question was not a doctor. He was a docker!"

And there was another time when, after a couple of years following Marine as far afield as Weymouth and Cornwall, Barry asked the coach driver why he never got off and watched the game.

"'Tap that,' the driver said, pointing to his leg. It was wooden!! We hadn't realised this fella had been driving us around the country on one leg!"

When Marine drew Spurs in the third round, I immediately thought of fans like Mr Lenton and how this is a reward for a lifetime's devotion - a "labour of love", as the man himself puts it.

This tie has an obvious personal connection for me. Marine are my local team, based a couple of miles from my childhood home in Bootle, and now a short walk from my house in Crosby.

The thought of Jose Mourinho facing the club named after the pub a few hundred yards down the road appeals to every fan with football stitched into their soul.

Rossett Park Stadium is a long way from the glittering arena Spurs call home. The first challenge will be getting their luxury coach down tiny, cramped College Road to get anywhere near the ground, let alone park it once they're there; then, the players will have to get changed in a function suite - hastily converted into a dressing-room - before going out to play on a pitch which, when I last visited in December, was more mud than grass. Non-paying spectators usually cram into the back gardens behind the managers' dugouts, which may require social-distancing police to be alert tomorrow.

"Even if fans were allowed in, there would have been more in the gardens than in the ground," manager Neil Young told me. "I was handed a sausage sandwich through the fence during a game once. There's no space at all on that touchline near the dugout. And I have collided with the linesman a couple of times. You see a couple of them get tripped up occasionally."

I cannot help but smile at the contrast between the well-heeled entourage which will descend from north London with the Northern Premier League part-timers whose manager has requested extra time off from his day job as a facility manager at Merseyrail, leading a side which trains two evenings a week. Jose should be warned, though. He may not know it, but there is a history between the Spurs and Marine manager - sort of.

"I was at Anfield the night of the 2005 Champions League semi-final," explained the Marine coach. "I could see clearly Luis Garcia's goal crossed the line. And if it didn't, it should have been a penalty anyway. I was also at the 2014 game which cost Liverpool the title."

So Mourinho can expect to be at the receiving end of some of his own dark arts then? "If we need to get a message onto the pitch and buy some time, maybe I should order the goalkeeper to go down and buy us some time!" he laughs. "And my mate said if it does not go well I have to make sure I tell Jose at the end the game that the best team lost!

"To be honest, I don't think there will be any mind games here. We just want to enjoy the moment. Embrace it. It probably won't happen again, will it?

"It is laughable to even think this is happening given where we have come from and what it took to get this far. We have come through seven rounds to get here. We were two minutes away from going out at the first hurdle. It is dreamland. To be playing against Tottenham Hotspur. One of the world's greatest managers, Jose, and so many national captains are coming here to Marine. As a club and personally, you always want to pit your wits against the best, but this is like nothing we could have imagined."

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A general view of the pitch at Rossett Park. Photo: PA

A general view of the pitch at Rossett Park. Photo: PA

A general view of the pitch at Rossett Park. Photo: PA

For everyone attached to the club, it is about the legacy as much as the fixture itself. The Cup run has already resulted in plans to permanently change the club colours to gold and black - that was originally intended as a temporary kit change to celebrate their 125th anniversary in 2019. The club hopes to raise enough cause to lay a new pitch this year.

"We had never been on live television before this season, and had so many good results when we wore the new colours, we plan to keep it," said Marine chairman Paul Leary, who described the game as 'the best example ever of the magic of the FA Cup'.

That often sounds like a cliché on third round weekend. Not this time given the historic gulf between a side fighting for the Premier League title and that in English football's eighth tier.

"The whole tie is magical. It has spread the name of Marine across the world," said Leary.

Fabulous

"The response worldwide has been fabulous. My phone exploded when the draw was made. We have been inundated with TV, radio, newspapers. I had people calling me from Australia. That's how far interest in the FA Cup goes."

Sadly, the pandemic has diluted some of that romance, with no fans allowed into Rossett Park. Even so, the club anticipates renewed interest will swell gate receipts post-Covid.

"Our fan base could treble," said the chairman. "Over many years we have tried to get Liverpool and Everton to adopt Marine as their second club. It has worked. Now we want more people to keep coming to watch Marine when we return to normality.

"Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere Rovers season tickets holders can come here and watch the team for a fiver." Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti has sent a supportive message, while Liverpool's chief executive Billy Hogan offered Young a place in Anfield's VIP seats so he could scout Spurs when they came to Anfield in December.

"It was an eye-opener for me," said manager Young. "I was able to speak to Liverpool's analysts. You see a whole new world. I was sitting with legends like Alan Kennedy, Phil Neal and David Fairclough, although I was not sure if I should have been jumping up and down when Bobby Firmino scored the last-minute winner."

Beyond the good humour, there is a determination for his side to do the club justice. Does he dare think about winning?

"You can dream it. You also need reality," said Young. "It would be the biggest win in the FA Cup ever, wouldn't it? Our starting 11 cost £1,700. They were top of the Premier League at the time of the draw. I would like people to see a team well prepared, capable and with a tactical understanding.

"All we can do is make it as horrible as we can for them. A lot of their players will not be accustomed to the environment out there.

"So, we will try to be organised and give everything we have. We know Jose has traditionally taken the competition very seriously. I am not sure if Harry Kane will be here, but even if they play their second team or third team it will be strong. I don't want to overload my players with too much information about Spurs' quality. If I do that it will kill their confidence."

Let's be honest. The FA Cup tie has been craving a tie such as this for years - one in which neutrals can fully engage.

Captures

"This is what you call a proper FA Cup tie," said Young. "I know a lot of people at the higher levels have been suggesting the competition is dead, but for us, this means so much. The third round is what really captures the imagination of the country, isn't it? As the competition goes on, it gets a bit boring now, doesn't it? Especially when you see the big clubs putting out teams of kids.

"When I was growing up, the FA Cup was everything. It was something you looked forward to. I'll be honest. There are some finals I have not watched in recent years. To me, the cup is now about non-league teams getting to the third round. That is what gets the attention of everyone and it's great everyone is showing so much interest in Marine."

Some of us always have. I knew those geography lessons would come in useful one day.

© Daily Telegraph, London

  • Marine v Tottenham Hotspur, Live, BBC One, tomorrow, 5.0

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