When you think of Cornwall, several things may come to mind – whether it be pasties, the accent, beaches or just the fact that it takes bloody ages to get to. Football, however, probably isn’t likely to pop into your head. It’s unlikely to even be the first sport that you think of, with rugby union taking priority in the region as the Cornish Pirates (based in Penzance) play in England’s second division and 2003 World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a self-proclaimed proud Cornishman.
In contrast, the best you’re going to get in terms of stellar names of Cornish footballers is former Leeds United goalkeeper Nigel Martyn (capped 23 times by England) and Matthew Etherington, once of Tottenham, West Ham and Stoke City. As for clubs, you have to go down to the sixth tier of the pyramid to find the highest ranked Cornish side, Truro City, who are currently in their third consecutive campaign in the National League South.
Whilst the White Tigers were making waves (yes, that is a seaside pun) in that division earlier this season with seven straight league wins to take them top of the table at the end of September, it is now the world’s most historic cup competition that they’re raising eyebrows in – The FA Cup.
This Sunday, Truro visit 1947 winners and former Premier League outfit Charlton Athletic in the first round proper of the tournament, having previously made it through three rounds of qualifying, breaking records in the process. The club have never made it to this stage before, and are only the second Cornish club ever to get this far after Falmouth Town’s three first round appearances in the 1960s. Yet ‘The Ambers’ never progressed, meaning a victory over the Addicks (a hugely impressive feat in itself) would see Truro create Cornish football history.
“We wanted a good cup run, the club had never got past the third qualifying round before so the aim for us was to get past that stage and then anything beyond that would be a bonus” explains midfielder Noah Cooke, who signed for the club in the summer after completing a three year sports science degree in the USA.
Cody Cooke, currently the only Truro player to hail from Cornwall and in his seventh season with the club, adds: “Everyone knows if you get a couple of good draws, especially home, then you’ve got a chance to go on and do well.”
The first two of the White Tigers’ three FA Cup games so far this campaign have been at their home ground of Treyew Road (which is being redeveloped into a retail park next summer) – a 2-0 win over ninth tier Portchester in the second qualifying round followed by a 4-1 victory against eighth tier Sudbury in the third qualifying round. A tie at fellow National League South side Hampton & Richmond, who count Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler amongst their coaching staff, then stood between Truro and a place in the first round proper. “We’d played against them in the league the week before so that gave us an opportunity to suss each other out,” Cooke tells me. “It started off very tense, the ball never stayed on the pitch for long, it kept getting kicked out.
“They’ve had a couple of good runs before, so it didn’t quite mean the same to them. A lot of our boys have never been involved in the cup, so it meant that extra bit to everyone. The longer the game went on we kind of knew that we were going to come out on top because they went with the slope in the first half and we knew that if we defended well then the second half was always going to create opportunities for us.”
With it goalless at half-time, chances did indeed arrive after the break, and Truro took the lead when Keats slotted past the keeper on the hour mark. The visitors’ number one Tom McHale saved a penalty in the last ten minutes to preserve the advantage, before Keats struck again to send fans, players and the coaching staff into pandemonium. On his heroics, the 25-year-old said: “It was mad really. We had our backs to wall at the end after the penalty save, but getting that second goal was just incredible. We knew then that we’d won it. It was a crazy, unbelievable day, with fans crying after the game making you realise how much it means to everyone around the club.”
— BBC Cornwall Sport (@CornwallSport) October 14, 2017
In the first round draw the following Monday, Truro were one of the last teams to find out their opponents, but it was finally revealed that they would be making the 600-mile round trip to South East London to face League One Charlton. “It would have been great to pack it out at home,” says Cody, discussing his reaction to an away tie coming out of the hat. “We’ve always tried to make the ground a bit of a fortress as coming down all that way is tough for teams, especially at our level when players are coming down the night before after work or early in the morning of the day of the game. But to get it away at a club of Charlton’s size, with the ground capacity [27,111] as well it makes it even more special and hopefully we can get as many people as we can up there. It’s a big journey and a big ask for people but if we can sell out the away end then it’s going to be extra special for everyone. For a lot of the boys who haven’t been able to play professionally, they now have the opportunity to play at an ex-Premier League ground.”
Truro’s league form has noticeably dropped since the fixture was announced, and they haven’t won since the cup win at Hampton three weeks ago, slipping to sixth in the National League South table, which still represents an impressive turnaround from a side who finished just a place above the relegation zone last term. “We didn’t want to [take our minds off the league] as players and that kept being reiterated,” Noah stresses. “But it’s one of those things that whether you like it or not, it will always play on your mind a little bit.”
This is echoed by Cody: “We’ve wanted to put the cup to bed but because of the occasion it is and how much attention it’s got across the country, it’s hard to avoid it.”
The standout cup runs of fifth tier Sutton United and Lincoln City last season, the latter becoming the first non-league side to reach the quarter-finals in 103 years, will give all semi-professional sides hope that anything is possible.
“You’ve seen it before in big cup ties where smaller teams come in and they’ve got nothing to lose, so you never know what can happen,” Noah tells me. “The pressure is probably on them a little bit. Whether it’s their first team or if they use some fringe players, they’re going to be in the spotlight and have to perform.”
With Cornish roots comes Cornish pressure for team-mate Cooke, who was released by Devon’s Plymouth Argyle as a teenager. He explained: “I feel a bit of added pressure because no one else has ties with the county like I have, but it makes it that much more enjoyable when you go and do well. It felt like the weight of whole county was on my shoulders to get through [against Hampton] because it’s something that Cornwall hasn’t had for a long time [a place in the FA Cup first round].”
So, can they do it? “We’ve got nothing to lose”, says Noah, looking ahead to the trip to The Valley. “No one is expecting us to beat them. But we’ve got a feeling within the camp that we can definitely go there and do something. We just have to go out there, enjoy it and give everything we’ve got. If we can nick something, that would be fantastic.”
“It’s an opportunity for everyone to go out and show what they can do,” Cody says. “You see it every year, teams beating opposition high than them. If we can get anything from the game, whether that be a draw and we take them to a replay, it would be unbelievable. I’m a big believer of what will be will be. Who’s to write us off as we’ve had a great year so far, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the team that does that big upset this year.”
What will be will be, eh Cody? What does that translate to in French? Oh yes, Que Sera, Sera…
Best of luck to Cody, Noah and the whole Truro squad on Sunday – I’ll be at The Valley to hopefully see them pull off a famous upset. Many thanks to the lads for giving up their time to speak to me and to club photographer Colin Bradbury for the images used in this article. FA Cup facts and stats provided by @FACupFactfile on Twitter – he has done a full round one preview which can be found here, and I really would recommend giving him a follow throughout the competition.