FA Cup: Rushden & Diamonds 1 Tamworth 2
Mark Cooper’s face was wreathed in smiles when he suggested reaching the FA Cup third round was becoming a habit for Tamworth. And deservedly so.
Tamworth spent their entire 72-year history dreaming of joining English football’s elite in the world’s greatest cup competition. Then, like waiting for the No 9 bus, two trips to football’s most dramatic day of the season come along.
Goals by Steve Burton and John McGrath — one simple and one spectacular — meant two third-round appearances in a row but the history books should also note that Cooper started only one player from last year’s heroes.
The team might be radically different — skipper Adie Smith was the only constant while Kyle Storer came on as a substitute — but the formula remains the same. Build a base of honest toil, work tirelessly on organisation, foster an unbreakable spirit and add a dash of unpredictable flair and hey presto.
Quicker than Tommy Cooper can say ‘Just like that’, a team embroiled in a relegation battle suddenly finds itself as Cup heroes. Not that Cooper considered their first-half performance as such. "That was probably the worst we have played for the last three or four games," he said. "I had a go at them at half time because we weren’t playing well.
"But what we did do throughout the game was to battle brilliantly. In the last five minutes we had to hang on but I didn’t really feel they put us under that much pressure."
Cooper and No 2 Richard Dryden know their team is not full of world-beaters but that is not to under-estimate the individuals that provide the beating heart of the Lambs.
Portuguese goalkeeper Jose Viega, their hero in the previous round at Burton Albion, enhanced his reputation with another unflustered display, highlighted by a one-hand block to parry Dave Savage’s low drive just after half time.
But the former Benfica shot-stopper had an unshakeable barrier in front of him, led by the ever-reliable captain Smith. "He was my man of the match," Cooper said. "With the way he patrolled the defence, he was excellent. His experience guided us through."
On-loan Simon Heslop looked the part as the midfield enforcer but the difference in Tamworth’s Cup exploits this year from last season is in their pace and power as an attacking force. Winger Daryl Taylor’s bursts along the right would give Mark Lewis-Francis a run for his money — twice he skinned full-back Paul Watson — while Taiwo Atieno looks more and more a threat.
But it was the contrasting finishing skills of Burton and McGrath which earned their place in Cup folklore.
Burton, whose early season was interrupted by injury, showed his predatory instincts to open the scoring on 40 minutes. Simon Weaver met McGrath’s right-wing free kick with a powerful header which forced keeper Scott Tynan into a flying save but Burton was perfectly placed to lash in the rebound.
With 14 minutes remaining former Aston Villa midfielder McGrath, having scored against Harrogate and had his corner fumbled into the net against Burton, pinched the ball off Michael Rankine inside the centre circle and galloped forward before smashing a swerving left-footer into the bottom corner. It looked even better on Match of the Day.
He said: "I’ve been scoring a few goals lately but that one tops them all, especially being in the FA Cup. I made my debut in the Premiership against Chelsea with Villa, and I’ve played for Ireland’s under-21s but this is up there with the highlights in my career. To come here and get into the third round is a big achievement."
Rushden substitute Tom Shaw pounced on Jon Stevenson’s clearance from Curtis Woodhouse’s cross to score on 85 minutes but it was too little, too late to spoil Tamworth’s day. McGrath said: "It’s our Christmas do tonight and there was no way we were going to lose and let it spoil our night out."
January 6 could be another day — and night — to remember.
RUSHDEN: Tynan; Wilson (Chillingworth, 84), Hope, Hatswell, Watson; Berry, Savage, Woodhouse, Kelly (Shaw, 68); Rankine, Tomlin. Subs: Eyre (gk), Jackson, Sedgemore.
TAMWORTH: Viega; Laight, Weaver, Smith, Law; Taylor, Heslop, McGrath (Storer, 89), Stevenson; Atieno, Burton. Subs: Belford (gk), Williams, Cooper, Moore.
Referee: Fred Graham (Essex)