While his Sudbury Town teammates jiggled edgily inside the centre circle, Steve Ball felt relatively calm. If Nicky Smith scored his penalty in the shootout, the sixth-tier club would create an FA Cup sensation, winning at Brighton and Hove Albion in a first-round replay and propelling their tiny Suffolk market town into the national headlines. “There were lots of nervous players next to me but I remember saying: ‘He won’t miss,’” Ball remembers. “And then we were off and running, jumping on him, celebrating. It was a great night.”
Ball’s confidence was well founded: he had played alongside Smith in the Football League and knew all about his colleague’s prowess from the spot. The pair were among five players who had joined Sudbury after leaving Colchester United, 14 miles to the south-east; the clubs had close bonds and, from the outside, it seemed a standard case of careers winding down at a friendly local non-league venue. But Sudbury, managed by the former Arsenal defender Richie Powling, made history at the Goldstone Ground and went on to give Brentford a scare before succumbing at the next stage.
That was in November 1996. On Friday night, in a marvellous quirk of this year’s draw, Colchester’s current squad will make the same 20-minute drive as that handful of their predecessors. They will contest a derby that, beyond pre-season friendlies, had never been on the cards. Their opponents will be AFC Sudbury, formed in 1999 after Sudbury Town controversially merged with Sudbury Wanderers; while the town’s football landscape may be different, the highly charged emotions that consumed it 25 years ago will bring memories flooding back.
“The atmosphere is going to be electric in there,” says Tony English, another former Colchester player who joined Sudbury alongside Ball in the pre-season of 1996-97 and became Powling’s player-assistant. “To get where we did back then, and where they have this year, for a place of that size is unbelievable. There’s a hardcore of 300 or 400 fans who turn up every week and they probably thought they were only going to see it once in their lives.”
The teams will meet at King’s Marsh, a neat facility that will sell out at 2,000. A 3G surface will be easier to master than the bobbly, sloped pitch at Priory Road, the cherished but rickety venue where Brighton were initially held to a goalless draw in 1996. “It was a bit of a leveller back then,” says Ball. “So I think we accepted it’d be a totally different game at their place.” But Brighton were at rock bottom, propping up the league and soon to be homeless; Sudbury thrived amid what Ball calls a “toxic” environment in the replay and drew 1-1 after extra time, setting the stage for Smith’s heroics.
“We had nothing to lose but were battered for 15 minutes, went a goal down and I remember thinking: ‘My God,’” says English. “Then we equalised and I thought the second half would be like the Alamo. If anything, though, we were on top after that. I hit the bar with my penalty but it ended up being a fantastic night.”
Locally, the list of heroes still rolls off the tongue: from the strapping Colchester-born centre-forward Christian McClean to the diminutive but lion-hearted goalkeeper Steve Mokler. Then there was Powling, whom Ball calls “a lovely guy, a real disciplinarian who wanted things done right and keeps things professional”. Ball remembers wondering why, two games into his time at Sudbury, he received a paycheque that was £50 short. Powling, ever the stickler, had fined him for breaking a corner flag as he chased to keep a ball in play. “We bounced off each other really well,” English says. “There was a camaraderie and togetherness that got us through those high-intensity cup games.”
The Brentford tie, so popular it was moved to Colchester’s old Layer Road home, essentially heralded an abrupt end to Sudbury Town’s journey. Financial problems soon caused them to resign from the league; when the merger came, the class of 1996 had drifted apart. Beyond a dalliance with the first round in 2000, when they lost 6-1 at Darlington, the new setup have struggled to hit comparable heights until now.
“There was a big rivalry between Town and Wanderers,” Ball says. “After the new club formed there was a bit of animosity between the two sets of supporters but, over the years, that’s gone. There’s a great feeling down there and the whole town seems to be behind their team.” English agrees, saying: “It’s probably pulled the town closer together.”
Times may have changed but the ties remain intricate. Ball, who spent six months as Colchester’s head coach last season and heads the League Two club’s recruitment setup, was manager of Leiston Town in 2013-14. Among his first signings was Angelo Harrop, whose father, Geoff, was a highly regarded youth coach at Colchester. Harrop co-manages AFC Sudbury with Rick Andrews; their eighth-tier Isthmian League North side, stocked with products of an academy setup that is hugely impressive for its level, will fancy their chances of an upset. “Angelo was an intelligent footballer and has got them playing well, in a technical manner,” Ball says. “It’s great to see him thriving.”
There is, once again, a buzz around those quiet country lanes. “It’s a lovely place to live, beautiful villages around it, but they are big football people in that town,” Ball continues. “Once the bandwagon started rolling it was clear the passion locally is huge. I’ve told all our staff to expect the same again: they’ll make it difficult for us.”
For English, who coaches at a local school, it will be a night to savour. “I’m hoping Sudbury have a go and Colchester play with the intensity and purpose they’re capable of,” he says. “If that happens, you’re in for a really good spectacle and I hope both sides do themselves proud.”