After 48 years, Cornwall gets chance at last to deliver an FA Cup shock
Truro’s long wait is over as they make the 298-mile journey to Charlton aiming for first-round glory
At Truro City they have grown used to the fact that nowhere is close. The shortest journey the players will make this season is to Westonsuper-Mare, a mere 154 miles away. “It’s mind-boggling, really,” says the goalkeeper Tom McHale of his club’s geographical isolation. “We played Gosport on a Tuesday night last season, one of our shorter journeys. On the way home, half an hour out of Gosport, we discovered we’d left the photographer in the clubhouse. Had to go back. Got an hour away again and the coach had a puncture. We sat on side of the road for two hours waiting for a guy to come out and fix the tyre. The coach dropped off some of the lads in Exeter at 4am, Plymouth at five, I was back at my place in Saltash at six. And they were still an hour away from Truro.”
The truth is Cornwall’s county town is so far off football’s beaten track most weeks the players see more of their team’s coach driver than their families. And they will be seeing plenty of him this weekend, when they undertake the 298-mile, five-hour drive to south-east London, where they are to play Charlton Athletic in the first round of the FA Cup.
It is a fixture which represents a substantial milestone for the club: it is the first time a Cornish side has advanced this far in the competition since 1969. “Before the season started we spoke about how we’d love a cup run,” says the club’s manager Lee Hodges. “We wanted to achieve something, get into the first round. Now we’ve done it, well it might be something small to a lot of people, but I can tell you it’s very big for Truro.”
As he speaks the club’s volunteer groundsman walks past, on the hunt for a credit card machine. A fan has turned up to buy some tickets for the Charlton game and does not have the cash. Despite the length of the journey, the away end at the Valley will thrum with Cornish accents as more than 800 fans are expected to head to London. They will be joined by some 220 friends and family of the players.
Tom McHale – who saved a penalty in the last qualifying round to ensure progress – has snapped up 16 tickets, including a pair for his mum and dad who are driving down from Inverness.
“They’re not going to miss this for the world,” says McHale, who by day is a rigger, working in a Saltash yard making nets for fishing trawlers.
Never mind the distance, the pity for the television schedulers is that Charlton’s name was drawn first. Had Truro been hosting the match, what a backcloth the club’s Treyew Road ground would have made for a live broadcast. Perched on a hill above Cornwall’s county town, from the car park there is a magnificent view across the grand Georgian villas of the high street to the cathedral.
Inside the ground, abutting the modest, unroofed main stand there is, as you might hope, a stall selling Cornish pasties. The pitch is fringed with advertising hoardings for Tribute
Cornish Pale Ale. The Cornish flag flies from a post. As evocative settings for a televised first round tie go, this could not be bettered. But Hodges insists he is delighted the game is taking place at The Valley. “I want my players and the fans to enjoy playing at the best stadiums,” he says. “What an opportunity this is for young lads who, at 21, 22 still have an ambition to make it higher in the game.” Given how excited everyone is at the club, the question is: why has it taken them so long to play at this level?
“There’s got to be a reason why no one from this part of the world has been in the first round in nearly 50 years,” Hodges says. “And I think a lot of it is down to isolation. Unless you have come here and been part of it, it’s hard to get your head around how far away this is.” Isolation, he reckons, informs everything hereabouts. There is an alarming lack of playing facilities in Cornwall, talents scouts assume the country ends at Plymouth and locals prefer to stick with the nearby leagues rather than stretch their wings.
“I just think sometimes they can’t handle the travelling,” he says of the Cornish players he has tried to bring into the team. “I’ve had lads become disillusioned if they travel five, six hours and then just sit on the bench. They find it hard. Especially when they might have to take Tuesday off work and not find themselves back home till five in the morning.” Instead, his team is filled with players who live in Plymouth and Exeter, which is where training is held twice a week. As he shows the Sunday Telegraph around the club Hodges, born and bred in Essex, recalls how he came to be in this faraway spot.
“I was a player at Torquay in 2010, coming to the end of my career. They sent me on loan here. Soon as I arrived the manager left. And they offered me the job. I ended the season as on-loan player-manager. I don’t know if that’s unique, but there can’t be too many of them.”
Welcome to the non-league world. After taking a short break to be assistant at Torquay, Hodges is now in his second spell as part-time manager (his full-time job is coaching Plymouth Argyle’s development squad). This season he has presided over the club’s highest-ever league position: they stand sixth in the National League South. But that achievement, he says, is as nothing compared to making it this far in the Cup. And what would thrill the club owner Peter Masters would be if Hodges could keep the run going a little longer and bring Charlton back down west for a replay.
“Now that would be nice,” the chairman says of the income from a live broadcast that would cover his entire playing budget for a year. Masters, who, among other businesses, owns the local newspaper, took over the club after the previous chairman found the costs of all that travel a little burdensome. (“Cornwall is hard on chairmen,” he says.)
Once he got involved he discovered quite how indebted the place was: not only was it £4million in the red, the Treyew Road ground had been sold on to a property development company for a pound. The club are due to be evicted at the end of the season. Masters’ solution has been bold. Together with the Cornish Pirates rugby club, he is to build the state-ofthe-art Stadium for Cornwall on Truro’s outskirts.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a statement of intent,” he says of his plans. “Any football club needs to progress. It needs to have ambition and ambition is something that has been sorely lacking down here for too long.” Ambition is the right word. The average crowd at Treyew Road is just over 300. The new ground, due for completion in late 2019, will have 6,000 seats, with the potential to rise to 10,000.
“Build it and they will come,” Masters says. “Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.”
‘I’ve had lads who get fed up if they travel five or six hours and sit on the bench. It’s hard’
Cornish delight: Truro groundstaff at work (top); manager Lee Hodges (above); goalkeeper Tom McHale (below)