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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport - Jim White

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)

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