At 3pm on Saturday, Kidderminster, fifth in sixth-tier National League North, will hope to add another dream-come-true tale to the FA Cup story by knocking out Reading, the domestic game’s 41st-ranked side.
“That’s exactly what we want,” says Sam Austin, the Carpetmen’s longest-serving player, who joined in 2016 and will line up as the No 10 in Russell Penn’s 4-2-3-1. The 25-year-old, though, was not always a creative force with a penchant for ‘worldy’ goals such as the 20-yard left-foot volley he blazed in against Manchester United during a pre-season friendly in the summer.
“When you get one, you gain the confidence to try again, don’t you?” he says. “You carry it on, you take a few more chances than you probably would if you’re low on confidence. But when I first joined it was all about earning experience, trying to get into the team. A chance arose at full-back and I thought: ‘Well, to get games I’ll have to adjust my playing style.’ I played there for a few seasons and I always loved the attacking aspect of full-back.”
Austin had signed having been released after a debut season at Burton Albion. “I’d played at wing-back, too [but] since Russ took over 18 months ago, he’s played me higher and I’ve loved it even more. That’s where I’ve always meant to be playing.”
Aggborough, Kidderminster’s home for 132 years, is a 5,000 sell-out for Reading’s visit, as the 2022 vintage try to emulate the class of 2013 which reached the fourth round – where Sunderland beat them (on Wearside) – and the 1994 vintage which went one better, before West Ham halted the run of Graham Allner’s team.
Kidderminster are the lowest-ranked side left in the competition and there seems a disconnect between the competition’s much-repeated “magic of the Cup” mantra and how the club have been passed over for a TV tie and the lucrative money this would have provided. Two other non-league teams – Yeovil (hosts of Bournemouth), the next-lowest left, and Chesterfield (who travel to Chelsea) – can be watched live on BBC iPlayer. But, like Boreham Wood, Kidderminster have not even been granted this exposure.
Reaching the third round has been worth £75,000 in prize money and about £100,000 in total but a live television payday draws a further £85,000, although after a stabilising of teetering finances under Richard Lane’s 75% ownership – the businessman bought in as head of a consortium in 2019 – this is not a seismic blow. Lane, whose father ‘Rocky’ was a Kidderminster director and owns the local workplace technology company EBC Group, has ensured Kidderminster are no longer threatened by winding-up petitions.
Lane has attracted a new shirt and stand sponsor this season and the club are a full-time operation, with the annual wage budget ranking them seventh to 10th in the division. Aggborough remains equipped to stage EFL football, which the club played in from 2000-05. Yet Kidderminster took a sizeable hit from Covid so extra finance would have been welcome.
As Penn says: “We were the lowest-ranked team going into the draw, so we thought that would work in our favour. Am I frustrated with the decision? Yes. Am I surprised? No. The magic has gone from the Cup a little bit. That’s not the case for us, but we’ve had to win five games to get here and you want to be rewarded a little bit more.”
To reach the stage, Penn’s men have discarded Sporting Khalsa (of eighth-tier Northern Premier League Division One), Ware (eighth tier), Bedfont Sports (eighth tier), Grimsby (fifth tier) and Halifax (fifth). Reading, then, are first EFL opposition in the run and the highest at Aggborough since Wolves who, as now, were in the top division when visiting during the 2004 FA Cup. Austin is anticipating a vibrant welcome for the Championship side who finished eighth in the 2006-07 Premier League season and reached the Cup semi-finals and quarter-finals in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
“It should be a brilliant atmosphere,” he says. “From the Halifax game, that was a little snippet of what’s to come on Saturday. When the fans get behind us, it’s just having another man outside on the pitch.”
Owing to Covid Kidderminster have not played since a 4-1 reverse at Boston United on 18 December and last enjoyed victory the previous week – 2-1, again at Boston. Of the emotion that will surge on Saturday, Austin says: “It’s definitely excitement, because we can go out there with the feeling there’s nothing to lose. All the lads have been excited all week, and I think that’s what’s going to help us on the weekend to go out there, play our stuff and enjoy it. They’re definitely the biggest opponents that I’ve played against, and it’s definitely the biggest game of my career.”
All Austin wants is to score the winner – preferably from his repertoire of breathtaking strikes. He says: “It would be unexplainable. The adrenaline would last for a few days, I know that. I’d probably never have to buy another drink in Kidderminster and I wouldn’t sleep for a few days.”