The big time returned to Boston. Thats how it seemed anyway. In these heady times of League football heading into the 2004/05 season, it can be quite easy to forget the scraps that fans had to feed on almost a decade ago. After the gloom of relegation from the Conference three years earlier, York Street, at times, resembled a morgue as fans slowly drifted from the terraces, choosing to spend Saturday afternoon elsewhere. Grim, muddy games against the likes of Marine, Droylsden, Horwich and Knowsley tested the loyalty of hard bitten fans huddled on the Town End. These were the days of crowds of seven hundred, Mel Sterland, missed administrative deadlines and Martin Filson. Not until Steve Evans arrived to replace Greg Fee did the sleeping giant awake, but during the seven year absence from the Conference the giant did stir occasionally.
Although now largely forgotten in the wake of the staggering rise of Boston United in the past five seasons, the season of 96/97 was one of the most entertaining for years. It was the season of the 10-1 mauling of Sudbury, a game in which the lone Sudbury goal was greeted with genuine pleasure and relief by York Street regulars. It was the season of the dramatic 3-2 win against Colwyn Bay on October 19th, just as bewildering as that against Southport six years later, a Mather Cup win against Boston Town and the best game Boston ever lost - 3-5 at home to Barrow. And - who could forget? - a heartbreaking loss to Gainsborough Trinity at Sincil Bank in the final of the Unibond Cup.
Last but not least there was this: a big FA Cup win in front of a big crowd. For a team that, to this day, has a reputation of cracking under pressure, Boston did the town proud.
Up for grabs was a place in the Second Round of the FA Cup with the chance of meeting a Premiership team in the next round. Just getting to the First round was an achievement in itself. Bostons history in the FA Cup is a good one, but there have been a number of notable catastrophes. Back in 1996, it had been a long time since good progress had been made in the competition, which may well explain the fond memories many Boston fans have of the 96/97 campaign. Boston began their run with an easy 7-2 away victory over Maldon Town, followed it up by beating Bishop Stortford 3-0 and then met Sudbury Wanderers. Sudbury were touted as a possible banana skin before the game but were utterly outplayed as the Pilgrims bagged 10 goals on a glorious day. The Gods were smiling on Boston United it seemed. A tricky trip to Bedworth was comfortably completed to secure a meeting with high-fliers Morecambe, of the Conference. Boston had at last returned to the FA Cup proper and everything was going well. By the time the tie came around, Boston were playing great football and were riding on the back of a 10 game unbeaten run as they attempted to rein in league leaders Barrow, five points clear at the top on the Unibond League.
Although the league was a priority, Boston fans were more than happy to have their attention diverted onto the Cup. The programme notes suggested the importance of the game to success-starved Pilgrims followers. Heres to a return to the good old days, Des Portas noted. Rob Singleton talked of an epic encounter. Scott Dalton celebrated Uniteds return to the forefront of affairs in Boston. Not for a long time have people talked about Boston United and their performances with such enthusiasm and looked forward to the months ahead with such confidence, Dalton gushed. He wasnt wrong.
The build-up to the game was marred by the news that Boston might have to play without the services of Simon Armstrong, a young winger from Skegness who had bags of talent. His mazy dibbling excited and frustrated the fans in equal measure but nobody denied his ability to turn a match on its head. Such was his touted ability that rumours circulated about the town that he would soon be off to Manchester United. The United team was undoubtedly the best that had been assembled during their exile from the Conference. Aside from Armstrong, the Pilgrims had the exciting youngster Richard Mason in midfield, with Steve Williams up front. Experience came in the shape of Paul Bastock, the utterly dependable Martin Hardy and popular Chris Withe, brother of Peter. But of course, this was the FA Cup. Anything could happen.
The match itself was a humdinger, played under the watchful eye of future Premiership official Uriah Rennie. 2935 fans packed into the ground, the biggest crowd for years, swelled by the impressive Morecambe travelling support. Fans of the two teams stood side by side on the Town End, separated by a thin line of police, and settled in to watch what would prove, for the Pilgrims anyway, to be a classic. The star of the show was Leroy Chambers, the terrace hero who had, somehow, achieved a cult-like status among the fans. He was, supposedly, a striker. He was tall, gangly and his first touch was appalling. Yet he scored important goals at important times and he had earned the respect of Boston followers.
Boston started brightly. They seemed crisp, motivated. Morecambe seemed laboured and struggled to cope with the Pilgrims' probing attacks. Simon Armstrong, who passed a late fitness test, struggled to make an impact but had moments of good play. It wasnt long before the man of the moment broke the deadlock. With 21 minutes on the clock, it was Boston who took the match by the scruff of its neck and silenced the vociferous Morecambe following. The ball was swung in from the left and was met by the towering presence of LEROY CHAMBERS. It wasnt a straightforward chance. His legs seemed to fold under him mid-air - a kind of kung-fu volley-flick. The ball somehow flew in. York Street went Leroy crazy. Boston were playing positive, flowing football and we were lapping it up. Half time. 1-0, and Boston were well on top of the game. The mood was one of optimism and confidence. The second half only brightened the mood. Ten minutes LEROY CHAMBERS was at it again, losing his marker to smash a powerful header past Morecambe keeper Andy Banks it 2-0. There was no way back for Morecambe. This was a team we had been led to believe were pushing for a place in the Football League. Playing better football and threatening to rout the ragged Conference outfit, Boston were cruising. It wasnt supposed to be this easy. There was one more twist. Seven minutes before time, we were treated to third Chambers goal. This time the provider was midfielder Steve. Not known for his goal scoring prowess, Steve was blighted by injury during his time at York Street, but for one day he became a hero. His hopeful smash from an ambitious distance was one of those shots that every goalkeeper dreads. Andy Banks back-pedalled to no avail; STEVE CHAMBERS had placed it perfectly. 3-0. Game over.
Of course, history can be a real party pooper. The records will confirm that Boston went to Chester, played brilliantly, but lost to a fifth minute goal after Greg Fee fluffed a penalty. Chester then drew star studded Middlesbrough and were routed 6-0. Boston, naturally, would have done better.
So just like that, the FA Cup was over again, leaving the memory of this great little victory to linger on a little longer. The season ended months later with a 1-1 draw with Bishop Auckland on a blistering summer day, the same day as the Endeavour visited town. Bishop Auckland claimed the point they needed to finish as runners-up. Boston finished sixth, their worst finish since relegation. But it had been a magnificent season, the best since 1985. More than any other game, it was this victory that defined 96/97. Sure, it wasnt a trip to Old Trafford. It wasnt a hard fought and brave 0-0 draw with a Premiership outfit. It wasnt an away pay-day at Highbury. And it wasnt quite a match that brought down the girls from The Sun.
It was just a great match, with a great atmosphere, with a great result. And boy, did we need it
United team: 1. Paul Bastock, 2. Simon Armstrong, 3. Chris Withe, 4. Greg Fee, 5. Martin Hardy, 6. Steve Chambers, 7. Leroy Chambers, 8. Steve Appleby, 9. Phil Brown, 10. Steve Williams, 11. Richard Mason. 12. Darren Munton, 14. Mark Melson, 15. Chris Cook.
Morecambe team: 1. Andy Banks, 2. Michael Knowles, 3. Ben Lavelle, 4. David Miller, 5. Tony Hughes, 6. Paul Burns, 7. Ian Cain, 8. Andy Grimshaw, 9. Jim McLuskie, 10. John Norman, 11. David Leaver, 12. David McKearney, 14. Ian Monk, 15. Marek Ceraolo
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