Larkhall Athletic have been dealt a day with destiny, as the tier-eight side prepare for a clash against National League Stockport County in the FA Trophy Fourth Round.
By Amos Murphy
Just below Solsbury Hill
Inspiration for rock artist Peter Gabriel’s 1977 debut single of the same name, Solsbury Hill has provided views over Somerset’s largest city Bath for the best part of 1000 years.
Less than a 10-minute drive from the one-time Roman metropolis sits Larkhall: a quirky, bohemian district town, and home to the most famous football club in Somerset – for one weekend at least.
As the lyrics go: “Climbing up on Solsbury Hill, I could see the city light”.
On Saturday afternoon, eighth-tier Larkhall Athletic will climb their way up the M5 and M6, before arriving in Stockport, where they will be met by the famous Edgeley Park (flood) lights.
Rise to prominence for humble Larkhall
Founded in 1914, Larkhall have existed as a humble non-league club for much of their history, before rising to relative prominence shortly after the turn of the millennium.
Winners of the Somerset Senior Cup for the first time in 1976, the club would be forced to wait a further 28-years before replicating the feat – a flurry of promotions would follow in the 2010s, with Larkhall now an established outfit in the Southern League Division One South.
Losers away to current EFL League Two leaders Forest Green Rovers in the club’s maiden FA Cup campaign almost 50 years ago, Larkhall would go on to forge a love affair with cup competitions, more recently reaching the FA Vase Fifth Round on three different occasions.
However, it has been in this season’s FA Trophy that Larkhall have captured the imaginations, not just of the people of Somerset, but the entire non-league community.
Stockport draw a dream come blue
Ranked as the lowest side ahead of last month’s FA Trophy Fourth Round draw, Club Secretary Tracey Hill was stunned to find out who they’d be facing at the next stage of the competition:
“My radio feed was slightly behind”, Tracey explains to Non League Daily, in the same hysterical tone she reacted to the draw with. “Everyone was telling me we’d got Stockport, but I was like it can’t be, it can’t be, it can’t be, can it?”.
Having progressed through five matches to reach the Fourth Round, starting their journey all the way back on 30th October with a 5-1 demolition of Paulton Rovers, Larkhall’s reward for a stellar cup run was a trip to National League giants Stockport County.
“Some of the lads really wanted Wrexham, but they came and went, Notts County came and went and then Plymouth Parkway were pulled out”.
Pausing, before resuming with noticeable hesitancy in her voice, Tracey clarifies whilst there is obviously nothing wrong with Plymouth Parkway, they just didn’t want to draw a team they already shared their division with. Larkhall wanted a glamour tie. Boy did they get it.
“When Stockport County were pulled out, we were absolutely gobsmacked and thrilled. It’s all been very exciting”.
Burden of history awaits eighth-tier Larkhall
There is no doubting the magnitude of this clash for the Step 4 club. The Fourth Round tie against Stockport County, is without question, the biggest match in Larkhall’s 108-year history.
Admitting this herself, Tracey revealed what this season’s FA Trophy run has meant for the town:
“We are basically a village side. We’re just up the hill, it’s quite a difficult place to get to. You can’t get coaches up here, but it is stunning when you do arrive. This is the biggest match in the club’s history”
"It's a close-knit affair at Larkhall. Our manager Ollie Price is an ex-player himself, so he understands what this means for the club".
With links to the United Kingdom’s Roman past, Bath has long sat as a hub for pilgrimages to and from various different destinations around the country, but on Saturday a different sort of voyage will commence, as an army of Larkhall supporters make the 180-mile journey up North.
“The team coach is heading up before the supporters' coach, which is now full. But there are also many people making their own way up, with plenty buying their tickets on the gate”.
Around 200 supporters are expected to click through the away turnstiles at Edgeley Park on Saturday afternoon – a number which not only eclipses Larkhall’s home attendances for the campaign, but also rivals many National League away followings at Stockport this season.
Hashtag Pride of BA1 😉👊💙 pic.twitter.com/eEJTernHqz
— Larkhall Athletic FC (@LarkhallAFC) January 13, 2022
Their hosts on Saturday know a thing or two about the impact a lengthy cup run can have on attendances, after Stockport stunned League One Bolton Wanderers in front of a sell-out 10,000 capacity Edgeley Park crowd. The Hatters have since gone on to average the third-highest attendance in the fifth tier.
Tracey hopes their run in the competition sees supporters return for future home fixtures at Plain Ham:
"I'll be walking around joking to people I've not seen in a while, asking them if they'll be coming down to our home games some more".
‘FA Trophy must be protected’ believes Larkhall Secretary
For some non-league managers, particularly those at the upper end of the pyramid, the FA Trophy can be seen as somewhat of a hindrance. An unwanted distraction away from an already packed league schedule. Potential injuries to best players just before the business end of the campaign? No thank you.
But every once in a while, a story like Larkhall’s comes along and offers a stark reminder as to the importance of one of non-league's oldest cup competitions:
“As one of the bigger sides in the FA Vase we made it to the last-32 quite often, but as one of the smaller sides in the FA Trophy, we often don’t go very far".
Only teams from Step 4 and above in the non-league pyramid compete in the Trophy, making potential trips away to giants like Stockport a rare occurrence.
“It’s a combination of all of those factors. Reaching this stage for the first time, and getting to play a really big club like Stockport is just fantastic.
“Look, the prize money isn’t all that, at least not compared to the FA Cup anyway, but everyone at Larkhall is determined to make the most of it whilst it lasts”.
Make the most of it they will.