CROSBY, England — They had a glitter ball hanging from the ceiling of the away-team changing room at Marine. Technically, it was the stadium bar, which had been hastily transformed for the Tottenham Hotspur players ahead of their FA Cup third round tie against a team ranked 161 places below in English football, but if anything summed up the surreal surroundings for Jose Mourinho’s team, it was the sense of walking into a disco as they prepared to fend off an upset against a team seven tiers below them in the English football pyramid.
– Report: Spurs end Marine’s FA Cup dreams
In the end, the biggest day in tiny Marine’s history ended with Spurs winning 5-0, but it was always going to take the football equivalent of scaling Everest in running shoes for the non-league team to leave Mourinho’s team on the wrong end of an FA Cup humiliation. Spurs turned up, did the job and headed straight back to London, but they won’t forget their trip to Marine.
“The boys were professionals and didn’t stop until the game was over in terms of result,” Mourinho said. “The attitude was positive and that means a lot for me and also for the competition and to Marine’s guys, because they felt we played seriously.
“Since 2004, I have been in England and I’ve never played against a side at this level in the pyramid. I’m not English, but I know what this means for everyone so I brought a good team, not just for the result, but also for the meaning of the cup.”
This really was a unique experience for Mourinho and his Tottenham players. Captain Hugo Lloris and goalscoring talisman Harry Kane may have been given the day off, but it was still a multi-talented, high-profile collection of stars that disembarked the bus, including Gareth Bale, Dele Alli, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min, before stepping into a different universe from the one they usually inhabit in the Premier League.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, the tiny visitors’ changing room at the Marine Travel Arena was deemed too small for the Spurs squad and staff, so Mourinho led his players into the stadium bar to prepare for the game. In “normal” times, the bar is the social hub of Marine Football Club; it’s also used as a meeting point for the Crosby Slimming World group. On Sunday, though, it was the locker room for a team that contested a Champions League final just 18 months ago.
The culture shock did not stop there, though. Bale, named as a substitute, will have wondered how on Earth he has gone from the Real Madrid bench to a makeshift area made up of office chairs and blankets at Marine in the space of six months. Behind him, the residents of Rossett Road, which backs onto the pitch, were sat on their garden walls, watching the action within arms’ reach of their kitchens.
One humorous consequence of the array of garden spectators were the youngsters attempting to distract the Spurs players with foghorns and sirens whenever they took a set piece — not something that happens at Anfield or Old Trafford. The noisy kids were probably among the throng of fans outside the ground prior to kick-off, waiting in large numbers — perhaps 1,000 in total — to greet the two team coaches on arrival.
As a spectacle, it was a reminder of how much football means to fans at all levels and how the third round missed the noise and colour of supporters inside grounds, but with the UK in the midst of its third lockdown due to escalating COVID-19 cases, it was probably not the wisest social gathering in such difficult times.
Aside from those watching in their gardens or from bedroom windows, the rest had to watch Marine try to pull off the FA Cup’s biggest-ever shock on their TV screens. And for 24 minutes, they were treated to a cup tie that had all the elements of a potential giant-killing. The home side even rattled the Spurs crossbar with the scoreline at 0-0 on 19 minutes, when Neil Kengni forced keeper Joe Hart to tip the rebound off the woodwork and behind for a corner.
The near-miss jolted Spurs into action after a relaxed and overly cautious start.
Marine’s physical approach may also have unsettled Mourinho’s team, which was not short on experience. At Marine’s usual level, in the eighth tier of the English game, physical and verbal intimidation is not unusual and some Spurs players were subjected to both, with some tough tackles and Goodfellas-style language clearly audible inside the empty ground. But no matter what the level, quality usually always counts in elite sport and it was no different on this occasion.
With 161 places separating the two sides, Marine really were facing an uphill battle to even have a hope of winning this tie. And once Vinicius put Spurs ahead on 24 minutes, with an exaggerated blast about two inches from goal, the game very quickly ran away from Marine. By half-time, Mourinho’s team were 4-0 up — Vinicius had scored a hat-trick and Lucas Moura netted the other with a classy free-kick from 20-yards.
“It is nice for Vinicius,” Mourinho said. “Of course, for a striker that doesn’t play a lot because [Kane] is in front of him, every time he has a little chance to play, like in the Europa League, he is there for us and we are very happy.”
At this point, Marine’s team of part-timers, which included a teacher, bin man and car production-line worker, were in danger of being overrun in the second-half, when Tottenham’s superior fitness would expose the home side’s shortcomings, both in terms of skill and energy. But Neil Young’s team held their own and kept their shape. Alfie Devine, the 16-year-old, made it 5-0 to Spurs on the hour with a debut goal, but even though Bale was introduced into the action five minutes later, the Premier League giants could not add to the scoreline.
In many ways, that reflected as well on Tottenham as on Marine; the non-league side fought all the way, but Spurs also did not keep their foot on the pedal and end up humiliating their spirited opponents. Mourinho was able to give minutes to his fringe players and rest his main men, at the same time progressing in the FA Cup just a few days after reaching the Carabao Cup final.
Yet this was a day when both teams won because Marine took on one of the best teams in England and came off the pitch with their heads held high.
“I’m very proud of them,” Marine manager Young said. “It was always going to be tough, but I’ve got to give credit to Jose Mourinho and his team, they showed us a lot of respect — in the end, we were laughing at who was coming off their bench!
“I can’t ask any more of our lads — you’re playing against world-class footballers who make it look easy. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”