Kidderminster v West Ham: ‘You can feel the buzz throughout the town’

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It is Tuesday night at Aggborough and a couple of hours before kick-off against Leamington Town, the Harriers Arms, a pub attached to the main stand, is heaving. Later, after a 3-0 victory that moves the club four points off the top of the National League North, the Kidderminster manager, Russell Penn, mingles there with elderly fans to chew the fat. It is also the place where celebrations continued after the team beat Reading to secure a spot in the FA Cup fourth round, with West Ham the visitors on Saturday. “I was apparently dancing around with a mop at midnight,” says the chairman, Richard Lane. “I want to make sure that everybody who has put a huge amount of effort in, on and off the pitch, enjoys this moment.”

For the past couple of weeks, it has been a diet of 14-hour days and precious little sleep for those behind the scenes. West Ham represent the club’s ninth game in four weeks. There are four full-time office staff – five if you count Toby the apprentice – including Helen Macdonald, the ticket office manager whose duties extend to preparing for 500 hospitality guests, and who, as the longest-serving staff member, has witnessed the highs and lows of the past 20 years. She worked as a volunteer when West Ham last came to the Worcestershire town in 1994, eliminating Harriers in the fifth round of the Cup. “In years gone by, as family and friends we would often speak about the time we played West Ham,” Macdonald says. “I only came in and made a few cups of tea but it was a massive occasion. It is brilliant for the area, local businesses, families; everyone has bought into it.”

As Macdonald speaks, the assistant manager, Jimmy O’Connor, pops into reception. Outside the club shop (which stocks commemorative mugs adorned with the West Ham crest) a snaking queue of supporters wait to buy wristbands for the fan zone – where Penn and O’Connor have promised Lane they will sing if they pull off the unthinkable – from the bar manager, Lorna Parsons. Jon Wilson, a volunteer who attended the West Ham game, is selling programmes.

“The ground was totally different then. Over the far side where we stood was affectionately called ‘the cowshed’,” Wilson says of what is now the East Stand, which backs on to the Severn Valley Steam Railway. “They put extra scaffolding in for extra seats. The place was packed.”

There is plenty of symmetry with that Cup run in ’94. In the third round that year they overcame Birmingham City, then run by the now West Ham directors David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady, and in the fourth round they breached a Preston defence that included the now West Ham manager, David Moyes. Lane, whose father, Graham, was a director at Kidderminster, recalls being in the directors’ box at St Andrew’s when Jon Purdie scored the winner. For fans such as Matthew Hatton, who follows Kidderminster home and away, the tie marks a special occasion. “I will be up there with my Dad, Colin, who has been taking me to home games since I was five,” Hatton says. “To be able to stand there with him and see a game of this magnitude is brilliant. You can feel the buzz throughout the town. I missed my cousin’s wedding to go to Eastbourne away … but I did manage to get back for last orders.”

Kidderminster playing West Ham in the 1993-94 FA Cup fifth round
Kidderminster lost 1-0 to West Ham in the FA Cup fifth round in 1994. Photograph: Paul Dennis/TGS Photo/Shutterstock

The stadium announcer, Scott Jones, a volunteer since 2007, gives a pre-match rallying call: “It is time to get behind the boys in red: Aggborough, let’s make some noise.” A minute before kick-off Stuart Pearce takes a seat in the directors’ box. Among the crowd is the Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, a Wolves vice-president who counts Kidderminster as his second team, and on Saturday the VIP list will include the former England and West Ham striker Sir Geoff Hurst. Alan Irvine or Pearce, both of whom are on Moyes’s staff, have been at the Harriers’ past four matches. Penn and his assistant attended West Ham’s game with Leeds amid their relentless schedule. “Fifth in the Premier League coming to Kidderminster Harriers?” Penn says. “It is scary … whatever the result, we have to enjoy the experience. Everyone in non-league is rooting for us.”

When Spennymoor Town visited in October, there were nine members of the press strewn around the stadium but more than 100 media personnel will be here on Saturday. Everybody has wanted a piece of the pie, the club swamped by commercial interest. A clip of Penn’s post-match dressing room team talk after the Reading win went viral. Where was Lane? Having a celebratory pint of Bathams upstairs.

Fans outside Kidderminster’s Aggborough Stadium
Kidderminster’s Aggborough Stadium will be at capacity for the visit of West Ham in the FA Cup. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

There have been TV crews at training and the BBC has set up a studio at the stadium, ready for Match of the Day coverage, which is worth £110,000 to the club. In total sixth-tier Kidderminster, the lowest-ranked team left in the Cup, hope to generate more than £200,000, which will help fund new stadium floodlights and an irrigation system at the training ground. They started the season with a £400,000 playing budget, about the amount West Ham’s highest-paid player, Kurt Zouma, earns every month. “We will put our very small budget against a very big budget and the world will be able to see whether it is justified or not,” Lane says.

The club have fielded media inquiries from Bermuda, Brazil and beyond. There will be a Scandinavian contingent in the stands, supporters from Harriers of Norway, a fan group that followed the team after being inspired by a YouTube clip of Bo Henriksen, a Danish striker who was signed by Jan Molby, walking out of the dressing room, past the tunnel and manager’s office and into the Harriers Arms, via a side door. They have constructed a “mini Aggborough” in Aalesund, a replica terrace to watch DVDs of matches sent by the club, and paid for a new ice machine for the club.

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As full-time approaches Jones reads the attendance over the public address system: 1,668, including 55 away fans, a fraction of the expected sellout crowd on Saturday. The North Stand terrace is rocking. Bobbing supporters bang on advertising hoardings – not publicising conglomerates but a local bedding centre and salvage company – and break into song, serenading striker Amari Morgan-Smith. Jaiden White, a teenager who came through the academy, adds a third goal with a minute to play.

“Controlled, controlled,” Penn says as a trio of players, including Keith Lowe, 36, who is in his third spell with the club, complete a warm-down. He knows there is a delicate balance between his players relishing the occasion and being overawed. “I’ve been there as a player: you run an hour’s worth of legs in 10 minutes and then you blow up after an hour, but that’s natural,” Penn says. “They are going to have adrenaline up to their eyeballs but we have to curb that because there is still a game to play. They are going to see 5,000 through the turnstiles, lights everywhere, flashing phones, but we have to get rid of that one second after kick-off because then it’s game on.”

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