Neil Young’s FA Cup campaign started on the opening day of September when he trekked up to Darwen to spy on Marine AFC’s preliminary round opponents, Barnoldswick.

The managerial research almost backfired. Barnoldswick led 10-man Marine 1-0 with three minutes left until Ryan Wignall and Josh Hmami scored to kickstart an unprecedented journey.

‘To this day, we’re not sure if the winning free-kick crossed the line but the flag went up to signal a goal,’ says Young, who capitalised by winning six more ties and is about to swap his regular job at Merseyrail in order to pit his wits against Jose Mourinho.

Neil Young is preparing his Marine side for the biggest game in the non-league club's history

Neil Young is preparing his Marine side for the biggest game in the non-league club’s history

So, who are Marine? 

  • Non-League club founded in 1894 and based in Crosby, Merseyside.
  • Sixth in the Northern Premier League Division One North-West in English football’s eighth tier.
  • Only previous appearance in the FA Cup third round ended in a 3-1 defeat at Crewe in 1993.
  • Received £83,000 to improve their Rossett Park ground on their 125th anniversary in 2019.
  • They were three minutes from losing their FA Cup preliminary round tie against Barnoldswick.
  • Captain and PE teacher Niall Cummins wanted Spurs in the draw — as he supports Arsenal.
  • Goalkeeper Bayleigh Passant went viral buying drinks at a Co-op in full kit to celebrate reaching the third round.
  • Wayne Rooney’s uncle Billy Morrey is one of the best strikers in Marine’s history.
  • Roly Howard, Kenny Dalglish’s window-cleaner, was Marine manager for 33 years.
  • They wear black and gold and are nicknamed The Mariners.

 

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Eighth-tier Marine from Northern Premier League Division One North-West will be the biggest underdogs in the competition’s history when they welcome Premier League Tottenham to Rossett Park next Sunday, the only sadness being that no fans will be inside to watch.

The managers’ CVs couldn’t be more different, Cammell Laird compared with Real Madrid, but Mourinho will appreciate Young’s dedication to reach his dream.

‘If you had to give me a label, I guess it could be the Diligent One,’ says the balding and bearded 45-year-old Marine boss. ‘My playing career ended because of a recurring dislocated shoulder so I took my first manager’s job at 24 with Queen’s Park in the Birkenhead Sunday League.

‘Since then, few people would say anyone works harder. I like to be part of a team and that team is part of me.

‘I was assistant at Rhyl when we drew Viking Stavanger in the Intertoto Cup. Roy Hodgson was their manager and dropped us into town after we flew to Norway to scout them. There I was, a young lad chatting football to this very famous manager. It gave me an idea of what could be possible.

‘I became a manager myself. At Chester FC, we had no ground, no players, no kit and no balls or bibs when I was appointed. We won three promotions in a row as champions, the first time it’s ever been done.

‘As a manager, you know you’ll always get more s*** than bouquets. When I resigned at Altrincham in 2016, I wasn’t in a good place and thought I’d call it a day in the game.

‘But you then find football is like a drug. When you’re out, you miss it. I was involved in scouting at Halifax, my mojo returned, and I became a manager again with Marine during 2018-19.’

Besides planning how to stop Harry Kane, Young has spent his Christmas ensuring stations around Liverpool were being gritted properly.

‘I’ve been at Merseyrail for 28 years,’ he says. ‘They’ve supported me and the skills I’ve learned have helped with the football. As facilities manager, I deal with staff and stakeholders — it’s about how you treat people and those relationships. At Marine, I interact with players, directors, volunteers, communities. It’s about building and this Cup run will take us forward.’ Marine are sixth in their division. Covid has badly interrupted the League programme, which is currently closed again. In the circumstances, the FA Cup has proved a financial lifesaver.

The eighth-tier minnows welcome Premier League side Tottenham in the FA Cup third round

The eighth-tier minnows welcome Premier League side Tottenham in the FA Cup third round

The behind-closed-doors clash is reward for a remarkable journey for the lower league side

The behind-closed-doors clash is reward for a remarkable journey for the lower league side

Though the part-timers are not big spenders — the total wage bill is £1,750 a week — 2020 was bleak, with players and staff in and out of furlough and supporters forced to run fundraisers.

This Cup run, including a win against League One Colchester, could yield £300,000. Besides prizemoney and TV revenue, Spurs fans have helped by buying Marine merchandise and virtual match tickets. Young, who lives near Tranmere’s Prenton Park ground, admits: ‘It is scary to think where we’d be without the FA Cup. Our revenues are usually through the gate and at the bar.

‘There are fantastic clubs at our level, salt of the earth, unsure if they’ll be around in six months. I get frustrated.

‘Our commercial partners stuck by us but primarily the Cup money was the only income we had. We were able to pay wages.’

Jose Mourinho will swap north London for Merseyside for the FA Cup clash

Neil Young will be up against one of the best coaches in the world

And Young (right) is excited at the prospect of pitting his wits against Jose Mourinho (left)

Young, a railway worked, has labelled himself 'the diligent one' compared to 'the special one'

Young, a railway worked, has labelled himself ‘the diligent one’ compared to ‘the special one’

Young describes football as his 'drug' having worked at Halifax, Altrincham and Chester FC

Young describes football as his ‘drug’ having worked at Halifax, Altrincham and Chester FC

162 places lower! 

There are eight divisions and 162 places separating Tottenham, third in the Premier League, and Marine, sixth in the Northern Premier League Division One North West. That’s tier eight of the football pyramid.

3rd Tottenham 3rd in PL

17 – Premier League

24 – Championship

24 – League One

24 – League Two

23 – National League

22 – National League North

22 – Northern Premier League – Premier Division

6th Marine in NPL Division One North West  

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Remarkably, Marine had 22 days without a game between their first and second round ties in November, but still beat Havant & Waterlooville 1-0 with a goal in the last minute of extra time from veteran skipper Niall Cummins, a teacher by trade. They will have been inactive for 15 days when they run out against Spurs, with the League having closed again after Boxing Day.

Their line-up will be a mix of youth and experience. David Raven, 35, once scored a Scottish Cup semi-final winner for Inverness Caledonian Thistle against Virgil van Dijk’s Celtic and there are promising youngsters too. Young has particularly high hopes for right-back Josh Solomon-Davies who has caps for St Lucia.

‘He has good feet and is rapid. He has a great chance of playing higher,’ says the manager. ‘Hmami is technically very good, he has scored six or seven free-kicks this year. James Barrigan was a pro at Wigan and has continually improved since changing to central midfield.’

Like his team-mates, Barrigan needs an outside job to pay the bills and works as a binman.

Covid disruptions have given Young an additional headache. Three loan players integral to their Cup run so far — Alex Doyle, Mo Touray (both Salford) and Adam Hughes (TNS) — have returned to their clubs. He is trying to re-sign them but it is complicated because the Spurs tie may be Marine’s only game this month.

Marine's remarkable FA Cup journey has massively helped the club through a tough year

Marine’s remarkable FA Cup journey has massively helped the club through a tough year

The pandemic has wreaked havoc among non-league clubs but Marine will pocket £300,000

The pandemic has wreaked havoc among non-league clubs but Marine will pocket £300,000

3rd Round giant killers 

 1971-72: Hereford 2 Newcastle 1

‘What a goal! Oh what a goal!’ screamed John Motson as Ronnie Radford wheeled away after scoring a thunderbolt on an Edgar Street mudbath to create FA Cup history. Radford’s goal was the memorable moment but it was actually Ricky George who scored the winner for the Southern League side.

1985-86: Birmingham 1 Altrincham 2

Not even future England keeper David Seaman could keep Alliance Premier giant slayers Altrincham at bay at a near-empty St Andrews. So embarrassed were the Blues that they fired boss Ron Saunders two days later.

1988-89: Sutton 2 Coventry 1

Just 19 months after Coventry had won the FA Cup, they came crashing to earth at Gander Green Lane. Matt Hanlan was the hero with the 59th-minute winner for the Conference club.

 

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Nevertheless, there is excitement in his voice as he discusses the biggest match of his life and the chance to compete against a legend.

‘I think Jose Mourinho comes across as straightforward. What you see is what you get,’ he says admiringly. ‘His record is there for all to see, one of the best four or five in the world.

‘He seems to have changed the culture at Spurs and made them harder to score against. They’ll be a tough nut for us to crack.

‘We have to plan properly and give everything, otherwise we will be on the end of a good hiding. But if we play correctly, we can show we are a decent team.’ The Premier League aristocrats will find Marine doesn’t fit the Southern stereotype of Merseyside. Their ground lies in genteel Crosby, seven miles up the coast from Liverpool’s city centre.

Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti lives in the area. Jamie Carragher is a regular visitor and helped the club distribute lunches to the elderly during lockdown.

They’ve got a proud history too. It was their former striker Billy Morrey who passed on his football talent to nephew Wayne Rooney. Former manager Roly Howard had a window-cleaning round that included Kenny Dalglish’s house. Dalglish is a club patron.

There have been other famous Neil Youngs. One, of course, a legendary singer-songwriter, the other Manchester City’s goalscoring hero in the 1969 FA Cup final against Leicester.

Musically, the Marine version admits he’s more of a Genesis fan but smiles: ‘What some of the lads play now is deafening. I’ll be asking them, ‘What are they saying?’ Most managers my age are probably the same.

‘I am pretty calm overall. I think it is important to get your key points across before games and at half-time.

‘Talking to 900 highly educated people at Chester Cathedral to get my degree, that was frightening. It’s much easier talking to lads in the dressing room even if you are playing Spurs.’

Young is keeping his cool as the biggest game in the club's history draws ever closer

Young is keeping his cool as the biggest game in the club’s history draws ever closer