José Mourinho takes a supporting role in Marine’s drama of homespun charm | Barney Ronay | Football

With 19 minutes gone at Rossett Park, and the score still 0-0 between Marine AFC and Tottenham Hotspur, something almost-brilliant almost happened.

Neil Kengni, Marine’s right winger, took the ball on the halfway line, galloped forward into a pocket of space, took another step, then spanked a wonderful dipping shot on to the crossbar.

The moment was granted another layer of double-take by Joe Hart’s weird reverie as the ball floated over his head. Cool, collected and entirely at sea with his angles, England’s joint second-most capped goalkeeper of all time was finally startled into actual footballer-style action by the smack of ball on metal.

Kengni is a trainee plumber from the eighth tier. Six inches lower and he would have dished up surely the most hierarchically extreme 1-0 lead in English football history and a moment of genuine cup football schmaltz. It was just a flicker in the end. Carlos Vinícius, it turns out, doesn’t care much for your magic. Vinícius is from Maranhão, a small-town coastal region in the north-east of Brazil – perhaps, at a stretch, a kind of tropical Crosby. He certainly looked at home here, and agreeably vengeful in his finishing. Before long Vinícius had made it 1-0, smashing the ball into the net from an inch out before performing a dramatic Kylian Mbappé-style celebration.

Soon he was tapping in a second. Lucas Moura curled a beautiful shot into the top corner to make it three. And the Vinícius hat-trick came before half-time with a nice floated finish over the goalkeeper. A 5-0 final score was probably fair enough. Not that it really seemed to matter much either way on the day.

Even at the best of times it is possible to overdo it on the FA Cup chintz, those clunky old tales of mud and romance – sporting aristocrats matched against the shelf‑stackers, teachers, roofers, nurses, pickpockets, dilettantes, flâneurs and all the rest.

Packed into a bloated TV fixture list, at a time when hospitals have become frightening places and when the nation is swarming with an urgent new virus strain, this might have felt like a bleak, forced, even rather grim occasion.

In the event it was something else – and for that, many thanks must go to Marine. This was an uplifting piece of theatre, televised live by the BBC on a grim, shuttered, atomised Sunday night, and bringing with it oddly comforting glimpses of a fond and familiar world.

After months of staring at the dystopian hellscape of empty plastic mega-stadiums there was something wonderfully moreish about the sight of massed back-garden spectators.

The Victorian terrace beyond the Rosset Park touchline revealed a varied lineup of sheds, barbecues, side-returns and full-width extensions, a Betjeman-like snapshot of suburban Lancashire life. There were glimpses of locals cradling a glass, breath steaming the air, and beamed into the quarantined front room like a quietly reassuring Sunday-night drama.

The show had its schlocky side, too. Marine came through seven Covid-menaced FA Cup rounds. They beat Runcorn Linnets and Frickley Athletic to get here. Their winner in the last round was an extra-time deflection off the back of a schoolteacher. Non-league football might even be facing another cancellation in the next few days. This was a standalone, a lighted window in the dark, and a gift in the middle of a horrible winter.

Rossett Park is set among houses.

Rossett Park is set among houses. Photograph: Martin Rickett/Reuters

There was an impressive turn too from José Mourinho, who came to Crosby on his most gracious, aggressively respectful form, enjoying immensely the reflected spectacle of his own crinkly humility.

The word from Spurs’ inner sanctum was that Mourinho would be “preparing normally with massive respect” – which, to be fair, doesn’t sound that normal. Snipe, snark, underhand tactics – now that really would be the ultimate respect. So we looked forward to Mourinho’s provocative shushing gestures over the back garden fences. Would he poke a schoolteacher in the eye? Jostle an NHS nurse? Gesture about his trophy haul to a dozing pensioner?

In the event Mourinho also curated the occasion perfectly, picking a strong team, speaking with genuine affection for the day and the opposition, and sitting centre stage on a plastic veneered dining chair through what turned out to be an energetic third round cup tie.

Dele Alli started and played well, the quality of his movement and touch standing out. Alli looked happy, too, which is perhaps worth just as much. At one point in the first half he fell over trying a quick turn and drew a barrage of giggles and calls for a yellow card for simulation from the Spurs bench behind him. Footballers having a good time: we don’t need much.

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Finally there was another nice moment as 16-year-old Alfie Devine scored his first professional goal and Spurs’ fifth of the game, a nice little jink inside and a near-post finish. He looked absolutely overjoyed, unable to pretend this was anything other than the best moment of his life so far (sorry parents, friends, but let’s face it).

Marine AFC v Spurs will drift on into the season’s blurred remains from here. Should football actually be going on at all right now? Here was a reminder of the best of this game – as a consolation, a muster point and something in the day that isn’t sickness and anxiety, as for a couple of hours in a dark week the FA Cup delivered its own small square of light.

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