FA Cup: Sporting Khalsa aiming to reach first round for first time

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Sporting Khalsa are in the ninth tier of English football

Sporting Khalsa used to be known locally as the club with a curry house.

But the West Midlands team have come a long way since their formation in 1991 and can make history on Saturday by reaching the first round of the FA Cup for the first time.

It will not be easy against the relative giants of FC United of Manchester but, whatever happens at the Aspray Arena, it will be another chapter in a remarkable story.

'We normally only have 50 fans here'

Sporting Khalsa are fifth in the Midland League Premier Division,external-link the ninth tier of the English football pyramid. On Tuesday, they won at Brocton. The attendance was 87.

On Saturday, in excess of 2,000 supporters are expected for the visit of National League North side FC United, who play three tiers above Khalsa, in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round.

The winners will earn £12,500 and enter Monday's first-round draw alongside 2008 winners Portsmouth and Wigan, who lifted the trophy by beating Manchester City at Wembley in 2013.

Sporting Khalsa
Staff have been hard at work making sure the Asprey Arena (seen here in 2003, right) is up to standard for Saturday's FA Cup game with FC United

"Preparations started on Sunday because we had to clear an access route for vans to bring in the marquees we are having to use because our bar is not big enough," said Inder Grewa, one of Sporting Khalsa's 12 owners, who also acts as treasurer.

"We have never before had to think about marquees because we normally only have 50 people here.

"There was a load of old metal and chairs that needed shifting. Grass verges had to be dug and stone had to be put down to level it off.

"At our level we can't afford to pay people to clear the site. We rely on volunteers.

"We sent one email out and had around 20 people turn up, including the manager and some of the players."

Only one full-time member of staff

Sporting Khalsa
Where it all began for Sporting Khalsa

Prior to this FA Cup run, Sporting Khalsa had never had an attendance in three figures, but there were 750 at the Aspray Arena for the visit of Spalding in the third qualifying round.

On Saturday, a combination of local interest and FC United's healthy away following - many of whom are intent on making a trip to nearby Dudley to see the statue of legendary Manchester United and England player Duncan Edwards - could see three times that many turn up.

Normal home match plans have had to be altered at a club where stadium and bar manager Bal Gacha is the only full-time member of staff.

"We usually print the programmes ourselves on a colour printer," Grewa told BBC Sport.

"But we have not been able to do that this weekend because instead of 20 we have had to get a thousand done.

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"We have gone up from two stewards to 30.

"We have brought the marquees in because we simply could not accommodate the numbers we are expecting in the bar. Food will be available, though."

Ah yes, the now famous curry house, located within the 4-4-2 bar adjacent to the ground, open on match and non-matchdays.

"We just thought it would be an add-on," said Grewa.

"We feed the players but football comes first. Everything here is working towards improving the football side."

From humble beginnings...

It is safe to assume neither Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger nor Aston Villa boss Tim Sherwood were required for landscaping duties before last season's FA Cup final.

But that was one of the jobs keeping Sporting Khalsa manager Ian Rowe busy this week after answering the call to help create the access route.

Building is nothing new for this Black Country club, sandwiched between Wolverhampton and Walsall, whose story of traversing one side of Noose Lane, where it all began in 1991, to the other, where the Asprey Arena is located, is a compelling one, even if it comes with a sad reminder that some racial stereotypes still run deep.

Sporting Khalsa
One of Khalsa's 12 owners Inder Grewa (seen with assistant manager Peter Wood and right), has had to rely on the kindness of volunteers to help with preparations

Sporting Khalsa emerged from a group of a dozen Sikh lads who would meet on Willenhall Memorial Park for a kickabout at weekends.

Playing standards varied. Passion for the game was in them all.

Sporting Khalsa entered the local Walsall and District Sunday League, then moved into Saturday football, pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved.

In 2004 they joined the West Midlands Regional League.external-link Three promotions have taken them to the upper echelons of the Midland League.

'Black, green or yellow - you're welcome here'

Decisions now, as they always have, are achieved through discussion and consensus, sometimes in the car as they travel to away games.

Sporting Khalsa's architects were Asian. Their official website calls them a semi-professional Asian club.

But it has always been open to all, regardless of religion, skin colour and gender.

They bought a pitch at Bloxwich Town but when Aspray Arena became available after Willenhall Town went into administration in 2009, the opportunity to relocate to a stadium barely 400 yards from the Sunday league pitches where the Sporting Khalsa concept first emerged was too tempting to reject.

Sporting Khalsa
Sporting Khalsa at their first proper pitch in Bloxwich

"There is a group of 12 who you could say are the core of the club," said Grewa.

"We were always aware some of us could not play at a good standard. But we just love the game - and we wanted to see how far we could push ourselves.

"You still get the odd comment. We were at an away match recently and someone said, 'I thought you lot only played cricket', so that stereotype is still there.

"It makes me angry that something like that still happens because it is absolutely not true.

"We just love football. It doesn't matter to us if you are black, green or yellow. We welcome anybody.

"We have kids teams from under-6s upwards and four ladies teams. We are a community club - and the community is everybody."

How far can they go?

The club have ambitions of climbing higher up the football pyramid, but there is also a conflict about how progress could permanently alter the identity of the club.

"We want to get to the National League," said Grewa.

Sporting Khalsa's matchday programme for the visit of FC United
Khalsa usually print their matchday programme on a few sheets of A4 paper

"Once you go into the Football League, it becomes a business. I don't know whether we want that.

"The founders of the club have never fallen out. That only happens if there is money involved. As it is, everyone is treated equally.

"Up to the National League, we could still do our jobs and handle it."

'Saturday will be one of my proudest moments'

At 15:00 BST on Saturday, the dreaming must stop.

By any logic, Sporting Khalsa do not stand a chance of bridging the gap to FC United, akin to a League Two side taking on a Premier League team.

They do have an international, central defender Tes Robinson, who plays for St Kitts and Nevis. They also have a forward, Craig Bannister, who has scored nine times in this season's FA Cup.

Saturday's match is Sporting Khalsa's seventh FA Cup tie of the season, more than Arsenal played in lifting the trophy in 2014-15.

Manager Ian Rowe and assistant manager Peter Wood
Manager Ian Rowe (right, with assistant manager Peter Wood) led Sporting Khalsa to the West Midlands Premier League title with a record goal and points tally

The players share lifts to away games. Many still play Sunday football in addition to Saturdays. And it was not known for certain until less than 24 hours before they left for their replay against Spalding last week that their goalkeeper and winger would be able to play because of work commitments.

"I am a Manchester United fan," said manager Ian Rowe, who was appointed at the start of the 2014-15 season.

"I have followed the FC United story from the start. Next to having my kids, this will be one of the proudest moments of my life.

"But let's not kid ourselves. The chance of us reaching the level we will need to win this game is probably one in a hundred.

"AFC Fylde are in the same league as FC United. They beat a team in our league 9-0. I don't want that to happen to us."