James Roberts targeting second huge FA Cup upset in as many years as Hawks travel to former Premier League club Charlton Athletic

Sixty five places separate Hawks and Charlton Athletic in the football pyramid. So, on paper, the non-leaguers have scant chance. Thankfully, though, this is the Football Association Challenge Cup and little miracles happen on a yearly basis. Sometimes - Hawks at Anfield, Danny Cowley’s non-league Lincoln in the quarter-finals - huge miracles occur.

By Simon Carter
Thursday, 4th November 2021, 12:59 pm
James Roberts lines up a shot during Oxford City's FA Cup upset win against three divisions higher Northampton last year. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.
James Roberts lines up a shot during Oxford City's FA Cup upset win against three divisions higher Northampton last year. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

For two members of the Hawks squad that will walk out at The Valley on Saturday, captain Joe Oastler and striker James Roberts, a small one happened in last season’s first round when Oxford City defeated three tiers higher Northampton Town.

This weekend, 65 places separate Hawks and Charlton; last year, 63 separated Oxford and their League 1 rivals and Roberts was on target in a 2-1 home win. Oxford could even afford the luxury of Roberts missing a penalty. See, it can be done.

Hawks beat Swansea in 2008, making a mockery of a gap of 83 places. Current Hawks player-coach Jamie Collins scored in that game, as he did when Sutton defeated Leeds in 2017 - again, 83 places separated those clubs. To repeat, such upsets are rare but, thank the footballing Gods, they do happen.

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James Roberts in FA Cup second round action for Oxford at Shrewsbury Town last season. Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images.

Again last season, Darlington and Chorley - both from the sixth tier, the same as Hawks – won at League 1 clubs in the first round (Swindon and Wigan respectively). The previous season, Maldon & Tiptree made light of a four-division gap to triumph at Leyton Orient. Do you need any more examples?

‘It’s the best competition in the world because anyone can draw anyone,’ Roberts told The News this week. ‘That’s why the clubs love it, the players love it and the fans love it.

‘Saturday will be a massive, massive experience for us at a historic stadium, a former Premier League ground. It’s a huge, huge game - it’s one of the three or four biggest draws we could have got along with Portsmouth, Ipswich and Sunderland.

‘We’ve got every chance, you can never rule yourselves out.

James Roberts in FA Cup action for Hawks against Beaconsfield in the second qualifying round. Picture: Dave Haines.

‘Northampton were in League 1 when we beat them last season, that just goes to show what can happen.

‘Yes, we were at home but there were no fans, so that was a detriment to us. That meant it was down to pure ability, pure workrate - there was no sway of the crowd to help us.

‘It was almost a lose-lose situation for Northampton. There would have been no hoopla had they won.

‘You have to be careful. You don’t want to give them (Charlton) too much respect, but you have to be respectful. They have real, real quality and we can’t ignore that, we can’t go all gung ho.

James Roberts scores on his NL South debut for Hawks against Welling in August. Picture: Dave Haines.

‘But we will do our best to give our magnificent support a hell of a day.’

Roberts is one major reason why hundreds of Hawks fans will be metaphorically going for little walk - to use the lyrics of their terrace anthem ‘Under the Moon of Love’ - to South London on Saturday.

It was his superb injury-time leveller in south Devon - a shot from the edge of the area that arrowed into the top corner with keeper Scott MacDonald motionless - that earned Hawks a 2-2 fourth qualifying round draw at Torquay. The following Wednesday, the higher tier visitors were blown away by a stunning Hawks display in a 4-2 win.

‘We weren’t expected to get this far. People wrote us off before we played Torquay, but here we are,’ said Roberts. ‘We have our reward for beating Torquay, we wanted to get to the first round, so this is almost a free hit.

James Roberts about to convert a penalty for Oxford City against Tamworth in last season's FA Cup third qualifying round tie. Picture: Alex Burstow/Getty Images.

‘Torquay away was about as tough as we could have got. A long journey, a boisterous crowd, a club that was only a few minutes away from being in League 2 this season. It couldn’t have got any tougher, but we rolled our sleeves up.

‘You have to believe you can win these games. Belief is key. If you don’t have that there is every likelihood that you’ll lose. You have to trust the player to your left and the one on the right.

‘The first half (at Torquay) was just feeling each other out, they definitely edged the first half. But if we had lost in the end it would have been a travesty as we created countless chances.

‘We took that into the second game, and we believed we were going to win. They’d had a long journey and probably came out, saw the 3G pitch, the torrential rain, and thought ‘oh dear’.

‘It was devastating to be 2-1 down at half-time, but we weren’t devastated in terms of our heads being down. We knew we’d destroyed them in the first half and we destroyed them in the second.’

Roberts has enjoyed a love affair with the FA Cup since he sat on the Oxford United bench as a 16-year-old in a 2012 tie at Barnet’s former Underhill ground.

Two years later, he was handed his first competitive start for the U’s in an FA Cup first round tie at non-league Grimsby - and scored twice in the first half in a 3-1 win.

‘The FA Cup has been a wonderful competition for me,’ he said. ‘Just being part of the matchday squad when I was 16 is a memory I will never forget.’

A trip to Charlton - a club who have spent 32 seasons dining at the top table of English football, and who were seventh in the Premier League in 2003/04 - is a brief chance to forget the National League South season.

That resumes next Tuesday at Tonbridge Angels, and Hawks have work to do after losing four of their opening 10 games.

‘It’s been up and down - win one, lose one,’ Roberts said of the club’s bread and butter. ‘But we have so much quality in our dressing room. We have the ability to be right up there and I’m confident we will be up there. We are looking to improve massively.

‘It’s a long season, a difficult season - look at Dartford, they started like a house on fire but they’ve lost two of their last three. We need to find that level of consistency and lose a lot less games.

Asked about his own form, he replied: ‘Up and down, a bit like the team. The two Torquay games were how I want to play, I want to be positive, I want to create goals, I want to score goals.

‘I want to be an eight out of 10 player every week, like I was last year. I know I can bring a lot more.’

Roberts started the season against Welling in an attacking role behind front two Tommy Wright and Scott Rendell. But after a few weeks he was moved up front alongside Wright, coinciding with Hawks thrashing Concord 5-2 in the league and producing three superb halves against Torquay.

‘Playing up front in a two is the position I enjoy the most,’ he commented. ‘I played up front in a two at Oxford (City) and I also played as an inside forward on the right in a 4-3-3.

‘Dos and Bairdy have said I can drift out wide rather than staying close to the (other) striker, but my natural game is to try and find the gaps.’

Roberts will partner Scott Rendell up front at The Valley as Tommy Wright serves the second of a three-game ban for a controversial red card against Slough.

‘It was a harsh red. It still frustrates me and it wasn’t me that got sent off!’ remarked Roberts. ‘It was a baffling decision, I don’t even think it was a foul - Tommy has to go for that ball as a striker. The keeper’s actions got him sent off. It’s a massive shame for Tommy and a big blow for the team.

‘Slough was not a good game for anyone. After that Hungerford was a difficult place to go, especially conceding an early goal. But we showed a bit of character to get a point. Then we went to another difficult place (Chelmsford) and won.

‘To take four points out of those nine was not what we were looking for, but after losing to Slough we’d take that.’

Roberts summed up: ‘We need to start producing what we know we can.

‘The season does go quickly, it can fly by. We’ve played a quarter of our league games and we’re under no illusions that the time for gelling has gone. We need to start producing.’