The full time whistle blew as the mist settled in over a heavy Hawthorns pitch, with the players every breath visable in the chilly January air, the hallmarks of every FA Cup Third Round day were on display.
Gateshead’s battle-weary players trudged over towards over one thousand visiting supporters, disconsulate after a 7-0 hammering at the hands of Premier League side West Bromwich Albion.
The highest professional football ground in England had provided the backdrop to the lowest point of their FA Cup run.
Socks rolled down to the ankles, shirts stained with mud and sweat, thoughts of aching limbs were cast aside as they stood in front of the travelling Heed Army for one last time in the FA Cup that season.
As Heed defender James Curtis led his team mates towards their supporters they were met with an emotion far from disappointment, they were met with rapturous applause and gratitude, with pride and good will.
However Curtis, a veteran of twelve years with the Tynesiders, could not shake the feeling of disappointment.
Alongside him were long-time team mates like Phil Turnbull, Ben Clark and Adam Bartlett. Players that had helped Gateshead rise through the non-league pyramid from Unibond League to Conference Football in a golden period for the club.
It could have been so different, as the Heed frustrated their Premier League opponents for forty two minutes, in fact at times they had outplayed them.
Then, just three minutes before the break, England U21 striker Saido Berahino struck before Victor Anichebe doubled his side’s lead in first half injury time.
The class shone through in the second half, five more goals were scored. Berahino, at that point looking every inch an England star in-the-making, was the chief tormentor, plundering four of the Albion’s seven goals in front of new manager Tony Pulis.
Disappointment reigned supreme for Curtis, a feeling that still niggles at him almost two years later.
“We did well to get to the Third Round and we got a great draw” admitted the Sunderland-born defender.
“It was 7-0 but for the first forty minutes we played very, very well. I remember after twenty minutes Tony Pulis came down from the stands to make changes. We were holding our own, playing well and doing alright.
“Then they hit us with two goals before half time, that killed us and we left ourselves wide-open to be honest. We didn’t expect to get anything from the game but you don’t want to be on the end of a 7-0 defeat. We were better than that on the day.
“You always hope you can scrape a draw but the two goals in five minutes killed us.
“At full time I was so disappointed, I wasn’t even thinking about swapping shirts. It wasn’t a memory I wanted to relive.
“I remember going over to our supporters and every one of them were standing applauding us, even the West Brom fans did a generous round of applause, they could see it wasn’t a
“I tried to spot my family and friends to give them a wave, but I was disappointed.
“But you look back and I was proud to help the club get there”
After thirteen years with the Tynesiders Curtis left the club at the end of last season to a cocophony of plaudits and well wishes.
With a number of clubs understandbly interested in acquiring his services he chose to join newly promoted Evo-Stik Northern Premier League club Spennymoor Town.
The Moors have made a bright start to their first ever season in the Evo-Stik NPL’s top tier, hardly surprising given the club’s impressive recruitment push over the summer.
Curtis’ former Gateshead team mates Jamie Chandler (pictured below left) and Rob Ramshaw followed him to the Brewery Field, proven Evo-Stik NPL goalscorer Graeme Armstrong joined the club from Darlington and Guiseley striker Tom Craddock stepped down from the National League to join the Moors.
Their league form has been steady, with the Moors sat in play-off contention, although they hold a number of games in hand on the sides above them.
That is down to their excellent FA Cup run that has seen the club reach the First Round of the competition for the first time in their history.
Their reward for that acheivement is a trip to SkyBet League One side MK Dons, a tie that sees Curtis return to the “proper” rounds of the competition for the first time since that fateful date with West Brom.
Far from going into the game with trepidation, he is relishing the challenge of facing a club from higher up the pyramid.
“We are really looking forward to it” said the thirty four year old.
“It’s a really good draw for us, although I think we would have liked to have been at home but at least we are going to a Football League club with a great stadium and a lovely pitch.
“It’ll be a great day for everyone and hopefully we can give a good account of ourselves.
“There will be quite a few buses heading down, my Dad, my uncle and a few of my family are going.
“With Gateshead you only had to win the one game to get into the First Round but with Spennymoor we have had to win four to get here.
“It’s a harder thing to do, to get into the First Round and we have had a few tricky games at Radcliffe Borough, Whitby Town and then going down to ten men against Chorley, who were doing really well in the league.
“In the last round we had to be professional against Lincoln United. It’s been a good run and we have very good players that could play in the Football League and I think we can do well”
Apart from last Saturday’s FA Trophy exit at the hands of Matlock Town, the build-up to the FA Cup tie has been largely positive for the Moors.
The same can’t be said for their opponents.
MK Dons have won only four games in SkyBet League One this season, as they struggled to cope with life after relegation from the Championship.
That form led to the departure of manager Karl Robinson, with Head of Coaching Richie Barker placed in temporary charge of the side.
If Spennymoor Town supporters are looking for any signs that there side could pull off a famous cup upset then they can look at their hosts home form.
Saturday 5th March was the last time MK Dons won a home game inside ninety minutes, their only victory in that time came with a penalty shoot-out win over SkyBet League Two side Barnet in the EFL Trophy.
However, the experienced Curtis has been in the game too long to take their Football League opponents lightly.
He said “I don’t think they have won at home this season but you can’t read much into that.
“There are a lot of players there that are very good Football League players and everyone goes through bad patches, it just happens sometimes.
“We can’t read much into that and we just have to try and stay in the game for the first twenty minutes and frustrate the crowd”
Curtis was honest in his assessment of the Moors chances on Saturday, admitting that they will need luck on their side.
And the former Gateshead centre back joked that they may need a repeat of goalkeeper Dan Lowson’s goalscoring heroics in their FA Cup First Qualifying Round win at Radcliffe Borough.
“Looking at the fixture I don’t think anyone would give you a chance.
“You need luck, maybe the keeper to pull off some worldies or score another goal, that would do us alright wouldn’t it?
“If we go a goal down you just keep your shape and try not to concede again.
“We have the players to do it”
Whatever happens on Saturday the Moors will continue their promotion challenge when they resume their Evo-Stik Northern Premier League campaign with a trip to Ilkeston on Tuesday night.
A promotion challenge that will be all too familiar for Curtis.
In 2008 a 2-0 play-off final win over Buxton saw Gateshead seal promotion from the same division the centre back now plies his trade in with the Moors.
That led on to another play-off final win in the Conference North in 2009, with a 1-0 win over Telford United sealing the Heed’s elevation to non-league’s top flight.
The club had an ambitious chairman, a bright manager and a squad of talented players, all attributes that Curtis can see in his new employers.
“When I came to Gateshead we were in the league that Spennymoor have just been promoted from” he explained.
“The chairman Graham Wood came in and things just flew from there.
“It’s similar at Spennymoor, there is a good chairman, a good management team. Jason Ainsley (pictured) has been great and he knows I am getting on a bit so need a rest from time to time. Then you have Tommy Miller and Alan White alongside him so it’s a strong management team.
“There is a really good squad. You need a good squad in the league we are in because you get injuries and suspensions and I think we have the potential to win the league.
“I know we are a few games behind but we have achieved our aim of getting to the First Round of the FA Cup, we just have to get on with it and try to win the league”
As Curtis sat in his office at Gateshead’s International Stadium, fresh from a morning coaching within the club’s Football in the Community scheme, he cut a relaxed figure when asked if he has considered this could be his final chance to play a competitive match at a Football League stadium.
“I have another year on my contract so you never know what will happen next year.
“You just have to enjoy it, we could go out First Qualifying Round next yea so it could be my last FA Cup tie at a Football League ground so you have to just enjoy it.
“I have ambitions to do well but I realise this is a good opportunity for me”
Come five o’clock on Saturday Curtis will be hoping he has enjoyed his latest visit to a Football League club and created a little piece of FA Cup magic that will wipe away memories of his day at the Hawthorns.