FA CUP QUALIFYING – WHERE ITS TRUE MAGIC LIES

By Darren Tinmouth, (@Dazzla84_SSFC), http://www.claretandbluepixels.wordpress.com

Speak to most Premier League fans (especially those that support what are known as ‘the big six’) and you’ll hear many not so welcome opinions about the world football’s oldest and grandest domestic knockout tournament. Infact you would hear some derisory cries from some fans as it acts as a sort of needless distraction from what they see as truly important, i.e. the League and the Champions League.

Infact its only in the latter stages if their club is not on the verge of winning one of their preferred tournaments when they take a positive interest as they see it as an opportunity to salvage a little bit of silverware from their season, a consolation piece of silverware or something along those lines.

However, the further down the ladder you go, far away from the glamour of the Premier League, the FA Cup takes on a greater significance. It all stems back to what the FA Cup is really all about, the chance for a small local club to have a wonderful run and have a chance of taking on the big boys, and on the rare occasion, see David topple Goliath.

PHOTO CREDIT: Simon Gill, When Saturday Comes.

And its these smaller clubs that provide the FA Cup with its real magical moments. Who will ever forget when Roy Essandoh answered an advert on Teletext to play for Wycombe Wanderers and ended up scoring the goal that knocked out Premier League Leicester City in 2001? Also, in 2008 when plucky little Havant & Waterlooville went to Anfield and had the cheek to take the lead against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool not once, but twice. The famous cup run of Blyth Spartans in 1978 where they came with a fallen corner flag from a dream quarter-final visit to Arsenal. And of course, there’s the iconic images of Ronnie Radford’s thunderbolt for Hereford United that helped knock out Newcastle in 1972, a game which featured a young John Motson on his BBC commentary debut.

And that doesn’t even include some of the lesser known achievements like for instance Northern League stalwarts Bedlington Terriers who demolished a third tier Colchester United that included former Ipswich favourite Jason Dozzell. The video above is Whitley Bay’s 2nd round shock defeat of Preston North End in 1989. Or the mighty Leeds United being knocked out by Histon, a small village club in the middle of Cambridgeshire

It’s one of the reasons why for many football fans, the FA Cup 1st Round weekend is one of the most cherished in the whole of the English football calendar. It’s a chance to see League 1 and 2 clubs get to mix it with the non-league sides that have made it through qualification.

FA CUP QUALIFYING

Speaking of qualification, the First Round Proper is not even the start of the FA Cup, infact traditionally the FA Cup begins at the beginning of August and this kicks off 2 months and six rounds of qualifying to whittle down 645 non-league clubs to a lucky 32 that get the chance to take on the established Football League clubs. This is where the real attraction of the FA cup in todays football world resides today, especially with the prize money on offer being so vast compared to the FA Trophy and FA Vase meaning a good FA Cup run can set one up for a long time financially.

This season though thanks to Covid-19 has been different with qualifying squished into a 7-week window (with midweek cup dates and no replays) in order to meet the broadcast deal requirements of having the First Round Proper at the beginning of November.

But what is this qualification? Well the FA Cup is one of only two competitions amongst Europe’s big 5 leagues that can come close to be classed as open to the masses (the other being the Coupe de France).

For example, a team entering in the Extra Preliminary Round would have to battle their way through EIGHT rounds to get a chance of playing against a big gun from the Premier League in the third round. It’s a tall order, but it can be done.

THIS SEASON’S EDITION

This upcoming weekend sees the climax of FA Cup Qualifying as the 5th tier National League clubs enter the Fourth Qualifying Round. 62 clubs battling for 31 available spots in the First Round Proper and the chance of a big money-spinning prize of being drawn against a famous opponent as well as national attention and a spot on the BBC’s fabled football show, Match of the Day. The likes of Portsmouth, Sunderland, Ipswich Town, Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers (all of which are famous past winners of the Cup) currently reside in Leagues 1 and 2 and therefore would enter the FA Cup at the First Round stage.

Now usually there are 64 clubs battling for 32 places in the first round. However, thanks to the unfortunate demise of Macclesfield Town, one of the clubs received a bye, National League North side Chorley are the lucky club in question to get that bye. Infact if one remembers last season, you’ll know of the exploits of an Isthmian Division 1 South East club called Chichester City. They had battled through all six qualifying rounds to reach the first round for the first time in 59 years.

They were the lucky club that were drawn last out of the velvet bag meaning that they would receive a bye directly to the second round (where they lost 5-1 at Tranmere in front of the BT Sport live cameras). This was due to the demise of Bury FC in September 2019, the lateness of their doom being too late to change the cup format, that is the same case today with Macclesfield. Below is a table of what Chichester City earned from last season’s FA Cup run, and remember this does not include money received through gate receipts.

Infact already this season has seen many clubs having to forfeit their ties due to positive Covid-19 cases, the likes of Dunston, Droylsden, Bamber Bridge, Merthyr Town, Alfreton Town, Boston United and Kettering Town all having to withdraw because of this.

If anything, the presence of the coronavirus leaves many fans and clubs in a constant guessing game, not only if their tie will go ahead but even if the competition will even be completed at all. Infact as I write this, the lower ranked FA Trophy and FA Vase finals are still waiting to stage their finals from last season with Harrogate Town and Concord Rangers in the FA Trophy plus Hebburn Town and Consett in the FA Vase all waiting impatiently for their day out at Wembley.

The other covid-19 affecting factor has been that aforementioned prize money, it has been cut in half across the board so that close to £160,000 that Chichester got last season? Well no non-league club will be getting anything near that for a similar run this season. Two clubs i’ll go on to mention shortly started in the same round as Chichester did last season and have earned a total of just under £14,000. Just half of what Chichester got.

However, that doesn’t mean the FA Cup hasn’t been short of drama and shocks so far this season. For instance, Northern League stalwarts Whitley Bay pulled off one of the big upsets of the First Qualifying Round when they beat out NPL Premier side Witton Albion and also Essex Senior League side Hashtag United (run by prominent football youtuber Spencer Owen) caused their own upset knocking out Isthmian League side Soham Town Rangers. However, the biggest surprise so far in terms of ranking upsets in the form of distance between leagues is Wessex league side Christchurch (the 9th tier) pulling off a stunning penalty shootout win over the current National League North leaders Gloucester City, that earned them a tie against Dulwich Hamlet and a visit from the BBC Sport TV Cameras.

PHOTO CREDIT: bullsnews..blogspot.com

TIES TO WATCH OUT FOR

There are plenty of great ties to keep an eye on when the 24th of October comes around.

STAFFORD RANGERS (NPL Premier) v SKELMERSDALE UNITED (North West Counties League)

The first right off the bat has to be the turnaround in fortunes for Skelmersdale United. When watching South Shields in their 2017-18 promotion campaign, the demise of ‘Skem’ as they are known was one of the sadder talking points as they had been forced out of their ground the Uretek Stadium and into ground-sharing with Prescot Cables. The following season, they were relegated back to the North West Counties League with just 13 points.

In that time, they’ve managed to re-organise themselves, get a new ground in the form of the JMO Sports Park and even though they’ve played just the one league game so far this season (a 3-0 win over Runcorn Town), they’ve managed to put together their best FA Cup run in half a century. Wins over Penistone Church, Congleton, Bootle, Lancaster and Longridge have now put them within 90 minutes of a lucrative place in the first round proper.

Only NPL side Stafford Rangers stand in their way and a win would provide what is nowadays the rarity of a club from outside the top 4 tiers of non-league making it to the first round proper, the last occasion was Westfields FC from Hereford in 2017 who got to Round one and ended up taking National North side Curzon Ashton to a replay.

It wont be east for Skem as Stafford, although they sit near the bottom of the NPL Premier pulled off a big surprise in the 3rd Qualifying Round with their 3-1 defeat of NL North side Hereford.

BRACKLEY TOWN (National North) v MARSKE UNITED (NPL Division 1 North & West)

In what is arguably the round’s biggest trek in the form of a 420-mile round trip, 2018 FA Trophy winners Brackley Town host former Northern League stalwarts Marske United who are now well established in the NPL’s second tier.

And it won’t be a walk in the park for Brackley despite the two division gap as Marske have both invested wisely in their squad and also had an incredible start to the season. In all competitions at the time of writing, they’ve won 10 out of their first 11 games and knocked out former FA Cup giantkillers Blyth Spartans on the way to equalling their best ever FA Cup run. And with the likes of Matty Tymon and Adam Boyes in the middle of massive purple patches in terms of form right now, they will provide a stern test.

ALDERSHOT TOWN (National) v WOKING (National)

In FA Cup qualifying, the draw is regionalised, therefore providing better than usual chances of throwing up some tasty looking local derbies. The biggest by far has to be Aldershot Town and Woking in which less than 12 miles and a border between Hampshire and Surrey separates them.

It is a rivalry that has always been simmering in history but the original Aldershot FC’s demise in 1992 and its subsequent re-birth as Aldershot Town has seen this rivalry really heat up into one of non-league football’s biggest derby games, especially as Aldershot Town made their way up the pyramid.

It’s very difficult to determine which side has had the upper hand in the last few decades as yes Aldershot had that short stint in the Football League between 2008 and 2013 but Woking have themselves been stalwarts of the Conference/National League since their promotion into it in 1992 bar one season in NL South in 2018-19. In other words, this on paper is one very evenly contested matchup. And even though it is behind closed doors, it wouldn’t be a shock if it were the BBC’s pick for live coverage.

SOUTH SHIELDS (NPL Premier) v F.C. HALIFAX TOWN (National)

If one is looking for a potential banana skin, then look no further than my team South Shields who have got their first home tie of this season’s competition with the visit of (like Aldershot) another phoenix club, FC Halifax Town.

The current incarnation of Shields I’ll admit have historically a very rotten record in the FA Cup since first entering it in 1994. And apart from the memorable run to this stage in 2017-18, it’s the only blemish on the club since Geoff Thompson’s takeover. Basically put, before Thompson’s takeover, Shields had only been past the first qualifying round TWICE in 21 years with a third qualifying round appearance in 1997-98 being the club’s best run.

Well that in a way has been fixed this season. Terrific successes over fellow NPL opponents Warrington Town and Ashton United both away from home was followed up by a mini upset in the form of going to National North side Southport and winning on penalties. We now have the chance to make it to the first round proper and experience the razzmatazz that comes with it for the very first time since the previous incarnation of the club did so in 1973, a 47 year wait.

Halifax themselves have had a reasonable start to the National League season with 6 points from their opening 5 games leaving them in 9th place but have yet to win on the road. It’s a tough tie for Shields but a terrific test of their early season credentials which its safe to say have been mixed as the great FA Cup run has sort of helped provide a positive light after a somewhat inconsistent start to the league season. It’s one Shields feel they can have a proper go at as well as provide the hope of some decent prize money which would be more than welcome in these challenging times.

THE FINAL WORD

Those are just 4 ties, in truth all 31 are intriguing in their own right and it’ll be massively interesting to see who will join Chorley as one of the 32 non-league clubs to take on the Football League’s bottom two rungs.

What’s your pick for tie of the round? Let us know in the comments

Mainly as in the first round, that is when the FA cup begins to get noticed in the mainstream media and it always interest many football league and some premier league fans to see and I quote “teams we’ve never heard of” make appearances on the coverages of one of English Football’s most long awaited events, the first round draw.

For every club involved and any fan keeping a close eye on the events this weekend, I wish all the best of luck.

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