THE FA CUP FOR NON-LEAGUE IN 2020-21

Picture credit: Kev Wilson/South Shields FC

Well, today sees the FA Cup final, Chelsea take on Leicester City to see who will win the 140th edition of the world’s oldest and greatest domestic cup competition.

Back in the day, due to the sheer lack of Football on television, the Cup Final was by far the biggest event in the domestic football calendar. Both the BBC and ITV used to dedicate a whole day of television coverage for this one game. Think of how big the Superbowl is in the USA and you’ll get the picture.

Admittedly though the Cup has lost a lot off its sheen in recent years mainly due to the prominence of the Premier League and European competition and the riches they offer but that doesn’t mean the Cup isn’t dead, you just need to look for where the magic still is. And for that, you have to look at what the FA Cup is also known for, giant-killings with some of the most famous done by unfamiliar sides from Non-League.

2020-21 will unfortunately be remembered in non-league for all the wrong reasons, all football below the National League was pretty much ground to a halt barely past Halloween, and then step 2 followed when the new covid lockdown hit in January. Unless you were still in an FA organised cup competition, your season was finished.

But there has been some good to come out of this season despite the covid madness, and most of it centre’s around the FA Cup, so here, I’ll look at three different stories to have come out of this season’s FA Cup from non-league

SOUTH SHIELDS: THE END OF A 47 YEAR WAIT

To start with, I’ll get a little bias out of the way first.

Saturday November 24th 1973, the world was in the grip of an oil shortage crisis, the disgraced Gary Glitter topped the charts with ‘I love, you love me love’ and we were months away from the Watergate scandal which ultimately saw the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon. But the date is significant if you are a South Shields FC fan of a certain age.

That was the date of the last time a club which represented the town reached the first round proper of the FA Cup. It was an era when that incarnation of South Shields were one of the most prominent non-league clubs in the country and regulars in reaching the first round of the cup with league scalps over the likes of Scunthorpe United, Oldham Athletic and Crewe Alexandra to name but a few. However, a 2-0 defeat that day away at third division Rochdale would be the last time the town would see themselves on the national football stage as they would up sticks and move to Gateshead just 6 months later.

The current incarnation you see today was formed from the remnants of that club by a rogue director who disagreed with the move to Gateshead. But ground issues meant it would be 20 years before South Shields would return to the FA Cup, August 27th 1994 was the date and an impressive 7-1 win over Prudhoe Town in that years Preliminary Round.

The recent revival under new chairman Geoff Thompson has seen much success, three promotions, 6 trophies and an FA Vase triumph at Wembley but one thing missing from the roll of honour was an FA Cup run out of the qualifying rounds. You see since returning to the competition in 1994, Shields have had a pretty rotten record, between then and 2015, only once had the club made it past the 2nd qualifying round.

VIDEO: Cheltenham Town 3-1 South Shields (Credit, Emirates FA Cup)

That all changed this season. wins over Warrington Town, Ashton United, Southport and an impressive upset over National League playoff chasers F.C. Halifax Town sent Shields into the big stage and a trip to face League two promotion chasers Cheltenham (shown above). And they did not disgrace themselves one iota against the team that would go on to not only win promotion but also win the League two championship. Even having the audacity to peg back Cheltenham in the first half thanks to a brave stretch from Darius Osei. That was before Cheltenham’s class and overall fitness began to show and they would come storming back after the break to win 3-1.

For Shields, it ended a memorable run and also it was sad that no fans were able to attend. It also earned the club a much needed financial boost in the form of prize money of just under £30,000.

MARINE, JOSE MOURINHO ROCKING UP TO CROSBY

That achievement in comparison however (and even as a Shields fan I’ll happily admit it) gets kicked into touch well and truly, and even better, it was a fellow Northern Premier League side who did that. And to the point that it would mean a multiple Champions League winning manager and one of the biggest managerial personalities in the game would be sending his Tottenham Hotspur team to a small district in Liverpool called Crosby.

To a ground nestled away tightly in the middle of a housing estate, a.k.a. the Marine Travel Arena (or Rossett Park), the home of Marine AFC. Why is that? Well it was no glorified benefit friendly, Marine had successfully managed to fight their way through SEVEN rounds of the FA cup to earn the right at the third round and the draw gave them the dream tie with Premier League giants Tottenham at home.

Not even the most optimistic Marine fan or club official could have ever dared dream of this run when they began it with a very late 2-1 win over 9th tier Barnoldswick Town in mid-September. But they just kept racking up wins. Frickley Athletic, Runcorn Linnets, Nantwich Town and Chester would all be dispatched before a memorable first round win on penalties away at League two strugglers Colchester. That earned them a second round tie at home to Havant & Waterlooville in front of the BT Sport cameras. A tie they won thanks to a 120th minute Niall Cummins winner in Extra Time.

VIDEO: Marine 0-5 Tottenham Hotpsur (Credit: Emirates FA Cup)

The game itself (which for the record, Spurs won 5-0) was an afterthought compared to the quite amazing initiatives that Marine had done to promote the game and raise themselves some funds given that they were unable to welcome spectators. And the football community really got on board. Marine would end up selling more than 30,000 virtual tickets. Coupled with competition prize money and the various TV coverage appearances, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cup run raised anything around half a million pounds for Marine, and that’s just a conservative estimate.

Sure that would barely touch the weekly wage budget of both of their more illustrious Merseyside neigbours but whatever it is, it’s a massive cash injection that should keep Marine financially comfortable for years to come. A cup run that sought to exemplify the good that the game can generate.

Up until this point, Marine were best known in the FA Cup for being involved in one of the highest scoring FA Cup games of all time, a 13 goal feast at Shrewsbury Town in November 1995, unfortunately for Marine, the Shrews got 11 of those goals that day

SKELMERSDALE UNITED, FROM HOMLESSNESS TO GLORY

In April 2018, South Shields pretty much sealed the league championship to win promotion to the NPL Premier with a 1-0 win away at lowly Skelmersdale United. Fair enough, nothing weird about that, however, look a bit deeper and you’ll find both clubs being exact polar opposites of each other.

You see, the game was being played at Hope Street, the home ground of Prescot Cables. Why is that? Well a year previously, ‘Skem’ were relegated from the NPL Premier and were kicked out of their home ground the Uretek Stadium after a disagreement with the landlord. They spent the season ground-sharing with Prescot and had only just avoided the drop again finishing 6 points clear of Goole.

They have used the time since relegation out of the NPL wisely to get their house in order. And this saw the fresh new beginning in the form of a new stadium, the JMO Sports Park which they moved into just after Christmas 2019. This season was supposed to be the proper beginning of that rebuild in their new home but alas, the November lockown put paid to that, however that didn’t stop ‘Skem’ from embarking on a dream FA Cup run.

Fellow Step 5 sides Penistone Church, Congleton Town and Bootle were all dispatched before an impressive win over NPL Premier side Lancaster City, fellow NWC Premier club Longridge Town were dispatched in the third qualifying round before a stunning 4-1 thumping away at another NPL Premier side Stafford Rangers landed them the riches of a place in the first round proper and a TV appearance away at Football League new boys Harrogate Town.

VIDEO: Harrogate Town 4-1 Skelmersdale United (Credit: Emirates FA Cup)

For Skem, being their first appearance in the first round proper since November 1971 (a 4-0 defeat at home to Tranmere), it was an occasion to savour, despite the lack of fans in attendance due to the new lockdown restrictions at the time.  A 4-1 defeat yes but Danny Mitchley had a moment to remember with a fine late consolation goal in a 4-1 defeat in which like Shields at Cheltenham, there was no disgrace whatsoever.

And like Shields and Marine, they will have picked up a good chunk of prize money, Prize money and Live broadcast money alone will have netted Skem at least £60,000, a very nice return for their efforts and hopefully will help them through the pandemic in time for the resumption of the new season in August

When the FA Cup will begin once again for a new season.

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