BY RAY HARPER

According to Wikipedia, the Sheffield and Hallamshire Senior Cup is the 4th oldest surviving cup competition in the world, after the FA Cup, Scottish FA Cup and East of Scotland Shield. On 1st May 2015, Rotherham United’s New York Stadium will host the climax of this competition, between Nostell Miners Welfare and Frickley Athletic, in a game which will probably be attended by a few hundred spectators.

Local FAs formed ‘county’ cups in the late 19th century, as sub-regional competitions for affiliated members. At the time, clubs regarded these competitions highly; as knock-out competitions, they were often second only to the FA Cup. Counties defined local identity, representing something unique about an area, and so these competitions were seen as the pinnacle of local sport. Andrew Williams and John Ward in Football Nation record a hotly anticipated Cheshire County Cup game between Macclesfield and Winsford United in 1948, which attracted 9,003 supporters. A look in the history books shows the records of the big clubs in winning their respective local county competition – Sheffield Wednesday 14, Aston Villa 19.

In 2015, County cups have a diminished importance for clubs and fans. Professional clubs tend to blood reserve or under 21 teams and do not really take these competitions that seriously any more. Perhaps one test of a competition’s value is to name its previous winner – you can reel them off for league titles or European titles, but I challenge anyone to name the last team to win the London Senior Cup (its AFC Wimbledon to save you time on Google).

The perceived ‘reward’ of these competitions is debatable too. The FA Cup brings glory, national headlines and vital income, while the FA Vase and FA Trophy offer the distant carrot of playing in a major final at Wembley. The County Cup, in contrast, offers the opportunity to play local teams for local supremacy, with the reward to play in a major league ground which is half-empty at best, often opening only one stand for what is supposed to be a major final. Morpeth will play Blyth Spartans in the Northumberland Senior Cup at St. James’ Park on 27th April, while Bradford Park Avenue and Garforth meet at Valley Parade on 15th April. The attendances will probably be a few hundred at most.

On the other hand, for lower league or non-league clubs it is still something to be drawn against a major local side. At the Northern League ground-hop in 2013, West Allotment Celtic, in the Northern League, were still selling DVDs of their senior cup game against Newcastle United Reserves. And, to be fair, it is Birmingham City’s best shot at a trophy this year, as they will take on the winner of Nuneaton or West Bromwich Albion.

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Quite apart from their competitive value, ‘County’ cups now encompass various geographic anomalies which have emerged as governments have reshaped boundaries (mainly enacted in 1974). ‘County’ cups represent ‘historic’ counties, rather than official administrative boundaries. Barrow and Holker Old Boys, in the South Lakes region of Cumbria, play in the Lancashire Cup, rather than the Cumberland Cup. Confusingly, there is a Westmorland County Cup, which includes many clubs from South Cumbria and around Morecambe bay. The trend is similar in Cambridgeshire, where the Huntingdonshire FA runs its own competition, despite the fact the county doesn’t exist anymore. In technical geographic terms, Hunts is a non-metropolitan district within the non-metropolitan county of Cambridgeshire! Some teams enter more than one County Cup, like Hednesford, who enter both the Staffordshire and Birmingham Senior Cups. And then there is the Sheffield and Hallamshire Cup, which includes Worksop (actually in Nottinghamshire) and of course Frickley (in the town of Moorthorpe – which is on the outskirts of Wakefield).

County competitions are characterised by other idiosyncrasies which make them all the more distinctive. Derbyshire has a ‘Senior Cup’, Hertfordshire a ‘Senior Challenge Cup’ and Suffolk a ‘Premier Cup’. Not all are cups either – the ‘Lancashire Senior Trophy’, and the ‘Lincolnshire Senior Trophy’. To muddy the waters further, Manchester has both a ‘Premier’ and a ‘Senior Cup’. The Senior Cup involves the professional teams in and around Greater Manchester, with the competition split into 2 groups of 3 teams.

The County Cup’s value has gradually been eroded by different developments in the game. Pre-season friendlies and tournaments have grown and expanded, and from 2004 non-league football has seen the introduction of play-offs from step 3 downwards. Add to that the inception of floodlit games in league cups, and many clubs perpetually face a situation like Chelsea did in 2012/13 with evening cup games crammed into an already packed season. There is now a strong argument that County Cups could form the basis for pre-season tournaments, rather than being an integral part of the season. Put simply, the County Cup is simply not a competitive priority to some clubs.

County Cups are an idiosyncratic and unique set of competitions, which recall a very different footballing world. These are county competitions no longer based on current county boundaries; and cup competitions which are being played for shields and trophies. Perhaps this is semantic and geographic hair-splitting, and perhaps the strange quirks of each competition make it more interesting and attractive. The football world has changed almost beyond recognition since the 19th century, and the place of County Cups has definitely shifted down the pecking order of competitions. Despite the geographic, there is something appealing about the competitions which represent ‘historic’ counties, like an old pair of familiar slippers. Come 1st May, I hope to be at the New York Stadium to see whether Nostell or Frickley will lift (according to Wikipedia) the 135th edition of this old trophy.

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