Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

With Eastleigh FC bowing out of the FA Cup after a valiant 3rd Round replay display at the great British Bake Off sounding ‘Macron Stadium’, a tie in which they were cruelly denied a much deserved victory, by an injury time equaliser from a faltering and frankly poor Bolton Wanderers side. Their defeat saw the last non-league team to leave the competition, and for us the end of a run of nine games running back to August 2015, from The Old Spotted Dog to The Silverlake.

Between summer holidays and trying to fill the football shaped void in our lives, both of us discussed what we wanted to see and do in the months ahead. Having started our blog halfway through the 2014/15 season, our only FA Cup action was a slightly dull and very cold 4th Round replay at Craven Cottage, where we saw Sunderland win, and the most interesting part of the evening was a toss up between meeting Phil Brown or the Craven Cottage pie.

As supporters of Premier League teams, we both have a mixed relationship with the FA Cup. For me, a Spurs fan, it’s been a lot of almost, semi-final losses to Portsmouth stick out in particular, or its regaling famous success from well before my time, like the 1961 final to secure the famous ‘double’, or in more recent times and in colour, the 1991 final, with Gazza and his knee. For Tom on the other hand, an Arsenal fan, the FA Cup has been a fine hunting ground in recent times, having won the last two, and on the pursuit of a third. If they do, not only will I never hear the end of it, it will also be the first time that has been achieved since the 1877/78 season.

Having spoken to various people, in particular David Raven a coach at Grays Athletic, he really sheds some light on how important the cup still is for so many players and fans of clubs at the lower levels, the ones propping up the vast football pyramid. Forget the grumbling and opting out of the top flight teams, he assured us there is still a great passion and pride to play in and compete for the FA Cup.

Motivated by the inordinate amount of enthusiasm our Liverpudlian Obi Wan Kenobi has for the competition, we wanted to witness this love he tells us so many people still have for it, which is perhaps not reflected in the attitude of certain teams, at the pinnacle of the pyramid.

Clapton FC Vs Stanway Rovers FC, FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round, The Old Spotted Dog, 15/08/15.

A warm August Saturday afternoon took us to the east of the capital, for a round of the competition I’m not sure either of us even knew existed. It was also a chance to kill two birds with one stone as we had wanted to visit Clapton FC since meeting their Ultra group late in the previous season. The day did not get off to the best of starts, a less than warm welcome from Clapton owner Vince McBean, totally went against the warm reception we had until then received at all the non-league clubs we had visited so far.

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Any time spent with the Clapton Ultras, for me at least, results with the game taking a bit of a back seat, as I end up more engrossed with what’s going on the scaffold, than what’s going on the pitch. The use of modern 00’s pop song ‘Gay Bar’ by Electric Six or the theme tune to Super Mario Brothers instead of your staple Sloop John B or Hey Jude, is a breath of fresh air “I want to take you to the Old Dog, Old Dog”. “Vince, why don’t you spend any money?”, the flags, the continued support, regardless of the result. They lost that day, but you would know it, “well played Stanway, well played Stanway”.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/on-scaffold-clapton-fc-vs-stanway.html

Erith Town FC Vs Horsham YMCA FC, FA Cup Preliminary Round, Badgers Sports Ground, 30/08/15.

A party in the clubhouse at this game, gave us some false hope on arrival, the cars queuing for the car park, however, were not filled with non-league enthusiasts or local fans, but by children and their parents here for the bouncy castle. The Father and Son managerial combo of Erith were unable to mastermind the team’s progression to the next round, despite more swearing and shouting than at a Derek and Clive recording. Falling to a 1 – 4 loss, a goal direct from a free kick the pick of the bunch. Again the home team lose, but we do see a man with a dog in a pram. A Horsham player put it perfectly after the final whistle “only 25 games to Wembley”.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/only-25-games-to-wembley-erith-town-fc.html

Greenwich Borough FC Vs Slimbridge AFC, FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, Princes Park, 13/09/15.

Our third game, and our third home defeat, we start to wonder if we have angered the universe somehow. A trip to deepest darkest south east London, to the eco friendly Princes Park, with its grass roof, and a large wooden sculpture of a man, reaching from the floor to the roof. We almost, almost, see the home underdogs pull off an ‘upset’ over their step higher opposition, but not quite. The efforts of ex-Millwall and Peterborough player Gary Alexander can’t pull them back, after going ahead, but then a few first half moments of madness, a capitulation of England cricket batting proportions, mean that Ian Wright’s first club won’t be going any further.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/willy-wonkas-factory-greenwich-borough.html

Hanwell Town FC Vs Mildenhall Town FC, FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round, Reynolds Field, 26/09/15.

‘Fourth time’s the charm’, I’m sure you are familiar with that old saying, comes to fruition when we see a home win, and along with it a bit of FA Cup history. The one and only goal of the game, thanks to the hard work of second half substitute Denilson, Hanwell progress further in the FA Cup then they ever had before. It’s not really a game that will stick in the memory, but the quips of former player and MP Steve Pound, a cross between something from a Christmas cracker, and those jokes your Dad always insists on making certainly will. Tom summed up the day perfectly on the way home, “a bad game rescued by a nice ground and great hospitality”.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/too-hot-for-scarves-hanwell-town-fc-vs.html

Enfield Town FC Vs Hitchin Town FC, FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, 10/10/15.

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This year saw non-league day, coincide with the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, and we went down to the packed, art deco beauty of the Queen Elizabeth II stadium or the ‘Donkey Dome’ as the locals refer to it, due to being at the bottom of Donkey Lane. Once again we are not really being entertained by the match, but more by the spoon wielding, nonstop chanting “ETFC, ETFC, ETFC, ETFC”, drum led Enfield Ultras.

To read the full blog, click here –

http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/etfc-etfc-etfc-enfield-town-fc-vs.html

Grays Athletic FC Vs Welling United FC, FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round, Mill Field, 25/10/15.

One round away from the ‘FA Cup proper’ this time and we were Essex bound, to see a team close to our non-league hearts, to see them minutes away from our first cup upset, when they went ahead against Welling from two leagues higher. Grays out played, and dominated proceedings, only to be undone by not taking one of the numerous chances they had created at will.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/number-9-grays-athletic-fc-vs-welling.html

Leyton Orient FC Vs Staines Town FC, FA Cup 1st Round, Brisbane Road, 07/11/15.

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Our first ‘‘Away Day’ took us to Brisbane Road to see our first non-league team pitched up against a league side as the Swans took on the O’s. The gulf between the teams was apparent early on and Staines took a bit of a hiding, but not at one moment did this affect the traveling fans, who made their way from West to East, one with a hunting bugle in hand, to sing, sing, sing, sing. The way the fans poured all their love and admiration on the team at the final whistle, was a sight to behold. We will never forget standing amongst the supporters as the whole squad to a man approached the away end, heads a little low, but undoubtedly lifted by the support they were given.

To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/your-dad-is-legend-leyton-orient-fc-vs.html

Welling United FC Vs Carlisle United FC, FA Cup 2nd Round, Park View Road, 06/12/15.

Another non-league side pitched against a league side, and the first time we had seen the same team twice. ‘The Wings’ much like Staines, took a bit of a shellacking. The fans around us, saw their heavy defeat as a chance to vent at the club’s management, unlike the Staines fans, seeing it as their “cup final”  The one positive for us was that we broke our raffle duck, when we secured 2nd place and received a lovely little bottle of Pinot Grigio, which will sit on a shelf in my kitchen and never, ever be opened.

To read the full blog, click here –

http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/raffle-players-anonymous-welling-united.html

Eastleigh FC Vs Bolton Wanderers FC, FA Cup 3rd Round, Silverlake Stadium, 09/01/16.

This would turn out to be the last game of our non-league run, and I’m not sure our FA Cup adventure could have ended any better. Our rain drenched trip to the South coast was almost scuppered by the weather, but the fine work of the home groundsman, and the good graces of the referee, meant it was GAME ON!

In the presence of The Queen (a man in a full face mask, white gloves and Union Jack purse), a man dressed as a Lucha libre, some jaunty hats and a group in flying goggles, for over ninety minutes the Shed End of the Silverlake rocked, cheered and stomped its team forward, only for once again the inability of the smaller teams to take their chances and it ends up coming back to haunt them. Bolton equalise very late in the second half, and even though the Spitfires give them a run for their money in the replay, they end up losing 3 – 2.

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To read the full blog, click here – http://beautifulgame2015.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/by-royal-appointment-eastleigh-fc-vs.html

Our aim when we started was to try and do every round of the cup, or at least try.

We always knew the closer you get to the final, the less likely it is you can just turn up, pay £5, get a cup of tea, and have a chat with the manager afterwards, and tickets would probably be our biggest stumbling block. We don’t have a great record when it comes to self imposed targets, having originally said a year ago we would see every club in the top nine tiers of the football pyramid, inside the M25 in twelve months, we soon realised how ridiculous that was.

Going to a final, or even a semi final at Wembley, would be a special occasion, a huge one, we are off to Oxford in the 4th Round, and are looking forward to it, but something in us feels like the competition for us at least, has come to a natural end. Having enjoyed following the fortunes of these ‘small’ teams, the ones that some media outlets patronise, always going on about the keeper being a builder or the centre forward being a house husband, we are not sure if we are going to experience the same highs and lows at an all Premiership encounter in a half full stadium. Give me a pulsating Donkey Dome or hunting horn tooting away day with the yellow army any day.

I’m not saying the FA Cup doesn’t matter to Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City, or at least not to the fans. Some clubs best and biggest days, formative parts of their history are based around winning it, would the immortal words ‘crazy gang’ be so prevalent in one’s football vocabulary without the FA Cup? You can’t do ‘the double’ without it.  I just feel that it has lost, some of its shine, its importance, sadly people’s priorities have changed, and perhaps it just doesn’t have the glamour.

Do players move to England so they can play in the FA Cup any more? Ossie Ardiles sited a day at Wembley in May as one of the big pulls to play in England. Will that ever happen again?

BT Sport and the BBC have been quite admirable trying to showcase the FA Cup this year, but then let themselves down with fixture choices, seeming to only pick teams they have just made a TV mini series with or the likes of Manchester United, again, when there are other games, with much more at stake or that are frankly just more interesting, screaming out to be shown.

I’m a realist, as well as a devoted football romantic, I know that Dan Walker won’t be at Badgers Sports Ground with his tablet, Danny Murphy and Jermaine Jenas in tow, but at least acknowledge it. There was a world of highs and lows, drama, and upsets long before the first round. We have seen more tin foil cups and wooden rattles, than you could shake a stick at, and I wish we could have seen more, because we loved every minute of it.

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