The F.A. competitions represent the pinnacle of non-league football. Every team can dream of playing at Wembley whilst earning significant prize money to support their ambitions. However, this year things are very different. Firstly, any team impacted by COVID-19 didn’t get a second chance and their opponents went through courtesy of a bye. Secondly, the prize money has roughly been halved for non-league teams who arguably need it the most, compared to professional teams.
However, there has been a positive response from supporters with the professional game playing behind closed doors. This has resulted in teams like Raynes Park Vale seeing increased attendances and supporters flock to support their local non-league team. Previously we have focused on Raynes Park Vale’s non-league journey and this edition builds on this looking at their journey in the F.A. Cup and F.A. Vase to date.
The F.A. Cup Journey
Returning to pre-season training in July, the team initially had to get used to training in smaller groups, to adhere to social distancing before temperature checks became the norm. The extra preliminary round represented RPVs first competitive game for six months. Arriving a month later than usual, RPV travelled to Broadbridge Heath in the extra preliminary road of the F.A. Cup on September 1st. RPV were looking to surpass their previous best of the second qualifying round in 2014, where they travelled to Billericay Town (before they gained Glenn Tamplin’s riches).
The Vale were determined to kick the season off with an invaluable win in one of the world’s most historic competitions. Travelling to fellow step-5 side, Broadbridge Heath, the stage was set for a trying affair. Broadbridge found themselves three-nil up by half-time. A stunning 22-yard strike had given them the lead before two goals in 10 minutes effectively ended the tie. Before half-time, The Vale had a goal dubiously disallowed for a foul on the goalkeeper representing a glimmer of hope for the visitors.
Early in the second-half RPV managed to pull a goal back from a goalmouth scramble. However, this was as close as they got to narrow the lead. Unfortunately, there would be no repeat of the F.A. Cup run in 2014 and Broadbridge Heath ran out deserved winners.
However, due to new COVID-19 regulations, this is as far as Broadbridge Heath managed to progress. A few days before the F.A. Cup preliminary round one of their players contracted COVID-19. As per regulations, Broadbridge had to withdraw from the competition. This wasn’t uncommon across the non-league landscape, Redhill F.C (RPV’s Combined Counties Premier Divison rivals) had to withdraw from the extra preliminary round a few days before the season was due to kick-off
Unfortunately, for non-league football teams, the F.A.’s prime focus is on the latter stages of the competition. As a result, what used to provide a lifeline for clubs through a healthy prize fund has reverted back to its routes and the nostalgia of the F.A.Cup. None more so than Skelmersdale United, who made it to the F.A. Cup First Round from the same position as RPV in the 9th tier of English football. Clearly, this shows that the romance of the F.A. Cup is still alive, despite the football association’s neglect for non-league football.
The road to Wembley is still alive
The romanticism of the F.A. Cup is that any side from level 10 and above in the English football pyramid can get to Wembley. It attracts millions of supporters every year and making the first round is the dream of many non-league footballers. However, for many non-league teams, the slightly more realistic chance is in the F.A. Vase. Last year, Raynes Park Vale’s achieved their best ever performance, reaching the second round. Hoever, a side close to home made it all the way to Wembley. The fairytale journey was lived out by their then Combined Counties Premier Divison rivals Chertsey Town, who won the competition in 2019. The journey is still alive for Raynes Park Vale but how far will they make it in this year’s competition?
1st Qualifying Round
The beauty of the F.A. Vase is challenging yourselves against opposition from other leagues nationwide. This started early for Raynes Park Vale as they entertained Rusthall F.C from the Southern Counties East Division One. Whilst being in the league below Raynes Park, Rusthall came with a strong reputation with many predicting them to be promoted this season.
The Vale started quickly and were 3-0 in front by half-time courtesy of two goals from Ben Jordan and one from James Curran.
However, the 87 strong crowd were in for a surprise as Rusthall clawed two goals back to create a nervy finale. The Vale managed to hold on and set up a 2nd qualifying round tie with league rivals Redhill.
2nd Qualifying Round
Raynes Park’s opponents Redhill were relieved to get a cup competition underway. Earlier in the season they had to withdraw from the F.A. Cup due to COVID-19, but progressed into the 2nd qualifying round of the F.A. Vase. Raynes Park returned to the venue of their opening day league win. The result was the same with a Raynes Park win to progress into the first round but under different circumstances. Rather than two late goals in the league, they progressed with a 1-0 win. This time coming through an early strike by Nathan Lewis in the opening five minutes.
One of the new aspects for non-league supporters was seeing half-time team talks outside. Many supporters commenting it was like a throwback to Phil Brown’s dressing down of the Hull team in 2008. Either way, Gav Bolger worked his magic to ensure a clean-sheet and Raynes Park progressing to the first round to play Sheerwater F.C
Up until the first round, non-league football had seemed to be progressing as usual. Granted there were a few dropouts of competitions due to COVID-19 but they were few and far between. Signs of things to come were seen in the last week of October. The highly fancied Jersey Bulls were forced to withdraw from the competition as restrictions were tightened on the island.
Secondly, the night before the first round, Boris Johnson announced a further national lockdown with uncertainty surrounding non-elite sport. That night it was as if the weather felt the pain of the non-league community. Heavy rain continued into the morning and the pitch was deemed unplayable. By Monday, the government had confirmed that non-league football could not continue and panic to get the re-arranged game on ensued. The F.A. had set a precedent of removing both clubs from the competition if they could not get the game on. This would have resulted in a bye for Hadley F.C. in the next round.
Fortunately, the game was re-arranged for lockdown eve. Much like it’s more famous sibling Christmas eve, non-league fans gathered in abundance at their last chance to watch live football for a month. 117 turned up at Grand Drive to cheer on Raynes Park Vale in the first round of the F.A. Vase, a season-high attendance.
Sheerwater started the brighter of the two teams and shared the better of the early encounters. Finding spaces in front of the Vale defence, Sheerwater created shooting opportunities mainly from outside the box.
The Sheers couldn’t capitalise on their early dominance and paid the price. In the 32nd minute Vale worked the ball out to the right. Boe Fowler found himself in space and delivered a great cross to the back post where Tom Harland-Goddard calmly headed back across the keeper and Vale into the lead
Sheerwater looked to be more direct in the second half and the game evened out. The best chance of the game for the visitors appeared in the 82nd minute. A ball over the top from the Sheerwater midfield put the visitor’s striker in on goal. It looked certain that the Sheers would make it level when Vale captain Nathan Lewis slid across to deny the visitor’s number 10.
The home side showed great resilience to hold out and secure their place in the next round. Vale have now equalled their previous best run in the competition by reaching the Second Round. After entertaining fellow league rivals Redhill and Sheerwater in the previous round. They will play away at Hadley FC, of the Essex Senior League, in the 2nd round with a date to be confirmed.
Raynes Park Vale were fortunate to get their game on the night before lockdown. The non-league season has now been paused for a month with the Vale hopeful to play again in December. The Wembley dream is well and truly alive but this year more than ever the environment is very different for teams, players and supporters.
The only area of certainty is the growing appetite for supporters to watch live football. Attendances are increasing across non-league as professional teams play behind closed doors. We hope this article whet your appetite to watch live football again. When the season does resume, we would encourage you to go support your local non-league team. Forget about paying Sky or BT £15 for a 0-0 pay per view game and exchange that for entry, a beer and food at your local non-league team who will appreciate your support far more.
We’ll be back to update you on Raynes Park Vale’s non-league journey later in the year. If you want to follow it more in real-time then give them a follow on social media across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.