Charlie George falls onto the ground, spread-eagled and exhausted, Ricky Villa slaloms back and forth and Stevie Gerrard rifles a thunderbolt – the FA Cup Final has supplied many iconic moments over its storied history. The end of season Wembley showdown has been a fabric of British life since a white horse helped crowd control back in 1923 – with finals being played since The Wanderers overcame The Royal Engineers 1-0 at Kennington Oval in 1872 in front of 2,000 supporters. Speak to anyone over fifty and they will regale you with tales of watching Its A Knockout, the teams travelling to Wembley and how the game was an all-day event. With only a few games shown live during a season, the FA Cup took on special significance that made it an occasion that even non-football fans tuned into.
Of course there are arguments that the FA Cup has been devalued over the past couple of decades. Most people making that argument will point towards a couple of specific events. Firstly there was the 1991 North London derby semi-final that was moved to Wembley as a one-off but subsequently opened the way for all semi-finals to be played there from 2008 onwards, effectively devaluing the glamour of a Wembley final appearance. Then there was Sir Alex Ferguson’s controversial decision to pull Manchester United out of the 2000 competition, due to their place in the 2000 Club World Cup in Sao Paulo – a decision that he has since expressed regret about.
It is also said that the bigger teams do not take the trophy seriously, although that can be countered by a look over the winners over the last 20 years, which include Arsenal (7 times) and Chelsea (5 times). The only non “big 6” teams to win the trophy over that period are Portsmouth in 2008, Wigan in 2013 and Leicester in 2021. So the “big 6” still dominate, even if occasionally resting some first teamers.
The real spirit of the FA Cup however has always rested with the underdog story. Smaller teams who traditionally would never get to play one of the Premiership teams can get the opportunity and as we all know, anything can happen over just one game. Competitions like the Champions League use group formats and two-legs to lessen the effect of a shock result but the beauty of the FA Cup has always been that it has embraced the upset narrative. History can look back on memorable moments such as Sutton defeating Coventry, Hereford eliminating Newcastle and Wrexham besting Arsenal. Such feats live on with the clubs for decades – mention Sutton or Hereford to any football fan and most will immediately mention the earlier games as their first word association.
Linked with the beauty of the shock upset and the little guys getting their moment in the sun, is that the FA Cup is open to hundreds of small teams who most fans would never have even heard of. If you are the fan of a major team, you probably think of the FA Cup as that competition which begins on a freezing afternoon sometime in January. That is actually officially known as the “Third Round Proper” and represents the moment that teams from the Premiership enter the draw. But there are in fact eight rounds – yes, really, eight rounds – before the Third Round Proper. For example, if you consider the upcoming 2021/22 FA Cup, the rounds are as follows:
So if you are a Chelsea fan, you can effectively forget about the FA Cup until January and then worry about the six game route that could you crown you as Champions. However, if you are a passionate follower of West Allotment Celtic, then you have just been preparing for a trip to Billingham Town ahead of the other thirteen games that you will have to win to make history.
And that is the true beauty of the FA Cup – it does offer a dream to tiny, amateur teams that just once, maybe just once, they could reach the Third Round Proper and play at Old Trafford or Anfield. For such players who get lucky, it is a tale that they can tell for the rest of their lives. Which made me think – who are these teams who enter right at the start? Will I even recognise them? As a fan of a major team (well, West Ham so maybe “major” is pushing it somewhat) I have never even looked at the Extra Preliminary Round. Until now…
So apparently there are a staggering 348 teams who just played in the Extra Preliminary Round. And like all great competitions, there is prize money on offer for both winners and losers. Winners receive the princely sum of £1,125 while losers have to settle for £375 – so a little different to the Champions League. The teams are selected from Level 8, Level 9 and Level 10 of English football, which includes such divisions as Hellenic League Division One and North West Counties League Division One North. They are part of the National League System which comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Football Association. Technically all these teams are part of the leaguepyramid system meaning that they are eligible for promotion onwards and upwards with the sky the limit.
August 7 threw up 174 games and there were some wonderfully named teams throwing their hats into the ring. It all kicked off on the Friday night with Whickham hosting Consett AFC and 173 games later it ended on Sunday night with Baldock Town playing Wembley. Sadly Wembley do not play at the eponymous stadium but instead host opponents at nearby Vale Farm with a capacity of 2,450, which they share with Cricklewood Wanderers FC.
I grew up in England and I have to admit that I would be hard-pressed to tell you where the majority of the clubs in this round are on a map. But my curious side is dying to know. How can any football fan not be curious to learn more about Hemsworth Miners Welfare, Romulus and Leicester Nirvana? And on entering that rabbit hole it appears that Hemsworth Miners Welfare are part of the Toolstation Northern Counties East League, are based in West Yorkshire, resemble Chelsea in an all-blue kit and play at the Fitzwilliam Stadium (capacity 2,000 with 100 seated).
It should be noted what a great service many of these teams do for their local communities. Just using Leicester Nirvana above as an example, a visit to their website shows their mission statement as “At Nirvana, we see ourselves as more than a football club. We are part of our community and we will always advocate for it always”. They identify as “A real local community club for the whole city, especially for parents and their children from inner city backgrounds, Leicester Nirvana Football Club (Nirvana) nurtures talent from the age of 3 years (Nirvana Nippers) up to under 18’s and seniors, providing a clear pathway for young players to develop in to men’s football.” Leicester has a large Asian population and one press release states how one of their players, a practicing Sikh, was wearing a black bandanna during a game as part of their religious beliefs. A match official refused to allow him to start, Leicester Nirvana refused to play and informed regional league management. The game was eventually played with the Sikh, who then went on to score both goals in a 2-1 victory. Just one example of how these lower league teams rally around their communities.
There is also a lot to celebrate within non-league football that should give it a special place in a football fan’s heart. It is football stripped down to the bare essentials, all hype and razzamatazz removed. As shown earlier, it is usually very community driven and inclusive and often powered by very passionate supporters and volunteers. It is not uncommon to see a crowd of 250, braving all weather, often with their pet dogs beside them. Whatever away fans arrive are welcomed. League rules for promotion mean that all grounds have to have seating for at least a hundred fans, creating the sight of tiny stands that literally hold that number. And if you are not in that hundred, you are standing, just like you were at big grounds back in the 1980s.Many grounds back directly onto natural hazards, meaning that balls may need to be retrieved from rivers or you get the situation that many saw when Marine hosted Tottenham last year where people are watching the game from their back garden, wine and snacks in hand. And yes, you are perfectly entitled to have a drink by the pitch without being harassed by security. Also, you won’t be bombarded by constant ads from betting companies but instead see boards that have a good old-fashioned local feel – maybe the town plumber, butcher or double glazing firm. Anyway, I don’t want to sound like some hipster spouting about “realism” and “being authentic” – but I am pointing out that there is a lot of charm to be found at this level.
So I would encourage us all to take a moment and look at the scores of the Extra Preliminary Round that just occurred two weekends ago and witness the start of a 10 month odyssey through the world’s oldest cup competition. After seeing that first round of scores, maybe adopt a team and chart their progress, with the next round coming up this weekend. Visit their website and explore where they are and what they stand for. I for one decided to pick a game at random in the last round and dive into it post-match and to then continue to watch the winners in the next round and see who they play and learn about their next opponents too. Football is big business but in these times of mooted Super Leagues and £400K a week salaries, it is refreshing to remember that, for thousands of players, football is a Saturday afternoon ritual to be enjoyed with friends before a crowd of locals, perhaps accompanied by their dogs. No expensive tickets, no crowds, no prawn sandwiches, no burdensome travel.
My random number generator from 1 to 174 selected 166; Shepton Mallet AFC v Andover New Street.
It appears that Shepton Mallet is a quaint market town in the Mendips District of Somerset, noted for its cider production and the closest town to the Glastonbury Festival. Alcohol and music – Shepton Mallet you have my attention already. They play at The Playing Fields – a certain neatness about that – and made it to the First Round Qualifying last year, their furthest progress to date, eliminating Torrington and Willand Rovers before cruelly losing to Swindon Supermarine 3-0, thus ending their FA Cup dream. Their home kit most resembles Newcastle.
Andover meanwhile is another small town located in Hampshire not too far from Winchester Cathedral and Stonehenge. They play at Foxcotte Park and their highest ever attendance was 240. Their home kit is definitely distinctive – black vertical stripes on top of a green background – so also like Newcastle except that the Newcastle shirt got washed with something green.
So on August 7 I kept a look out for this game on the BBC website. While the season curtain raiser saw Leicester defeat Man City in the FA Community Shield, and Jack Grealish make his £100M debut, Andover travelled to my newly adopted Mallets and took away a goalless draw. Hmmm, maybe not the ideal first game to ever follow at this level but that is the FA Cup for you – unpredictable. But reading over the match report on the Wessex League website gave some fascinating insights. For example, Andover were clear underdogs having got into this First Round Qualifying by being a “lucky” Step Six Club and Shepton Mallet had just won their first two games of the season by a combined 13-0. Andover also had the challenge of playing the first half “playing up the slope” – words you rarely read these days.
Andover held out for the draw and the match report includes the following classic quote:
“Two small moans. The language emanating from the home bench, with the volume control turned to the maximum, was unpleasant, and sadly ignored by the Officials, who otherwise had a good game, and the home side’s black and white quartered shirts were very smart but the gold numbers on the back totally unreadable”.
The replay occurred just three days later and this time my newly beloved Shepton Mallet came away easy 4-0 victors, in front of 187 fans, with their opening goal being a corner that beat everyone.
And so as a reward, Shepton Mallet enter the Preliminary Round this weekend, where they travel to Melksham Town. Another place I have never heard off but in the spirit of continued learning, I have discovered that it is a village in Wiltshire and that Melksham Town play at the Oakfield Stadium, having been founded in 1876. Their all-time record attendance was 2,821 back in the 1950s. Melksham Town did not have to endure the tension of the Extra Preliminary Round and so this represents their FA Cup debut this season.
So on Saturday, as Leeds entertain Everton and Man City and Liverpool enjoy home games, I will cast an eye at 4:45pm to see whether Shepton Mallet can continue their glorious run. After all, if they win this game, it is only 11 further victories to Wembley! Until then I just have to go online and buy myself a Shepton Mallet shirt, get in some cans of cider and blast some pre-match Oasis at Glastonbury 1994. Come on you Mallets!