The magic of the FA Cup has gone. It’s a statement that’s hard to disagree with. The two standout cup moments of any season, the Third Round and the Final, are too often tainted by second-string line-ups, predictable matches and inconvenient kick-off times. A big six side will, of course, make the final. They’ll either comfortably beat a mid-table Premier League club or grind out a 1-0 win against a fellow Champions League regular.
The famous magic is also rare. Upsets do happen, but they are usually decent Football League clubs overcoming a Premier League reserve side. Or a non-league team making the Third Round before being battered by a League One side that would probably prefer to focus on avoiding relegation.
The FA Cup occasion
The FA Cup doesn’t, however, begin with the Third Round. In fact, it starts around the same time as the Premier League does. Much like a major river its, often ignored, tributaries begin in places that a lot of people have never heard of, let alone considered watching football in. At the source, it means so much more. In these distant backwaters, the FA Cup isn’t about lifting a trophy in May or a day out at Wembley. It’s about one-off occasions, and the chance to see players that live on the same streets as you play in the famous old competition.
For the clubs, it’s very much about money. The kind of money that could rescue a club, fix a broken roof on the main stand or pay the rent on their pitch for another year. At the first stage, the Extra Preliminary Round, there is a potential £2,250 available for the winner. This rises to £25,000 by the final qualifying round. For fans, however, its a chance to see their team compete against sides they’ve never played before or not seen for decades. They also crave bragging rights against clubs from rival leagues in the same neck of the woods.
Walthamstow FC, a club based in East London within half an hour’s travel time of three Premier League clubs, kicked-off their FA Cup journey by hosting Suffolk based Walsham-Le-Willows. Both clubs play in the ninth tier of the pyramid but have never previously met. A crowd of 80+ may seem modest but every single man, woman, child, baby, and dog was enthralled by the action. Walthamstow ran out 3-1 winners. The crowd had four goals and plenty of drama, all for £7. The East Londoners, who had to crowdfunded to stay afloat a year earlier, earned a nice little cash injection.
The next round, known as the Preliminary Round saw Walthamstow travel to Suffolk to take on Felixstowe and Walton. This time the prize money would be £2,890 as well as the chance to take the scalp of a club in the league above. The crowd was now upwards of 600, helped by eager previews in the local papers. Walthamstow took the lead but were soon reduced to nine men following a series of spikey incidents. Somehow they held on to record a memorable win. How’s that for magic?
A battle with FA Cup history
Back in East London, a relatively new club were looking to equal their best ever achievement in the competition. Sporting Bengal United, from the same league as Walthamstow, were founded in 1996 and have only been playing senior football since 2003. In 2016 they made the First Qualifying Round, the third stage. This year they were hoping to repeat this feat. In their way was Brentwood Town, from the eighth tier, who have a much more illustrious FA Cup history, having made the Third Round proper in 1970.
Sporting went close to recording an upset in Brentwood but were denied by a second-half equaliser. The replay in East London offered a second bite at the cherry. The prize for both sides was huge. A home tie against another upwardly mobile East London club, Isthmian Premier Division Haringey Borough. Not to mention the £6,000 available to winners at the First Qualifying Round.
The replay was played in front of 158 regulars from both sides as well as plenty of interested locals. Sporting put in a spirited performance, but Brentwood eventually ran out winners. Sporting would have made over £3000 pounds despite the exit in the second stage of the competition. Visiting fans broke into chants of ‘we’re going to Wembley’ seemingly unaware that Wembley FC had been knocked out by London Lions a few weeks earlier.
Paying the penalty
In the same week that Sporting Bengal United and Brentwood Town were battling for the chance to make the First Qualifying Round. Litherland REMYCA were being kicked out of the competition. The team from the North West Counties League were found to have fielded a player in the Extra Preliminary Round that had an unpaid £10 fine from a previous club. The expulsion would prove costly for the club considering the prize money on offer.
To put it into context, one eighth tier club published their 2016-17 accounts showing just a £7,000 surplus in income over the season. A win or two in the FA Cup could bring in more than half of this figure before they’ve even played a handful of league games. Suddenly, the penalty for the oversight of a £10 fine seems a little harsh.
We may think that the FA Cup has lost it’s magic and the days of big giant killings on live TV may well have gone. If we look a little deeper, however, there is still plenty of wonder to be found. It just happens before Christmas. Hundreds of local clubs all over the country have been involved in the competition already. With a little bit of research, most people will be able to find the real magic of the FA Cup just down the road.
The FA Cup qualifying rounds continue on 8 and 22 September, and the First Round proper is on 10 November.