COMMENT – a glorious roll call of the grassroots clubs aiming for romance, glory and a financial windfall in the 150th year of the FA Cup
No doubt to the surprise of those whose football watch lives extend no further than watching a diet of Premier League and Champion Leagues fixtures on a screen, football’s greatest club knockout tournament began yesterday.
Eighty five days after Youri Tielemans’ second half shot had arrowed through the north London air and into the top of the net to give Leicester victory over Chelsea in the 2020/21 FA Cup final, so the curtain was lifted on the 2021/22 competition.
It was lifted at AFC Portchester’ One-Site Group Stadium - where a replica of the trophy stood pitchside as the hosts and visitors Horndean warmed up - Fareham’s Cams Alders, Moneyfields’ Dover Road and US Portsmouth’s Victory Stadium.
It was also lifted at 161 other extra preliminary qualifying round ties, including the one involving Baffins Milton Rovers at Tadley Calleva. The heart and soul of football, alive and kicking at hundreds of grassroots clubs all looking for a little romance and a little extra cash in a world where everyone hopes, in this country at least, that the worst of the pandemic is now behind us.
Seven hundred and twenty nine clubs have entered this season’s tournament, 150 years on from where it all began in 1871/72. Back then, only 14 clubs initially entered, of which three – Harrow School, Lausanne and Windsor Home Park - withdrew before the competition’s first round in November 1871. Six others then decided to enter, including Glasgow’s Queens Park. Remarkably, due to withdrawals and byes, Queens Park reached the semi-finals without having to play a game. There, they drew 0-0 with Wanderers at London’s Kennington Oval before withdrawing themselves due to the fact they couldn’t afford to make another trip from Scotland for the replay.
In all, 348 clubs will take part in the first of this season’s 14 rounds - all but nine (due to wet weather) of the 174 ties taking place yesterday.
As ever, there are clubs in this season’s competition – the 141st in FA Cup history - who only the most ardent group-hoppers would know where they come from: St Panteleimon (Greenford), AFC Varndeanians (Brighton), White Ensign (Southend) AFC Wulfrunians (Wolverhampton), Stone Old Alleynians, K Sports (Aylesford, Kent), Campion (Bradford), Avro (Oldham), Phoenix Sports (London) and Romulus (Birmingham).
There are the clubs which show how increasingly diverse our nation is becoming - Punjab United (Gravesend), New Salamis - a club who began playing in the London Cypriot Sunday League - and Sporting Bengal (Mile End, London).
There are the clubs whose names take us back to a country we once were, but will never be again - Hemsworth Miners Welfare, Ryhope Colliery Welfare, Staveley Miners Welfare and Sherwood Colliery.
There are the clubs whose names conjure up a more idyllic England than the harsher climates which sent men down the coalmines - Walsham-le-Willows, Heather St John’s, Virginia Water, Kirkley & Pakefield, Wokingham & Emmbrook (nicknamed ‘The Satsumas’ due to their orange kit) and Brimscombe & Thrupp.
All those clubs are among this season’s FA Cup intake - last season we had Daisy Hill (Manchester), OJM Black Country (West Midlands), Maccabi London Lions, Nostell Miners Welfare (Wakefield) Kimberley Miners Welfare (Nottinghamshire) and Teversal (Mansfield).
And all of those clubs’ players can tell their grandchildren about the time THEY played in the same tournament as Jack Grealish, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
Among the 729 entrants for the 2021/22 FA Cup, two play at Anfield. Lower Breck, of the North West Counties League, play home games at the Anfield Community Sports Centre in Lower Breck Road. Just a few minutes walk away, is the slightly more famous Anfield, home of the club who have won the FA Cup seven times. Two football grounds, a few hundred yards and a world apart.
And therein, of course, lies the beauty, the enduring, endearing, romance of the Football Association Challenge Cup. Lower Breck, from the ninth tier of the pyramid, can enter the same tournament as Liverpool.
The chances of the two ever meeting in the cup are roughly the same as spotting Lord Lucan riding Shergar on Hayling Island beach, but that’s not the point. The point is this – hopes and dreams can come true for some. For evidence, if any was needed, just look back to last January and Marine - from the eighth tier of the pyramid - hosting Tottenham in the third round.
Locally, AFC Portchester, Fareham and Baffins now carry the Portsmouth area flag into the preliminary qualifying round on August 21. For another fortnight at least, they can dream of a first round tie against Pompey. People might laugh at the thought, but no doubt people would have chortled if this time last year you’d have said US Portsmouth would get to within a penalty shoot-out of the FA Vase final.
Since the Wessex League was founded in 1986, no club from the league has ever reached the first round proper. A few have gone close, losing in the fourth and final qualifying round - the last one being Poole Town, that season’s Wessex Premier champions, in 2010/11.
That was also the campaign that two clubs from the ninth tier DID actually reach the first round proper, Tipton Town and Hythe Town.
Both started out in the extra preliminary round, winning six ties - the same amount as Manchester City, who lifted the trophy at Wembley - before being drawn against EFL opposition.
There the fairytales ended, Tipton crashing 6-0 to Carlisle and Hythe 5-1 to Hereford United, but those two clubs showed what is possible with a mixture of skill, luck and belief. They are the inspiration, or should be, for Portchester, Fareham and Baffins.
Portchester’s starting XI against Horndean, in their 4-2 win, was a Southern League team in virtually all but name. Seven played for Moneyfields at step 4 level in recent years while George Colson and Lee Wort have Southern League experience as well. As for skipper Steve Ramsey, he’s played for Hawks at Conference South level. That just leaves keeper Leon Pitman, released by the Pompey Academy a few months ago.
Overall, that’s a step 4 team. Marine were step 4 last season. You have to dream; if you don’t, there’s not much point to turning up to play in an extra preliminary qualifying round, 540 minutes away from a potential Fratton Park date.
While the romance of the FA Cup will hopefully never die, it can also provide a much-needed financial boost to clubs who can progress through even two or three rounds.
The 174 extra preliminary round winners will bank £1,125 - the losers receive £375 - and there’s £1,444 on offer to preliminary qualifying round winners (£481 for the losers).
They are not huge sums at a time when the current Premier League champions have just spent £100m on one player, and are keen to sign another for a similar amount.
But for non-league clubs, mainly the ‘have-nots’ staffed by willing volunteers and a world away from the top flight ‘haves’ milking Rupert Murdoch’s cash cow, such sums are indeed a windfall. By contrast, the cheques for winning through the first two FA Vase qualifying rounds this season are £525 and £675.