Thankfully, the FA Cup still matters to so many, down in the lower tiers and non-league game, where football appears more enjoyable – Simon Carter
Thankfully, it still matters to so many. It matters to Kidderminster Harriers, to Boreham Wood, to Cambridge United, three clubs far removed from the Premier League glamour and wealth whose fans woke up on Sunday morning, some no doubt a little worse for wear, to see their teams plastered over the national papers. Run-of-the-mill league games don’t carry that gravitas. Play-off finals neither.
It mattered for the 6,000 non-league supporters - Chesterfield fans might not like that description but it’s rooted in reality - who were able to celebrate a goal against the reigning European champions.
It mattered to the Morecambe supporters who, for 41 scarcely believable minutes, saw their team in front at Tottenham on Sunday afternoon.
And it mattered to the 6,000 Shrewsbury fans who celebrated their team taking the lead at Anfield, one of the world’s great sporting cathedrals. Ok, they might only have led for seven minutes but it was seven minutes in dreamland, seven minutes that will live in the memory. And what is football if not for moments like that? It’s not all about winning trophies.
Now in its 150th season, the Football Association Challenge Cup still provides a feelgood factor like no other, a warm and comforting Ready Brek type glow for those of us who like a bit of romance with our sport.
Unless you follow Reading, it was impossible not to smile at the video of Kidderminster boss Don Penn celebrating with his players in the aftermath of beating a team 79 places above them in the pyramid (the equivalent of Havant & Waterlooville knocking out Sunderland or Gosport Borough beating Bolton Wanderers). If you didn’t smile, you’re not a proper football supporter. Sorry, but that’s the truth.
Ditto Cambridge’s stunning success at Newcastle (and fair play to Eddie Howe for fielding his strongest side, even if it summed up the mess the Toon are currently in). Is it churlish to say the U’s were fortunate to beat my team, Exeter, in the second round with a last-minute winner that was blatantly offside, a dismal decision for which the officials apologised for afterwards? So it could have been me up there in the Gods at (the other) St James’ Park celebrating a famous winner instead of Cambridge fans. By small margins - inches, millimetres at times - are FA Cup memories created …
It is, of course, wonderful to see two non-league clubs - Kidderminster and Boreham Wood - through to the last 32. Harriers have already won through seven rounds to get this far, having entered at the second qualifying round stage. Back on September 18, they won 3-1 in the West Midlands at Sporting Khalsa. From Willenhall, where Khalsa are based, to West Ham United - the magical lexicon of the FA Cup.
Boreham Wood didn’t quite get the coverage Kidderminster’s win did, and for obvious reasons - Kiddy beat a (former Premier League) team four tiers higher in the pyramid, Wood defeated a side from two tiers above, AFC Wimbledon. Sub Adrian Clifton - who spent a forgettable period with Havant some seven years ago - grabbed the second goal in a 2-0 win just seconds after coming on. Clifton’s is a classic FA Cup story - he spent five years in prison during his younger days before becoming a non-league journeyman.
But it’s not just Clifton; the Hertfordshire club’s tale is a great yarn too. As recently as 2010 they were playing in the seventh tier; in 2015 they defeated Havant in a National League South play-off semi-final en route to promotion; now they are targeting an unlikely promotion to the EFL.
They have done all this on very low crowds. Wood are not well supported - two tiers lower Bognor have a higher average league attendance. Tier lower Havant are also averaging more than Wood’s current 857. When Halifax visited Wood in September for a National League game, the attendance was 503 - Moneyfields v Baffins Milton Rovers attracted more in the ninth tier earlier this month. The only club in the top flight of non-league football with a lower league average than Wood is Dover, and they are rock bottom without a win to their name in 2021/22.
Despite that, Wood are level on points with Wrexham, who are owned by two high-profile American actors and boast average crowds of over 8,000. Wood have three games in hand on the Welsh club, are unbeaten at home and have lost just twice in 19 National League matches. And they have done this - rubbing shoulders with ex-EFL clubs like Wrexham, Chesterfield, Notts County, Torquay and Halifax - on three-figure crowds. A superb achievement in today’s game where money, at whatever level, talks. Sutton managed to win the National League last season with one of the lowest budgets in the division; could Wood do the same? What would Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney make of it if they did?
You won’t be surprised to learn that it’s rare for two non-league clubs to reach the fourth round of the world’s greatest sporting knockout competition. In the last 50 years, since the start of the 1971/72 tournament that was to produce one of THE all-time shocks - Hereford beating Newcastle, lots of mud, Ronnie Radford, Malcolm MacDonald’s sideburns, pitch invasions from parka-wearing kids, and not a selfie-seeking mobile phone holding fan or electronic advertising hoarding in sight - it has only happened seven times.
It only occurred once between the early 70s and the early noughties - Wimbledon and Leatherhead achieving the feat in 1974/75. That was the season the Dons attracted a crowd of over 40,000 (to Selhurst Park) for a replay after holding Leeds United to a draw at Elland Road in the season the top flight club reached the European Cup final. It was also the season Leatherhead led Leicester 2-0 at Filbert Street in round four before losing 3-2.
I saw an interesting fact the other day. Between 1965/66 and 1977/78, there were 13 different winners of the FA Cup in 13 seasons. Remarkable. Though I might yearn for that sort of level playing field to return, reality tells a different story. In the subsequent 43 years, there have - again - been only 13 different winners. And six of those - including Pompey - have only won it once. Take away Everton and Manchester City’s two wins and Tottenham’s three (the last one in 1991), that leaves four clubs (Arsenal 10, Manchester United 8, Chelsea 7, Liverpool 5) having won it 30 times in those 43 years. As my teenage son would say, boooooooooooring!
But while the top clubs have dominated in lifting the trophy, more non-league clubs have reached the fourth round in the last 20 years than in the previous 30, a stat I was surprised to discover. Including this season, there have been 32 occasions when non-league clubs have reached the FA Cup fourth round in 50 years. Of those, five have progressed to the last 16; remarkably, one - Danny Cowley’s Lincoln in 2016/17 - made it to the quarter-finals. Kidderminster and Telford United have both reached the fourth round on three separate occasions.
Of those 32, 17 have occurred since 2000/01. There were eight in the 2010s, the most successful era for non-league clubs reaching the fourth round in the last half century. There were only three throughout the 1990s. That says a lot about the strength of the English pyramid.
The current Kiddy outfit are only the third club from the sixth tier to reach the last 32 since the National League South and North Divisions were created in 2004. It is an achievement matching that of Havant & Waterlooville in 2007/08 and Chorley last season. But while Hawks dumped out a Swansea side top of League 1 at the time and 83 places higher in the pyramid to book their fourth round spot, Chorley defeated what was basically Derby’s Under-23s behind closed doors after Covid ravaged the Rams’ first team squad. Still a superb achievement, but nothing on the level of Hawks beating Swansea in front of a packed Westleigh Park under floodlights.
Famously, of course, Hawks led Liverpool twice at Anfield in the fourth round before losing 5-2. Yet those memories will never fade. How many fans can say they have celebrated such extraordinarily unlikely goals in their lifetime? Serious question.
Take Morecambe’s goal at Tottenham on Sunday; almost certainly they will have celebrated it with more joy, with more unbridled emotion, than any Tottenham fan will celebrate any goal this season. Same with Shrewsbury fans and their goal at Anfield. Ok, Tottenham could beat Arsenal but they’ve done it before, it’s nothing new.
I look at some Premier League fans and I don’t see much REAL enjoyment. Where’s the joy in expecting to win trophies? Or the joy in just staying up year after year? Where’s the raw emotion, the sheer joy, of Morecambe taking the lead at Tottenham, Shrewsbury taking the lead at Anfield, or Cambridge, Kidderminster and Boreham Wood capturing the national spotlight?
Some goals, some wins, I can appreciate - Aguero v QPR in 2012, Solskjær’s 93rd minute winner in the 1999 Champions League final, Thomas scoring to give Arsenal the league title at a stunned Anfield in 1989. Understandable limbs and delirium. And if Tottenham (ever) win the league - I know, a gargantuan ‘if’ - then, yes, there will be that sheer joy that seems to be missing.
I have Tottenham-supporting friends and their social media postings never suggest they’re having too much fun. Perhaps they’re not; perhaps the truth is this - there is more fun, more enjoyment, to be had down in the lower divisions, down in the non-league game. Down where the Football Association Challenge Cup still matters. Where the food is better, the ticket prices cheaper, where it’s not all about money. Where you get more home-made tinfoil FA Cups on the terraces. Where you get terraces, actually.
And there’s no VAR …
Non-League clubs reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup in the last 50 years
1970s = 7
70/71 = Sutton United; 71/72 = Hereford United; 74/75 = Wimbledon, Leatherhead; 75/76 = Tooting & Mitcham; 76/77 = Northwich Victoria; 77/78 = Blyth Spartans (5th rd).
1980s = 6
79/80 = Harlow Town; 80/81 = Enfield; 83/84 = Telford United; 84/85 = Telford United (5th rd); 85/86 = Altrincham; 88/89 = Sutton United.
1990s = 3
90/91 = Woking; 93/94 = Kidderminster; 96/97 = Hednesford Town.
2000s = 8
00/01 = Kingstonian; 02/03 = Dagenham & Redbridge, Farnborough; 2003/04 - Scarborough, Telford United; 07/08 = Havant & Waterlooville; 08/09 = Kettering United, Torquay United.
2010s = 6
12/13 = Luton Town (5th rd), Macclesfield; 13/14 = Kidderminster; 16/17 = Sutton United (5th rd), Lincoln City (QF); 2018/19 = Barnet.
20/21 = Chorley; 21/22 = Kidderminster, Boreham Wood.