Earlier this month, Neil Cotton visited the Hampshire Senior Cup final, and used the match as an opportunity to reflect upon the peculiar pleasures of cup football in general.
It’s almost customary to refer to romance when it comes to cup competitions. There’s just something about the winner takes all simplicity which makes for Roy of the Rovers style story-lines. For ninety minutes there is only one stage, no need for transistors to be glued to ears, or complex stadium mathematics of the ‘if they draw and we win by at least two’ variety; The scene set for one moment, one moment of pure brilliance, to define the game and seal the result. Its no wonder every kid kicking a ball, whether a grass pitch, or a concrete playground, is replaying their own internal commentary of scoring the last-gasp winner in the cup final.
Sometimes though it feels as if all this insistence on romance is overdone Even that most venerable of cup competitions the FA cup seems somehow contrived when it speaks of its romantic side. Take the perennial role of ‘plucky underdog.’ This season Crawley Town seemed a rather ill fit for the role, but the need for the narrative of the cup to be preserved seemed to override concerns over well known past events, mystery backers and transfer budgets which dwarfed many ‘bigger’ teams. Reality it seemed was dismissed as it would only get in the way of the fairy-story, but who can blame the cup for encouraging such a web of myth making when its very survival is dependent on it?
If the strength of cup competitions is that, like a day at the seaside for a mill-worker, they provide a distraction this is also their major weakness. A cup which loses its glamour becomes simply an annoyance, an unwanted fixture diverting time and effort away from the business which counts – the bread and butter of the league. Clubs become resentful of the cup choosing not to enter, or if compelled then fielding weakened sides. Eventually in the worst cases the cup is eventually put out of its misery to join the illustrious list of ex-cups; The Cup Winners Cup, Anglo-Italian Cup, Watney Mann Invitational Cup and the London Midweek Cup to name just a few.
It is in the bracket of unfavoured cups where County Senior Cups find themselves. County Cups have a long history many being instituted in the late 19th century by County FAs – administrative bodies, loosely based on English Counties which formed part of the structural apparatus behind the Victorian enterprise to standardise the game. Such long histories however, are proving to be little defence against the indifference of clubs and supporters alike. Most league clubs now opt-out of competing in County Cups whilst the larger non-league sides will often field sides consisting of a scattering of fringe players, reserves, or even youth players. Supporters in turn respond in kind by failing to show up to county cup games. The Hampshire Senior Cup is just one such trophy suffering from fading glamour; not even the prospect of a derby enough to whet the appetite as Eastleigh’s Hampshire Senior Cup game with bitter rivals Havant and Waterlooville demonstrated drawing a crowd of 161 to the Silverlake comparing unfavourably with the 822 who had turned out for the same sides Conference South fixture.
That that match had to be switched from Havant’s Westleigh Park after a number of postponements due to the inclement weather points to another major problem with county cups – fixture congestion. With league fixtures and other cup games all falling victim to poor weather squeezing in games becomes a challenge – evidenced by round one of the cup which stretched over five weeks before Guernsey Rangers 4-2 victory over Hamble ASSC finally brought it to its conclusion. The final itself was also not immune to problems with scheduling; coming a month after the seasons end AFC Totton secretary Norman Cook, whilst relishing the honour of defending a cup Totton won for the first ever time last season, pointed to the practical challenges this posed in terms of player fitness and availability.
But it is part of the endearing nature of cup football that even unloved cups are capable of producing enthralling spectacles and so it was the Hampshire Senior cup. The final had pitted Totton against Sholing FC. Both teams which have had embarked on new eras; Totton, which once suffered the ignominy of being dubbed a ‘crap town’ by a work of coffee table literature could now boast a team which is anything but; Clinching the Southern League Division 1 South and West title with a total of 97 points Totton also moved into their new ground which boasts of being ‘Conference standard’ perhaps hinting at future ambitions. For their part Sholing were competing in their first season since severing ties with the VT Group. Previously known as VTFC the side had long been associated with the Vosper Thornycroft shipyard (now itself the site of an ambitious re-development) at nearby Woolston. Coincidentally, it was a Woolston Works side who had walked away with the inaugural Hampshire Senior Cup in 1888. Success has however, already twice slipped through Sholing’s grasp; missing out on the league title to Totton by a mere two points only compounded by losing to fourth placed Frome Town in the play-off final. The County Cup final represented a lifeline – a final chance to salvage something from season which had ended in frustrating disappointment.
With this in mind it was, perhaps, unsurprising that Sholing started hungrily. Stretching the Totton defence with their wing-play and taking the lead. The Totton fans, including one decked out in a cup-final blue cape and some still in possession of shirts and scarves bearing the legend ‘FA Vase Final 2007’ (Totton lost 3-1 to Truro City on that occasion), appeared to shift in their seats uneasily. A goal for Totton just before the break calmed nerves and a fine second half performance, including a star turn from Totton’s teenage goalkeeper Ross Casey, provided them with a 3-1 victory and a second trophy to top their successful season. In the aftermath Totton boss Stuart Ritchie spoke of his sides achievement in clinching the double to the local media outlets and the Totton players danced around elatedly posing for photographs with their hard won trophy. At least half of the crowd – this time in excess of a thousand, went home buoyed by the spirit of the cup.
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