Far from the contrived excitement of this weekend’s international round of international matches (and, let’s be honest, it’s pretty difficult to get too worked up about England vs Kazakhstan), the FA Cup reaches its Third Qualifying Round. The prizes involved are starting to get substantial. The winners of matches being played on Saturday will be just ninety minutes from the First Round Proper, with national media coverage, live matches on the television and potential draws against the likes of Leeds United and Leicester City. After the early stages of the competition, it feels as if the FA Cup is starting to slowly awaken.
One tie that stands out in the draw is the match between Hendon and AFC Telford United. Both are clubs with outstanding FA Cup traditions and, while Hendon may look at their current circumstances, Telford show that the potential to grow a non-league club into a thriving organisation is far from beyond the question. Hendon have made the First Round Proper of the FA Cup on nineteen previous occasions, most famously in the middle of the 1970s. In 1974, they held Newcastle United to a 1-1 draw at St James Park before losing the replay, which was switched from Claremont Road to nearby Vicarage Road, the somewhat more palatial home of Watford. Two years later, they beat Football League opposition for the first time, winning against Reading in the First Round. Their recent woes have been documented on here before, and Saturday’s match sees the start of their tenancy at Vale Farm, home of Wembley FC, of the Combined Counties League.
They couldn’t really have wished for much better opposition. AFC Telford United, like Hendon, are owned by their Supporters Trust, and have thrived since their formation in 2004. The original Telford United were one of the great FA Cup teams of the 1980s. They beat Football League opposition nine times between 1982 and 1992, and are one of the very few non-league clubs to have got as far as the Fifth Round of the FA Cup. Their two great runs came in 1984 and 1985. In 1984, they beat Stockport County, Northampton Town and Rochdale before losing 1-0 to Derby County in the Fourth Round. A year later, they went one better. Having seen off Lincoln City, Preston North End, Bradford City and Darlington, they drew Everton at Goodison Park in the Fifth Round. They lost the match 3-0, but the crowd of 47,000 that turned up for it was Everton’s highest of the season. The club was also successful in non-league football’s own mini-FA Cup, the FA Trophy. They lost the 1988 final against Enfield at The Hawthorns after a 0-0 draw at Wembley, but won it the following year against Macclesfield Town.
At the start of this century, they but their future in the hands of a local businessman Andrew Shaw. At first, things seemed well, and the club moved into a new, state of the art stadium, New Bucks Head. On the pitch, they caused more surprises in the FA Cup – during the 2003/2004 season, they beat Brentford and Crewe Alexandra, before bowing out in the Third Round against Millwall, that year’s eventual finalists. However, Shaw’s businesses collapsed early in 2004 and, while the supporters raised £50,000 to try and keep the club going, a debt of £4m proved to be insurmountable and the club folded in the summer of 2004. The Supporters Trust secured the name AFC Telford United and the lease on New Bucks Head, and started life again in the Unibond League Division One.
The club have risen swiftly again and currently play in the Conference North, where they were beaten in the play-offs at the end of last season. Crowds have been high at New Bucks Head – the average crowd this season at New Bucks Head is over 1,800, considerably higher than they managed a division higher a decade before – but this has brought its own problems. There has been crowd trouble at some of their higher profile matches, most notably at a Conference North match against Kettering Town last season. It is believed that such problems are the work of supporters of Wolverhampton Wanderers who tak advantage of the lax security at non-league matches, but the hope is that these people will lose interest in a club that isn’t anything to do with the one that they claim to, in their own perverse way, “support”.
Things may look pretty grim for Hendon at the moment, with falling crowds and no home of their own. AFC Telford United, however, are one of the current success stories in non-league football at the moment, and are living proof that, no matter how bads things get, they can be turned around. The visitors to Vale Farm may turn out to be too strong for Hendon, but the chance of a place in the FA Cup First Round should at least provide them with the will to everything that they can to get a result tomorrow afternoon.