The second of our articles to mark the First Round Proper of The FA Cup heads west to Paulton, a village between Bath and Bristol tonight. This weekend, the village team, Paulton Rovers, plays host to Norwich City in a live, televised match, but the club has already won financially, at least.
It has taken them one hundred and twenty-eight years but this weekend Paulton Rovers of the Zamaretto Southern League Division One South & West make their debut in the competition proper of the FA Cup. The lowest ranked club still in this year’s competition, Paulton started out in the competition at the end of August in the Preliminary Round with a 3-1 win against Bideford AFC. Since then, they have beaten Tiverton Town, Didcot Town, Newport County and Chippenham Town and their reward in the First Round Proper of the competition is a rich one – a home match against Norwich City, which will be broadcast live by ITV1 on Saturday lunchtime.
There is an almost annual tradition of looking at the draw for the First Round of the FA Cup and not even being able to guess where one of the clubs is based, and Paulton Rovers are probably this year’s candidates for this award. The media has largely described Paulton as being from “near Bristol” and while there is an element of truth in this, the village is actually nominally closer to the city of Bath. Founded in 1881, the club joined the Western League at the start of the twentieth century, but they left the league for a couple of years in 1904, only to rejoin in 1906. Few would have guessed at the time that they would remain members of that league until 2004, when they were finally promoted into the Southern League.
Although this is the club’s first time in the competition proper of the FA Cup, Paulton did come agonisingly close on one previus occasion. In the 1906/07 season – their first entry into the competition – they beat Poole Town in the Fourth Qualifying Round, but lost 1-0 to Crewe Alexandra (then of the Birmingham & District League) in the long defunct Fifth Qualifying Round. Official records were not kept, but it is believed that the attendance for this weekend’s match against Norwich will break the club’s attendance record, which was set at the match against Crewe, although there are wildly differing opinions about what the crowd that day actually was.
In all of their years in the Western League, Paulton Rovers never managed to win a league championship. Even when promoted into the Southern League in 2004, it was as runners-up to Bideford AFC, who declined a place in the league over concerns at the cost of travelling. Last season, they managed a highest league position ever of tenth place in the Division One South & West, and this season they sit in seventh place in the table at the time of writing, six points behind the current leaders, Windsor & Eton. Attendances last season were reasonably healthy, too, averaging at 235 – the joint second-highest in the league, and not bad at all for a club that had finished in a mid-table position.
Travelling Norwich supporters used to the all-seated splendour of Carrow Road could be in for a surprise when they arrive at Paulton’s Winterfield Road. It is not an atypical ground for this level of football, though descriptions of it having a capacity of 5,000 proved to be over-optimistic – it has been limited to 2,500 for this weekend’s match. It does, however, have a covered terrace behind one goal and running most of the length of one side of the pitch, which is more than some non-league grounds at a higher level can manage. It seems likely, however, to be a somewhat alien experience for most of the Norwich City team.
There should, of course, be a vast gulf between the teams on the pitch. Norwich City supporters may be depressed by their current place in League One, but they are still five divisions above Paulton Rovers. The Paulton team is made up of journeymen and local lads. The nearest that can be found to star players are the thirty-eight year old Rob Cousins, who played for Yeovil Town in the late 1990s and in an FA Trophy Final at Villa Park for Forest Green Rovers, and Charlie Rich who, in his younger days won several caps for the England under-18 team whilst a member of the Bristol Rovers academy.
The visit of Norwich may prove to be a step too far, but anybody considering the result to be a foregone conclusion might like to consider their result in the Third Qualifying round of this year’s competition when they beat Newport County 1-0 at Winterfield Road. Beating a team two divisions higher would be achievement enough in itself, but it also worth pointing out that Newport County are top of the BSS, having lost one of their fifteen league matches so far this season. The gap between Paulton Rovers and and Norwich City isn’t far off the gap between Norwich City and Manchester United. A lunchtime kick-off in front of a baying crowd on a Saturday lunchtime will be a test of Norwich’s mental steel, to say the least.
The truth of the matter is, however, that Paulton Rovers have already won in one very important respect – financially. They have already picked up £29,000 in prize money for their run from the Preliminary Round, and with record gate receipts, sponsorship money and all the rest, the club could well make a profit of over £50,000 from this FA Cup run. A sizeable windfall for a club of their size. And this is worth remembering when discussing any future negotiations for television rights for the FA Cup. Amounts of money that even in this financially straitened age are mere crumbs from the top table of football remain highly significant amounts for the smallest clubs in the competition – they are amounts of money that can safeguard their futures. If Paulton can manage this and maybe pick up fifty extra people that end up watching them regularly, anything else will just be icing on the cake.