The Final Hurdle
It’s the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup tomorrow. For our non-British (and, I suppose, ill-educated) readers, this is the round before what the FA still (magnificently) called the “First Round Proper”, when the Football League clubs from League One and League Two. Such, however, is the division line between the professional clubs and the semi-professional and amateur clubs that this is arguably the round in which the shocks take place. After all, practically all of the Conference clubs are full-time professional clubs, now. As ever, it’s an eclectic mixture – from former league clubs such as Torquay United and Oxford United, down to Ware (it’s a place in Hertfordshire, not a rhetorical question that has been misspelt) and Kendal Town (yes, that Kendal – home of the mint cake). What is curious here is that a number of the former Football League clubs that have featured on this very blog before have managed to get through to this round, and a couple of them are even playing each other.
Two former League clubs are doing battle at the Horsfall Stadium, where Bradford (Park Avenue) – and full marks at this point to the BBC for remembering to put the last part of their name in brackets – take on Gainsborough Trinity. Gainsborough were members of the Football League from 1890 to 1912 and, having been voted out of the League in favour of Lincoln City, are one of only a handful of Football League clubs never to have been relegated within the League itself. In the north-west, Northwich Victoria play Southport. Southport were discussed on here relatively recently. Northwich were members of the Football League from 1892 until 1894 and, until recently (when they moved to a new stadium) were the proud owners of the oldest football stadium in the world – their Drill Field had been used for 125 consecutive years until they left it in 2005. Their brand new Victoria Stadium hasn’t been terribly lucky for them. They are falling off the bottom of the Conference, and are reportedly close to closure. It seems likely that they are going into administration, which would, even in November, put them on -7 points. A win tomorrow would do them no end of good.
One of the more recent teams to drop from the Football League, Oxford United (League Cup winners at Wembley as recently as 1986) travel to the spiritual heirs of a former League club. Merthyr Tydfil FC were founded in south Wales in 1946, twelve years after Merthyr Town, a League club in the 1920s, folded. Workington, who were one of the last teams to play Manchester United’s ill-fated Busby Babes in the FA Cup, are at home to Boston United, who were relegated two divisions at the end of last season, after they fell through the trap door last season. Barrow, another former League club to have come close to closure recently are away to Conference new boys Farsley Celtic, and Cambridge United (FA Cup quarter-finalists in 1991) travel to Stafford Rangers. Add Halifax Town, Rushden & Diamonds, York City, Kidderminster Harriers, Torquay United, Aldershot Town (who I’m counting for the purposes of this exercise) and Exeter City (who made the quarter-finals in 1981 and held Manchester United to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in January 2005), and this is a draw with quite some pedigree.
Finally, on the night before this big day, a quick mention to Maidenhead United and Hitchin Town. Maidenhead are at home to Hayes & Yeading United, whilst Hitchin travel to Weymouth. These two clubs both played in the very first FA Cup, in 1872. The only other survivors are Marlow (already out) and Queens Park (who are, well, from Scotland). For the completists amongst you, here’s a full list of the 1872 FA Cup entrants in full: Wanderers (the first winners, as every schoolboy knows), Royal Engineers, Maidenhead, Hitchin Town, Great Marlow, Queens Park, Barnes, Civil Service, Crystal Palace (not the same club, in case you were thinking of pulling me up on that), Reigate Priory, Upton Park (no relation to West Ham United), Clapham Rovers, Chequers, Donington School, Harrow Chequers and the magnificently-named Hampstead Heathens. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.