It would be kind of wrong of me to not mention Manchester United’s humiliation at the hands of Southend United at Roots Hall on Tuesday night. The thing about the blogosphere is that every angle of the match has already been picked over about a million times, so I will just add my tuppence worth by adding this: all this stuff you’re undoubtedly saying about “putting the reserves out” and “it’s only the League Cup”? We’re not buying it. We could all feel your cheeks burning on Tuesday night. It was your best chance of winning a trophy this season. You’ve got to play Chelsea at the weekend. That is all.
And now, back to the FA Cup. Now, I have to say that this year’s draw is a particularly good one. Sometimes, it’s not so good. All the non-league teams are drawn against each other, or drawn away from home, or whatever, but this year there are a number of matches that could throw up a surprise – in fact, there are so many that it wouldn’t surprise me if a whole pile of League teams were retreating back home on Saturday evening with their tales between their legs. In this modern age, though, it’s easy to be fooled, and the BBC, in choosing Weymouth vs Bury, have been utterly hoodwinked, and the rest of you will be if Weymouth win and consider it a “shock” result. Bury are currently in eighth place in League 2, an exceptional achievement, especially considering the fact that they are in an extreme state of financial paralysis. Weymouth are third in the Nationwide Conference, and have won seven out of their nine home matches this season. They may be a division lower, but I wouldn’t mind betting that their wage bill is considerably higher. I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit “shocked” if they won.
The thing is that twenty of the teams in the Nationwide Conference are full-time, professional clubs, and, due to the fact that there are only two promotion/relegation places between the two divisions, a lot of them are very good. If you want to put a bit of skill into picking the teams that will cause upsets in the first round of the FA Cup, you have to go a little bit further down the football ladder than the Conference. The match that really caught my eye was Kettering Town vs Oldham Athletic. Kettering’s main claim to fame is that they were the first team in British football to have shirt sponsorship (as above). They were regulars in the Conference in the 1980s and 1990s, though financial mismanagement has made them more of a yo-yo club over the last five years or so, and they currently sit second in the Conference North. Oldham are currently seventh in League 2, but they were pushed all the way by Chasetown last season, and this is a far tougher tie. Kettering’s ground is a proper, old-fashioned non-league ground, and the atmosphere might turn out to be the most intimidating they’ll face all season. Other League Two clubs with much to fear are Millwall, who travel to the south coast to play Havant & Waterlooville at Fratton Park, and Tranmere, who entertain Woking. Millwall may survive, given the larger stadium, but they’ve had a wretched time of it so far this season, so I wouldn’t put it past Havant. Tramnere are going well in the League, but I saw Woking play earlier this season, and they are a decent team. They also have a fearsome cup reputation, which could well work to their advantage.
Other league teams that could be for the chop against supposedly “inferior” opposition include Wycombe, who are at home to Oxford, Barnet, who are at Gainsborough Trinity, Darlington, who are away to Lewes and Bristol Rovers, who travel to Cumbria to play Barrow. Oxford are still unbeaten this season in all competitions, and probably the team that all League clubs wanted to avoid. Barnet are having a poor season in League 2, and could probably do without a trip to deepest, darkest Lincolnshire, Darlington will face a stiffer test than they perhaps expect at Conference South club Lewes, who were only denied a place in the CS play-offs last season due to the state of their ground, The Dripping Pan, and Bristol Rovers, whose slow and gradual decline is marked in this month’s “When Saturday Comes”, will be presumably dreading the hideous journey north to play former League club Barrow. Any one (or more) of these matches could yield an “upset”, of varying quality.
Finally, the award for Match Most Likely To Make Headlines For Reasons That Are Nothing To Do With Football is the match between Newport County and Swansea City. Newport dropped out of the Football League in 1988, and folded a year or so later. Although they were never as successful on the pitch as Cardiff or Swansea, they were fairly well known for having a small, but exceptionally violent hooligan firm. It’s a long time since they played any of their traditional rivals, and the fireworks on display there might well have nothing to do with football whatsoever.