If one competition brought the curtain down on the era of the distinction between the amateur and the professional within English football, it was the FA Trophy. Since the nineteenth century, the amateurs had been playing in their own competition, the FA Amateur Cup. Everyone, of course, took part in the FA Cup, and the Football League had been taking part on the League Cup since the early 1960s. There was, however, something of a vacuum – a whole group of clubs that didn’t have a realistic chance of playing before the twin towers. Those clubs were the professional and semi professional clubs of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. These were club that were unashamed in paying their players. They regularly showed up Football League clubs in the FA Cup, but the last non-league club to make an FA Cup final had been Tottenham Hotspur, who made FA Cup Final in 1901 and beat Sheffield United once there. They joined the Football League shortly afterwards.
The FA Trophy was introduced for the 1969/70 season, for the clubs that didn’t have any other realistic chance of getting to Wembley. Although the competition was eagerly embraced by the clubs of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues, it suffered in its early days by comparison with the FA Amateur Cup. The Amateur Cup had been around longer, and was still treated as the showpiece of the amateur game. In the very early years, the Trophy struggled for attention against the Amateur Cup. The amateur game, however, was dying, and in 1974 the FA finally put it out of its misery by formally ending the different status of amateur and professional players. The FA Amateur Cup was laid to rest and the Football Association put the senior former amateur clubs into the FA Trophy, with the smaller clubs going into a new competition called the FA Vase. The FA Trophy was now non-league football’s premier competition.
The formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979 gave the non-league game a showpiece league competition to match it the FA Trophy. Although APL (and later Fooball Conference) clubs would come to dominate the competition, there was a capacity for smaller clubs to cause surprises. In 1981, Bishops Stortford won the competition from the Isthmian League Division One (the third tier of the the non-league game). In 1985, Wealdstone became the first club to do the “non-league double” of winning the Conference and the FA Trophy in the same season. Crowds continued to grow as the size of non-league crowds grew generall after years of steady decline. In 1991, almost 35,000 saw Wycombe Wanderers beat Kidderminster Harriers at Wembley. The Conference, however, was starting to take over. Promotion to the Football League was becoming the be all and end all of the non-league game, and the FA Trophy was further diminished with the closure and demolition of Wembley Stadium in 2000.
For a few seasons, it looked very much as if the FA Trophy might not even survive at all. When Wembley was bulldozed and the FA Cup Final went to Cardiff, the FA Trophy moved to Villa Park and (for one season) Upton Park. Crowds slumped without the enticement to the casual supporter of a day out at Wembley. In addition to this, from 2003, the Football League allowed the Conference a second promotion place, which would be determined via play-offs. The end of season non-league spectacular was no longer the exclusive preserve of the FA Trophy. In this respect, its return to Wembley in 2007 couldn’t have been better timed. The 2007 FA Trophy was the first cup final (and the second match, after an England vs Italy u-21 international), and a record crowd for the competition of 53,262 watched the match between Kidderminster Harriers and Stevenage Borough. Anyone thinking that such a high crowd was a statistical anomaly was only half-right. Over 40,000 turned out last season for last year’s final between Ebbsfleet United and Torquay United.
This year’s competition started at the beginning of October, and reached the third (and final) qualifying round this weekend. At this stage, clubs from the Blue Square North and South make their debuts, with clubs from the Blue Square Premier joining in the next round. Plenty of previous winners were involved this weekend, and a couple of previous winners hadn’t even made it this far. 1975 winners Matlock Town went out in the First Qualifying Round, along with Enfield Town, the spiritual successors to the winners in 1982 and 1988, and Canvey Island, the winners in 2001. Kingstonian, winners as recently as 1999 and 2000, didn’t even last that long. They were knocked out in the Preliminary Round – the earliest stage of the competition. In case, by the way, you were wondering, Wigan Athletic (now of the Premier League, but in 1973 of the Northern Premier League, lost that final 2-1 after extra time against Scarborough, whose spiritual heirs Scarborough Athletic are competing in the FA Vase this season).
The transitory nature of non-league football means that it is hardly surprising that five former winners of this competition were involved this weekend. Few clubs are successful in non-league football for a sustained period of time, with the vast majority either going on into the Football League or returning (often swiftly and with little dignity) to the primordial ooze from which they came. What is arguably somewhat surprising is that there is no previous winner of the FA Trophy that isn’t represented somewhere in the game, even if the newer club has a subtley different name. How, then, did these former winners get on? Well, the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is mixed. Stafford Rangers, winners in 1972 and 1979, are out. They lost 3-2 at King’s Lynn. Bishops Stortford, the 1981 winners, drew 1-1 at home against Tiverton Town, and Hednesford Town, the 2004 winners, drew 1-1 away against Hyde United. The last two, however, did win through. AFC Telford United, the winners in 1971, 1983 and 1989, won 2-0 away against Gainsborough Trinity, and Burscough, the 2003 winners, also won away from home – 2-1 against Hinckley United.
The competition proper starts in three weeks, with the First Round. At this point, the bigger clubs of the Blue Square Premier join the fray, though with the BSP looking likely to be a tight competition until the end of the season, how seriously they will be taking it is open to question. You can’t help but feel that, for a lucky smaller club that is prepared to put in a bit of graft, an unexpected day out at Wembley could be a handy an lucrative reward, come the end of the season. It may not have the long term benefits of promotion, but cup final days out are the sort of experience that money can’t buy.