The FA Cup reaches the fourth qualifying round stage tomorrow. I should probably not get excited about this. These days, we’re told that the league is the be-all-and-end-all. The cup matches provide “relief from the grind of the league programme”. The FA Cup is a mere trinket, at best to be regarded as a potential money-spinner for the game’s impoverished many. Poppycock. Over the last couple of years, aided by excellent coverage by the BBC, the Cup has undergone something of a revival in its fortunes, topped off with a thrilling final last May between Liverpool and West Ham United. It’s the world’s oldest football competition, and I love it.
A quick re-cap for those of you that are idly wondering what I’m talking about. The FA Cup doesn’t start at the first round. The first round is when the clubs from League 1 and League 2 enter into the fray. The clubs from the Premiership and the Championship enter at the third round stage (normally played on the first Saturday in January). The whole thing kicks off in August with the extra preliminary round and the preliminary round. There are then four qualifying rounds, culminating tomorrow, when the Nationwide Conference National teams join in. The winners of these games stand to make a bit of money. Sky Sports and the BBC both show live matches from the first round onwards, and because gate receipts are split 50/50 (unlike in the League), an away match in front of a 20,000 crowd at, say, Nottingham Forest, could generate the equivalent of a year’s revenue for a non-league club. This is an important weekend, and don’t let anybody tell you any differently.
The tie of the round is at Victoria Road, where Dagenham & Redbridge play Oxford United – second against first in the Conference. Dagenham have a bit of “form” in the FA Cup. In 2001, they were leading Charlton Athletic in the third round with just four minutes to play before conceding an equalizer and then lost the replay by an odd goal in extra-time. The following year, they were back in the third round, but were beaten 4-1 at home by Ipswich Town, and then in 2003 they back for a third year in a row, losing to a last minute goal at Carrow Road against Norwich City. Oxford, meanwhile, have made a storming start to their life in non-league football. At the time of writing, they’re still unbeaten, and are five points clear of The Daggers at the top of the Conference. However, they’ve been somewhat fortunate more than once not to have lost, and tomorrow’s match is, in all honesty, their biggest test of the season. I’m tipping Dagenham to sneak this one.
The other stand-out fixture is at St James Park (no, not that St James Park), where Exeter City take on AFC Wimbledon. Exeter have struggled since being relegated into the Conference, and seem no more likely to win their place back in the League this season than they have for the previous two or three years. AFC Wimbledon are, of course, the club formed in anger when Franchise FC decided to up sticks and move to Milton Keynes (and a curse on the people of Milton Keynes who go and watch them, while I’m on the subject). AFCW have made steady progress up the non-league pyramid, and are currently in the Ryman League Premier Division, two divisions below the Conference. Their league form has been patchy. They were beaten to a place in the Conference South last season in the play-offs by Fisher Athletic last season, and currently sit just below the play-off places. Still, they attract crowds of over 2,000 to each home league match and it is surely just a matter of time before they are challenging for a place in the Football League – for now, though, I think that Exeter will prove to be too strong for them.
A couple of other teams with (relatively) big pasts will be taking a moment to consider how far they’ve fallen this weekend. In 1985, a last minute penalty by Keith Houchen saw them beat Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup at Bootham Crescent, and in 1996 they beat Manchester United 3-1 at Old Trafford in the League Cup. They following year, they did for Everton in the same competition. Having dropped out of the League in 2004, they have a trip to Newcastle Benfield Bay Plastics, of all people. Aldershot were a league club for decades, before becoming the last Football League club to resign mid-season, in 1992, amongst a blizzard of IOUs and bouncing cheques. They’re away to Haverhill Rovers, of the Eastern Counties League. Either of these trips could be deeply chastening experiences for the teams concerned, but I would expect both of them to come through.
Although the use of the phrase “giant-killing” may be over-emphasising the issue somewhat, there are a couple of “bigger” teams that could end up with rather red faces by tomorrow tea time. My lot, St Albans City, are one of them. We are away to Yeading of the Conference South tomorrow, but this comes off the back of a 6-0 home defeat against Grays Athletic (our worst home league result in nearly sixty years) last Saturday. I fear that Yeading could prove to be too strong in this match. Elsewhere, Kidderminster Harriers (another former Football League club) have a tricky home match against Droylsden, who only missed out on a place in the Conference National last season after losing a penalty shoot-out in the play-off final, and Crawley Town will have their work cut out to beat Lewes, of the Conference South.
And on Saturday at 5.30, when it’s all said and done, one of the very special moments of the English football season will take place, when the draw for The First Round Proper of the FA Cup takes place, live on BBC1. No matter what happens to whom tomorrow afternoon, in a few clubhouses and bars around the country the true “romance of the cup” will shine through, as a bunch of carpet-fitters, students and bakers that make up the likes of AFC Sudbury, Leatherhead, Fleetwood Town and Wisbech Town (at least two of whom are guaranteed to still be involved) learn their fates. Sod Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. This is what it’s all about.