Way back in the past, when social mobility for football clubs was, generally, if not quite absolutely, calcified by the FA’s distinction between amateurs and professionals (a state of affairs which lasted, somewhat extraordinarily, until 1974) or by the Football League’s insistence on re-election rather than meritocracy at the foot of its bottom rung (which clung on as a relic of a closed shop past until 1987), at least the difference between what constituted ‘league’ and ‘non-league’ was somewhat easier to define than it is nowadays. Every year, a bunch of amateurs would find themselves thrust unexpectedly into the limelight and granted the opportunity to bloody the nose of one of their supposed betters in the FA Cup, and every year, it seemed, somebody, somewhere would oblige.
These days, however, the lines are somewhat more blurred. Cambridge United, for example, play their football in the Conference National, but as recently as 1991 they were a Second Division club giving Arsenal a hard time in the quarter-finals of this very competition. Another club playing at the same level, Wrexham, got to the same stage of the competition six years later. The line between between the professionals and the semi-professionals has become increasingly blurred over the years, to the extent that even Luton Town, another Conference club, beating Norwich City of the Premier League away from home last season didn’t raise as many eyebrows as perhaps it should.
Three decades ago, when football in England seemed locked into a state of doldrums from which it seemed entirely possible that it might never recover, the fashion was very much for talking about how to streamline the game. We needed, we were frequently told, fewer professional clubs, and and that there was inevitability about this. Football’s interpretation of survival of the fittest, it sometimes felt, was just around the corner. In 2013, however, there are more professional clubs in England than there were thirty years ago. Whether this is A Good Thing or not is a moot point, of course, especially when we consider the number of smaller clubs that are driven to the brink of extinction by the apparently perpetual race towards at pot of gold at the end of an ill-defined rainbow. Whether this situation is or isn’t desirable, however, doesn’t make it any less of a fact.
Still, though, for those of us that still feel the feint beating of a heart within the amoral husk of a sport that English football frequently feels as if it has become, the First Round (Proper – if we’re doing it, well, properly) of the FA Cup offers a chance to dream, even if this dream is more likely than not to be punctured by five to five on Saturday afternoon. For a handful of clubs, this weekend will, even with the tournament now being a shade over one hundred and forty years old, see a first appearance at this stage of the competition. The name of Shortwood United, for example, may not ordinarily trouble the consciousness of too many supporters, but this weekend the club will find a considerable number of eyeballs glancing in their direction as they take on Port Vale of League One on Monday evening.
The experience of the three debutants this year’s First Round couldn’t be much more different. Whilst Shortwood United are playing at home and in front of live television cameras, the other two are both away from home. Daventry Town will travel to Chesterfield to play a team near the top of League Two who may just consider the arrival of a bunch of non-league upstarts to be something of a distraction as they try to maintain the required momentum to stay at the top of a tight division. Biggleswade Town, on the other hand, may have been a little disappointed to draw Stourbridge, a team that they will play twice this season in the Premier Division of the Southern League, but they are at least playing a team that they have a good chance of beating, and place in the Second Round draw would leave the winners of this match one step closer to that once in a lifetime dream fixture, a Third Round match against Premier League opposition.
We have already seen a strong performance from the clubs of the Southern Football League in this year’s FA Cup just to get seven clubs to this stage of the competition in comparison the three divisions of the Isthmian and Northern Premier Leagues – their equivalents in the non-league pyramid – who were unable to get a single club through the qualifying rounds of the competition. And whilst the number of Southern League repersentatives will surely drop considerably after this weekend’s fixtures, there will, on account of the aforementioned match between Stourbridge and Biggleswade, definitely be at least one Southern League club in the Second Round of the competition, whilst more might well cause upsets elsewhere. St Albans City, for example, are unbeaten in all competitions since the twenty-first of September and play a Mansfield Town team that is three divisions above them but which hasn’t won since the end of the same month and has only scored two goals in its seven matches since then. An uphill battle, for sure, but it’s achievable.
For those that do manage an upset this coming weekend, a footnote in the history of the game awaits. The likes of Leatherhead, Walthamstow Avenue, Altrincham, Enfield, Woking, Telford United, Hereford United and scores of others have, in the past, written themselves a tiny piece of history in this very competition, and this, perhaps, is where something approaching the joy of the competition rests. For those who support a non-league team the reality of it all can become a little mundane, in some respects. The football is seldom anything like brilliant, the glamour is more or less non-existent and the world is usually looking the other way.
Maybe a handful of times in our lifetimes, however, the spotlight does fall upon our clubs. For once, it’s an occasion, a chance to see how we might look if we were lucky enough to receive this attention all the time, and a break from the norm. League football is, and always has been, the bread and butter of the game, but for a couple weeks a year the FA Cup offers something different. A chance for stories to be written, and for grinding reality to take a backseat to daydreams. For most, it will all be over by Monday, but until then hope will continue to spring eternal for the oft-forgotten supporters of football’s nether regions.
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