The earliest rounds of the FA Cup could, for those participating, be considered to have a small amount of nuisance value about them. Clubs seeking to build a little rhythm to their league seasons find that the cup interjects every two or three weeks or so, and those that are successful can find themselves with a backlog of cancelled fixtures that can cause major headaches later on in the season. Set against this, though, are the rewards. Extra gate receipts come in handy for clubs that tend to live a hand to mouth existence for the rest of the year, and there is also prize money on offer for the winners – the winners of this weekends Preliminary Round matches receive £1,750 for their toils and, while this amount of money may seem paltry to a football world in which such a sum would be considered little more than mere loose change, for many of the clubs competing this weekend such amounts may pay the wages for a week or to keep the floodlights on for a proportion of the winter. In the FA Cup, when romance starts to falter, practicalities can usually be relied upon to step into the breach.
This weekends new FA Cup entrants come from the fourth tier of the non-league game, as far removed from the likes of Luton Town and Wrexham as, say, Torquay United or Gillingham are from Manchester United and Arsenal. Those that won this weekend have another four rounds to get through – against increasingly stronger and stronger opposition – just to make the First Round Proper and have a chance of making some serious money and grabbing a couple of minutes of coverage on the television. This, then, is the start of a possibly lengthy journey for this year’s FA Cup entrants – and the length and difficulty of this journey is frequently forgotten by lazy broadcasters for whom the semi-professional clubs that find themselves in the First Round Proper might as well have been parachuted in from outer space – but the rewards for those who get lucky can be existence-changing, and it is this thin sliver of hope which means that tiredness and potential fixture backlogs can wait for another day.
On the Suffolk-Essex border on a Bank Holiday weekend of whether so alarmingly changeable as to make one pause and reflect upon whether the Earth’s thermostat is being controlled by someone with rather too keen a sense of humour, two of the hundreds of clubs still left in this year’s competition meet in front of a couple of hundred people. Both AFC Sudbury and Ilford have histories which are touched by a long time idiosyncracy of the non-league game, the merger. Sudbury were formed in 1999, a merger of Sudbury Town and Sudbury Wanderers. For much of the early part of the first decade of this century, the club seemed likely to break through and reach a higher level, but it stalled and now plays in Division One North of the Ryman League. Having only just finished outside of the play-off places in the division at the end of last season, they went into the start of this season with high hopes, but two successive defeats in their opening two matches of the season have poured cold water on those, and the FA Cup provides a little light relief from a less than overwhelming start.
Ilford FC, meanwhile, have stories to tell of their own. The original club of this names was a perennial of the Southern League, but it fell upon hard times and in 1979 merged with local rivals Leytonstone to form the unwieldy-sounding Leytonstone-Ilford FC. Success on the pitch did follow – the new club won the Isthmian League in 1982 – but crowds didn’t and, after a further merger with Walthamstow Avenue in 1988 the club was renamed briefly as Redbridge Forest before finally being subsumed into Dagenham & Redbridge in 1992. This club is not the same club. It formed in 1987, while there was still an Ilford in Leytonstone-Ilford, and it’s progress has been modest with tiny crowds turning out to watch the team and its athletics track home, also a resident of the Ryman League Division One North, battle the odds to keep as much as that status alive. That it has lasted twenty-five years – and it is telling that the club motto, resplendent upon its badge, is ‘Resurgam’ – is in itself a testament to the dedication of those hardy souls who work so hard to keep this name alive.
The world of football, however, is no great student of sentiment, but for in the most superficial of respects. Ilford kick off with clear intention, but it soon becomes apparent that they are being overwhelmed by a Sudbury side which likely feels as if it has several points to prove following its poor start to the season. Yet it’s not too hard to see how the home side might have started so slowly in the league. They display a most unfortunate combination of bad luck and profligacy in attacking positions, thumping the left hand post with a close range header and seeing the Ilford goalkeeper Mbaku block effectively a couple of times, and when he is beaten the ball is scrambled off the line by some excellent defending. After thirty-seven minutes, however, the dam finally breaks when Ben Smith breaks through the middle and is hauled down by the last defender Dawkins. It’s a double-blow for Ilford – a red card for the defender a comfortably converted penalty kick from Lee Boylan, and half-time comes with the distinct feeling that with the dam now open, the floodgates could soon be to follow.
Yet even with a breeze at their backs, a one goal lead and a one man advantage, Sudbury have to toil for much of the second half. Ilford defend deeply, presumably hoping to spot a gap on the counter-attack in order to salvage the game that way around, but Mbaku remains the busier of the club two goalkeepers as the home side push forward in search of the second goal which should kill the game off once and for all. It takes until there are just seventeen minutes from time for the result to be beyond any doubt, and even this is a goal which owes as much to luck as anything else. Ben Smith, who was probably Sudburys most impressive player on the day overall, shot from distance, this time his shot beat Mbaku, bounced out off the post, off what may have been the goalkeepers backside and over the line.
With this goal came Ilfords capitulation and in the final ten minutes Sudbury were given the freedom to roam as they pleased, with predictable results. Lee Boylan, whose name who became very familiar to non-league watchers when he scored one hundred and seventy-six goals in two hundred and ten games for Canvey Island between 2001 and 2006, chased a ball through and rounded the goalkeeper to add a third goal, before, in the closing stages of the game, Tom Webb added two further goals, one from long range and the other from a little closer in. It was difficult not to feel a little sorry for Ilford, who worked very hard for forty minutes with a man short without conceding a goal. Sudbury, meanwhile, might have taken some degree of catharsis from such a result following their slow start to the league season. They advance to the First Qualifying Round of this years FA Cup and will surely now be hoping to replicate a little of this potency in front of goal when they return to the bread and butter of the league next week.
It is in games like this rather than the artificially enhanced marketing fest that is is this year’s Wembley FC that we see the true nature of the earliest rounds of the FA Cup. With another four wins, AFC Sudbury might yet snatch a couple of hours of transient fame and a small sack of money for drawing a big club and the interest of television broadcasters for having done so. The story of any club which does manage to negotiate its way that far, however, will likely be overlooked in favour of gimmickry. Such is life, and such is the FA Cup. At some point during the weekend of the First Round Proper, reference will be made to a bunch of part-timers dreaming of upsetting set of odds available to make the FA Cup Final. Perhaps there are non-league players who dream like that, but we suspect that the majority keep their feet on the ground and hope amongst hopes that they can scramble through to the next round and live to fight another day. It may not be quite as romantic, but it is at least realistic and for now at least AFC Sudbury are still in the FA Cup. It’s not much just yet, but it’s a start.
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