Some phrases, it seems, stick with you for life. In the August 1990 edition of When Saturday Comes, Newport County supporter Phil Tanner posed the above question in relation to the death of his football club and its rebirth in the Hellenic League, travelling around the southern and western outposts of the non-league game, playing clubs of which he and the vast majority of his fellow supporters had never heard. Phil probably didn’t run into Rupert during his club’s spell playing football at that level – quite asides from any other considerations, the aforementioned fictional ursine one lived in Nutwood rather than Shortwood – but almost a quarter of a century on from that mischievous question being posed one of the club’s that Newport played that season will make national headlines. The Wood, as Shortwood United is nicknamed, will emerge from the forest that is the nether regions of the non-league pyramid to make its debut in the First Round of the FA Cup, live on the television, against Port Vale.
Shortwood United ply their trade in Division One South & West of the Southern Football League, a level of football as far removed from the Football League as a club playing in the Conference South is from the Premier League. Founded in 1900, the club joined the Gloucestershire County League in 1975, getting promoted into the Hellenic League seven years later. The club stayed at this level for the next twenty-nine years, lifting the league championship twice, before taking up a place in the Southern League in 2012. Last season saw the club finish in a respectable eighth place in the league, but cup commitments have taken their toll on the club’s current league position so far this time around. At the time of writing, Shortwood United are in fifth from bottom place in the league table, although this position is in no small part because of the toll that the club’s FA Cup run has taken on its ability to play league matches, and at the moment Shortwood have up to five games in hand on the teams above them in the league.
The club’s recent history has been spent very much spent in the shadows of better-known neighbours. It is based in the Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth, which, in a football sense, is probably better known – although these matters are, of course, relative – as being the home of Conference National club Forest Green Rovers. The contrast between the two clubs is stark. Forest Green Rovers attract an average crowd of over 1,100 to their home matches at The New Lawn, whereas Shortwood’s average home attendance so far this season has been a mere 91 people. Indeed, the capacity of Shortwood’s Meadowbank Ground is set at a mere 1,300 for Monday night’s match, with there already having been talk that they might have needed to move the match to to Forest Green’s ground for safety reasons. This didn’t come to pass and regardless of this, Shortwood United can also claim another small area for satisfaction from having made it this far in the competition – Forest Green Rovers’ home defeat at the hands of Bishops Stortford in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the competition already means that their substantially smaller rivals have lasted longer in this year’s FA Cup than they did.
Shortwood’s FA Cup run this season has already taken in two surprise results. A one-nil win away to Conference South strugglers Dorchester Town in the Second Qualifying Round was enough for the club to equal its previous performance in the competition, but it was in the Fourth Qualifying round of the competition that the club really came to hit headlines. Aldershot Town were a Football League club last season but, stricken by relegation and financial crisis, and hamstrung for a ten point deduction earned over their insolvency, they travelled to Nailsworth in second from bottom place in the Conference National table. A one-all draw in the first match, played two weeks ago,might have been considered the ebbing away of Shortwood’s best chance of winning this tie, but the following Tuesday at Aldershot’s Recreation Ground, even after the home side had taken a first half lead, a crowd of 1,233 people saw two goals in four minutes early in the second half from Duncan Culley and Adam Mann turn out to be enough to book Shortwood the match of a lifetime.
We could, of course, get sucked into a conversation the “Romance Of The Cup”, but for clubs at the level at which Shortwood play this was a major victory in an altogether more prosaic sense as well. A home FA Cup match in front of live cameras will earn the club £67,500 in television money alone, and other revenues from the match may well push the club’s income from this cup run to over £100,000 in total. In an era during which it is increasingly common for Premier League footballers to earn that amount of money in a week, it is sobering to pause and consider that, for a club the size of Shortwood United, this amount of money might even cover the club’s entire wage bill for the season. Financially speaking – and, nice though it would be to be able to forget about Mammon when talking about football for a moment, so entrenched is the culture of football with the size of a football club’s bank balance that it’s near-impossible to do so – the importance of getting this far in the FA Cup in the first place for a club the size of Shortwood United should not be understated.
On Monday night, though, it is unlikely that too many of those in attendance at The Meadowbank Ground will be thinking too hard about the financial rewards for the club. Port Vale offer an enormous challenge to the home side – promoted from League Two at the end of last season and mid-table in League One, with one eye on making the play-offs – and the likelihood of Shortwood repeating the success enjoyed at Aldershot is surely, even with the best will in the world, slim. Yet behind so many football clichés rest a kernel of truth. Once the referee’s whistle blows to start the match, the non-league club against the Football League club becomes eleven players against eleven, and an off night for the visitors coupled with the home side getting a strong metaphorical wind behind it could result in anything happening, and even the slimmest of possibilities remains a possibility for as long as there is a chance for the non-league club. Valiants beware.
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