The romance has gone from the game for some, whilst for others it can be difficult to say whether they still love it or hate it. This weekend, however, is a chance for all football supporters to put how seriously twenty-first century football takes itself and enjoy one of the hardier perennials of the English football calendar – the Third Round Proper of the FA Cup. It is now one hundred and forty-one years since the playing of the world’s oldest cup competition, and in recent years it has become rather fashionable to predict its imminent demise, but this weekend is an important one which we should all continue to cherish. For the smallest clubs still competing in this year’s competition, this weekend is a reminder of past glories as well as a offering a more prosaic, yet these days just as important, financial reward. For others, this weekend will bring back memories which stretch back for decades. This is a tournament which allows dreamers to dream of the impossible or the improbable. It is, for many, the essence of why we get involved with this game in the first place.
For the supporters of Hastings United Football Club, today is a day which, regardless of what happens on the pitch, will never be forgotten. The meat and drink of the existence of this club is in the Ryman League Premier Division, with home matches played at The Pilot Field, a large, bowl-shaped arena in front of a few hundred supporters for whom the Premier League might just as well exist in a parallel universe. For Hastings, this season’s FA Cup is probably reaching its climax, the end of a run which started during the balmy days of the end of the summer. For a club from the Ryman League to reach the First Round Proper of this competition is achievement enough, and some might argue that Hastings have not had a great deal of luck in the draws since making it this far. In the First Round Proper they travelled to the Essex-Hertfordshire border to play Bishops Stortford, a club of similarly modest means to them, but still a club a division above them, and won. Having managed this, the draw played another trick on the club, sending its players, officials and supporters on a tortuously long journey north to play another club just a division above them, Harrogate Town. A win finally came for Hastings through a penalty shootout after a replay and they now face another long trip north, this time to play Middlesbrough. Regardless the day today’s result, though, Hastings United have already won in one very important respect. The club has already guaranteed itself an amount of money which, providing it is used wisely, should secure its immediate financial future as well as giving it a level of media exposure which money, perhaps, cannot buy.
For the other non-league clubs appearing in this year’s Third Round matches, today is a reminder that they are still with us. Luton Town suffered a precipitous drop from the middle rankings of the Football League in the first decade of this century, dropping from the Football League Championship to the Blue Square Bet Premier in the space of six years under the twin dark clouds of dismal mismanagement and FA sanctions. They have as yet failed to navigate a successful route back into the Football League, but the people of the town have stayed loyal to their club and this afternoon they take on Wolverhampton Wanderers at Kenilworth Road in a match which will act as a reminder both of previous glories and of the fact that their club is still with us. There are also a further two Blue Square Bet Premier sides playing this weekend, and these two clubs – Mansfield Town and Macclesfield Town – have both had a share of financial distress in recent years, most notably at Mansfield where the club is still recovering from the after effects of the reign of its previous owner, the asset-stripping Keith Haslam.
The restorative effects of run in the cup don’t only apply to smaller clubs, and though. Newcastle United make the reverse journey to Hastings United this weekend, from the North East to East Sussex to take on Brighton and Hove Albion, and a trip to the seaside for an FA Cup offers the club’s supporters a little respite from a Premier League campaign which has taken on the appearance of being a bit of a slog of late. Such significance takes on an added dimension when we consider that it is now forty-four years since their club last won a major trophy. Such droughts are the experience of many clubs, but there are few of the stature of Newcastle United who have had to endure such a wait between trophies. To suggest that the FA Cup ‘doesn’t matter any more’ when viewed through this prism makes more sense than received wisdom about the status of the competition might have us believe.
The new year, as we have mentioned here several times over the last few days, brings new hope, and this is why we should cherish the Third Round of the FA Cup. It is a link with the history of the game in this country which retains its capacity to cause surprises and write stories which will live long in the memories of those that witness them. And for all the bombast of the Premier League and the Champions League, this is a trophy which is more understated in what it can offer, but is all the more valuable for this. Perhaps in the financially polarised world of the industrialised football of the twenty-first century the prosaic value of winning the FA Cup has been somewhat dimmed, but the romance of the Third Round of this competition retains a considerable amount of its near intangible glamour and romance.
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