We haven’t reached the First Round Proper of the competition yet, but it is possible that we will not see a bigger surprise in the rest of this years FA Cup than was seen this evening at Rodney Parade when Yate Town of the Southern League Division One South & West beat Newport County by three goals to one in their Fourth Qualifying Round replay. Eyebrows in non-league circles were raised by Yate managing a draw in the first match on Saturday afternoon, but to travel to South Wales and beat the leaders of the Blue Square Bet Premier on their own turf is a result that is worthy of all the praise that we can offer.
To get an idea of the achievement that this club managed this evening, we should, perhaps, take a moment to consider the distance between the two sides. It is a common trope for the mainstream media to lump all “non-league” clubs in as being some unholy, lumpen mass with nothing to distinguish one from another. Yate’s FA Cup runs has left them with games in hand on every other team in their division, but they are still bottom of their division with just one point from their first six league matches of the season, and whilst they are four divisions below Newport County in the same way that Barnet are four divisions below Chelsea at the moment, it is also worth bearing in mind that the organisation of non-league football means that the amount of work that a club such as Yate Town would have to do in order to catch Chelsea is considerably greater.
There are ninety football clubs that would class themselves as being below Chelsea and above Barnet in footballs food chain. Because of the regional pyramid of non-league football, however, there are two hundred and sixty-three clubs – twenty-three in the Conference Premier, forty-four in the Conference North & South and sixty-four in each of the Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern League – that could make the same case between Newport County and Yate Town at present. Of course, the number of promotions required to join them would be the same, but it should also be taken into account that, because of that self-same pyramid system, promotion is that much more difficult to achieve for non-league clubs. There is no such thing as automatic promotion and relegation for the two hundred and sixty-five clubs of these divisions. Only the champions of each division are promoted automatically, with the unfortunates that finish below the divisional winners being subjected to the exquisite agony of the play-offs.
When we talk of the gap between rich and poor, we are normally talking of the difference between the Premier League and the entire rest of English football. It could, however, be argued that the difference between the Conference National and the rest of non-league football plays out the same differences on a smaller scale. At the time of writing, Newports home attendances sit just shy of the 3,000 mark, whilst Yate Towns average home attendance so far this season is a – perfectly respectable for the level at which they play – 138. The Conference Premier is the only division of the non-league game to receive regular television coverage, and a majority of clubs in this division have teams made up of full-time professional players. Yate, meanwhile, are in their second spell in the Southern League, with the first having come between 1989 and 2000, before relegation took them back to the Hellenic League for five years before getting promoted back again. Thirty-two years ago, Newport County, as winners of the Welsh Cup, reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup. In the same season, Yate Town were losing in the Second Round of the FA Vase against Hungerford Town.
It should also, however, be pointed out that there isn’t necessarily anything for Newport Countys supporters to be overly alarmed about. Last nights result was their first defeat in any competition since they lost successive league matches against Wrexham and Dartford at the start of September, and they remain four points clear of the chasing pack of Wrexham, Luton Town, Grimsby Town, Forest Green Rovers and this seasons surprise package so far, Dartford, at the top of the Conference National table. Their manager, Justin Edinburgh (who has done his reputation no harm at all with his start to the season), was gratifyingly magnanimous in defeat when he spoke to BBC Wales after the match:
We’re bitterly disappointed. We let ourselves down. I can’t stand here and defend the players. They know that they’ve not performed. We’ll evaluate what’s gone wrong over the last two games and make sure that we give everything we can to make sure we put that right on Saturday. Give credit where credit’s due – I wish Yate all the best in the next round.
The sense of discontentment from the Newport camp, then, is tangible. Those who tend to see the their cups as being half-empty may fret over damage to the confidence of the team. Those who see their cups as half-full may even take solace from the fact that there will be no further distractions in this competition for their team this season. Time will tell, but the nearest to the truth that might be helpful to the club would be to suggest that everybody has a bad day – or night – at the office every once in a while. For Yate Town, meanwhile, the FA Cup adventure continues, and the reward for their performance last night is a valuable one. Not only have they bagged £12,500 prize money for getting through this round of the competition, but their opponents in the First Round of the competition are League Twos Cheltenham Town, a club just twenty-five miles away. A decent crowd at Cheltenhams Whaddon Road for that match on top of the accumulated prize money would, even should they lose the match, mean that they will have done very nicely indeed from this years FA Cup. And it would take an epic level of curmudgeonliness to try and suggest that they don’t thoroughly deserve their moment in the sun.
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