The FA Cup First Round: A Special Type of Poignancy
For the supporters of the very biggest clubs in the country, it might be difficult to understand why this particular weekend means so much to everybody at the smallest clubs involved. But for those amongst us who have been there, it’s a feeling that we all know too well. A sense of anticipation. A crackle in the air. The surprise of seeing a crowd that may be multiple times what we’re usually used to. In recent years, it has become fashionable to deride the “magic” of the FA Cup, and the coverage of non-league clubs over the course of this weekend tends to vindicate that derision. But the feeling of being a part of something bigger, of being noticed, for once, is very real indeed.
This weekend’s FA Cup matches feature the usual mixture of clubs from the across the spectrum of the non-league game. Indeed, this year it’s even broader than usual, with Skelmersdale United of the North West Counties League become the first club from this league to reach this stage of the competition this century. They play in the ninth tier of the league system, further from a place in the Football League than a National League club is from the Premier League. At the time of writing, they’re losing quite heavily to League Two newcomers Harrogate Town, but they’ll have done reasonably well out of it financially and the experience for the players will not easily be forgotten.
But they won’t make as much money as they would have done in previous years. FA Cup prize money has been halved this season (though this isn’t quite the case up the the Third Round, with losing clubs receiving a supplementary payment on top of the half money that they’ll receive), whilst a lack of supporters above Step Three of the game has meant that clubs in the National League have been unable to allow supporters in for their matches, lost revenue that they would have received in any other season.
For those of us who watch a lot of non-league football, though, empty stands and terraces over the next two days will be difficult to take. It can often feel as though modern football isn’t really played for the benefit of supporters. We’re useful “extras” to have in the background of matches, but exorbitant ticket prices, the Premier League’s now-deceased PPV fiasco, and the constant switching around of kick-off times and dates for the benefit of television companies makes it perfectly clear to everybody where we sit in their order of priorities.
Non-league football, however, increasingly feels as though it lives in a different universe to the Premier League. Kick-offs remain steadfastly at three o’clock on Saturday afternoons, and the Video Assistant Referee that so frequently seems to be ruining top level matches as a spectacle doesn’t ever seem likely to find its way down to non-league football, where the infrastructure to implement it quite simply doesn’t exist. Everybody knows that many of its clubs would trade this in for a shot at the bigger money, but for the majority of them whether they would like this is pretty much academic. At this level of the game, you can still persuade yourself that everything is being run for the benefit of supporters.
All of this adds a level of poignancy to the First Round of this year’s FA Cup. This year’s pandemic has been a catastrophe, of that there is no doubt, and it should go without saying that, in the overall scheme of things, this is relatively small beer. But the return of the lockdown until (at the very least) the start of December does run the risk of threatening clubs at Step Three and below, so there has been a sense of renewed nervousness around many of these clubs over their immediate futures growing over the last week or so. Even those who aren’t “opposing” the lockdown understand that this is an existential threat for many clubs, and the First Round of the FA Cup being played behind closed doors will be a solemn reminder of this. Let’s hope that we can find a way of getting back to whatever “normal” turns out to be again soon.