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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Magic Moments

With 11 Non League sides competing in the FA Cup this weekend, Nobes considers whether - when compared to Cup exploits of the past - the competition is still "magic."

Hereford's victory over Newcastle in 1972 has gone down in history

Maybe it's because my club are notoriously poor in it, or perhaps, as Turls so often points out, it's because I'm dead inside, but the FA Cup doesn't particularly hold much excitement for me.

Excuse me for not thinking a competition which, since the inception of the Premier League, has managed to conjure up just six different winners in 18 years is "magic."

After all, we all know what happens, when it comes to the crunch - it's the big guns who are left standing. Only once, when three Championship clubs reached the 2008 semis, has the competition had any diversity.

Of course, by then, the teams at the lower end of the ladder have long since departed - after getting far too many people overly excited and waving around ridiculous home made FA Cup cut-outs covered with tin foil. Seriously, nothing better to do with your time?

Still, before risking another broadside from Turls and, in an attempt to prove I do have something inside me, I'd thought I'd take a little time to reflect on the success of Non League sides in the oldest cup competition in the world.

Who knows, too, the likes of Swindon Supermarine, Droylsden, and Chelmsford could cause an upset of their own if things go well for them this weekend.

While those three, and other, Non League outfits will be hoping to make the back pages on Sunday however, they will be do well to go down in the history books. Giant killing just isn't what it used to be.

Any talk about Non League giant killers, inevitably, must include the names of Yeovil, Altrincham, Hereford, and Sutton United.

Yeovil, now in League One of course, claimed 20 Football League victims during their time in the Non Leagues. It's a record that's still not been beaten.

Most famously, more than 16,000 saw them eliminate top flight Sunderland in 1949 at their old Huish ground with its infamous sloping pitch.

Alty, meanwhile, have knocked out 16 League teams over the years - which is a record for a club who have exclusively played all their football outside the top four tiers of the game.

They're still the most recent Non League side to dump out a top flight side on their own patch, too - beating Birmingham in 1986 at St Andrews. The likes of Wigan and Sheffield United have also suffered at the hands of the Manchester outfit.

Indeed, there was time when Non League sides could knock out top flight clubs. Need I really mention the words "Hereford," "Newcastle," and "Radford again," again?

Yes, that infamous 1972 game at Edgar Street which earned the Bulls so much kudos it helped them gain election into the Football League. It also launched the commentary career of a certain John Motson. Some have been cursing that match ever since.

In all seriousness though, could you really envisage Newcastle losing to the likes of Conference clubs Gateshead or Bath these days? Of course not. They wouldn't even lose to Hereford - currently struggling in League Two.

Will we ever again see the like of Sutton United defeating the FA Cup winners of just two years previously - as they did when overcoming Coventry in 1989? I doubt it.

Not that Non League clubs haven't come close since. Nobody will ever forget the heroics of first Exeter and then Burton, during their respective times in the Conference, holding Manchester United to 0-0 draws.

They both lost their replays, but had caused a storm along the way - as well as raising some serious cash.

However, perhaps that's the saddest thing of all now, is the FA Cup a "magic" competition because of the results it can throw up on the pitch or for the coffers?

Money is always spoken about when it comes to the draw - getting the plum away tie in front of the biggest gate possible, and maybe getting some live TV coverage, too.

Havant & Waterlooville led at Anfield - but they ended up losing

Any serious talk of the top flight club being tumbled would see the Non League manager carted off by the men in white coats. They know it's never going to happen again.

Instead, for the intrepid 11 Non League teams who go into battle over the next few days, an FA Cup run is about pocketing as much money as they can and then returning to their league campaign.

It's cynical but, in these harsh economic times, probably an understandable point of view. Better to just accept it rather than talk of "magic" though. Yes, ITV, I'm looking at you.

Of course, I would expect any accusations of a lack of "magic" in the Cup would be vehemently denied by supporters of Havant & Waterlooville or Kettering.

The former famously led twice at Anfield against Liverpool in the fourth round of 2008 before going down 5-2. The Kettles, too, reached round four in 2009 when they gave a scare to top flight Fulham before eventually losing 4-2.

Indeed, two years ago, eight Non League outfits were still in the competition when the big boys of the Premier League and Championship entered the fray - breaking the previous record dating back 30 years.

That's where the run stopped for the likes of Blyth Spartans, Eastwood Town, Forest Green, and Histon though. Not quite as magical a cup as it once was.

The best a Non League side can do, it seems, is try and emulate Kidderminster - the last team from outside the Football League to reach the Fifth Round having seen off both Birmingham and Preston on their 1994 route.

In recent years, too, Chasetown became the lowest ranked side ever to reach the Third Round when they faced Cardiff in 2008 as a Southern League Division One Midlands team - the eighth tier of the game.

Given the right draw and a bit of luck on the day, a Non League side can upset the odds and put together a good run.

Has the gap between the haves and have nots become so large though that the real upsets - those of the like of Yeovil and Hereford - will never be seen again?

Even my own Boston United managed to write themselves into the FA Cup record books with a 6-1 win at Derby in 1955. The biggest win for a Non League side away at a League team.

Such a convincing margin would never happen in the 21st century. Certainly not courtesy of the Skyrockets anyway, after our customary October exit.

Which leads me onto a concluding thought - if a Non League side doesn't really need the money and have bigger fish to fry - namely winning promotion or avoiding relegation - is an FA Cup run really desirable?

It can lead to a pile up of games due to postponements and a huge backlog of fixtures in the second half of the campaign when injuries and suspensions begin to hit home.

Could we see the day that, like a top flight club with the League Cup, a Non League team simply throws away a FA Cup run. If it's only about getting the money, then what's the point progressing in a competition you've no real chance in?

After all, is the possibility of winning a title or promotion really worth sacrificing over chasing a day out at one of the top grounds where an inevitable defeat awaits? Could the magic die even at the lowest levels?

Something tells me that won't be occupying the thoughts of those Non League teams still competing this weekend though. History is ready and waiting to be made - and me proved wrong.

Just excuse me if I'm focusing on my bread and butter.


  1. It's not just about the money I'm afraid.

    An FA Cup draw gives a non-league player a glorious opportunity of living the "What If?" dream.

    Most non-league players will never play at the likes of Meadow Lane, let alone Anfield or the Emirates. Instead, they have to settle for their chance to come around once a year.

    Coalville got to the first round a few years ago and although they lost 1-0 away to Wycombe, it is the highlight of most Ravens fans to this very day. The players will rarely (if ever) get the chance to play in a stadium like that and it means the world to them.

    Yes it is about the money more and more nowadays but you've still got to give the little guy a chance to live his dream. You may not dream of playing against Chesterfield or Rotherham but it's the closest they will get to playing the top-flight clubs.