Thursday, 1 December 2011

The FA Cup: is the magic gone?

“The FA Cup doesn’t start until January” is something I’ve heard far too often of late, and, in my opinion, epitomises everything wrong with the modern game. Chances are, if you support a team from the comfort of your own armchair or are a real supporter of a Premiership or Championship side, these are the sentiments you agree with. For the football fan of the lower leagues, this isn’t the case and is a competition that started months ago.
For me the Cup starts in the first round proper (the clue is kinda in the name) – when the teams of the lowest end of the Football League join those luckiest from its preliminary qualifying rounds. I’m not just saying that because it’s the point in which my team join – if we were to join any later, I’d be saying the same and if we had to qualify, I’m not sure I’d have that same kind of buzz about playing for a place in the competition. Obviously this is with no disrespect to those teams of the lowest end of the footballing pyramid – the cup run and money it accumulates is probably of great importance to them and their fans – but the preliminary stages are just that. For me it’s all about the proper rounds!
Bearing money in mind, though, I honestly never realised how much money was involved in the Cup. After researching, I couldn’t believe how many teams are initially involved. Take a look at this:
Round                                        Clubs                     Prize moneyExtra Preliminary                          763                          £   750
Preliminary                                  559                          £  1500
First round qualifying                    392                          £  3000
Second round qualifying               276                          £  4800
Third round qualifying                   196                          £  7500
Fourth round qualifying                 156                          £12500
First round                                   124                          £18500
Second round                               84                           £27500
I suppose when you look at it from the point of view of the likes of say, Redbridge, the lowest ranked team playing the second round, you see the importance of the qualifiers and cup progression. The sums of money involved obviously mean a great deal to those at the lowest ends of the football pyramid.
I won’t lie, I don’t really follow the cup in its preliminary stages, although I do tend to have a quick glimpse to see how my local teams are getting on (maybe in hope we’ll face them at some point!). Living in Essex and not supporting a club from the county means there are plenty of teams to look out for and I love looking out for those representing the county at the lowest levels. Both Billericay and Brentwood Town are a mere five miles away from my house and as they both regularly feature in my local paper, the Brentwood Gazette, I often check how they’re faring in their respective leagues. This season in the FA Cup, Brentwood got knocked out in the first round of qualifying, losing to Hemel Hempstead Town in the replay (4–2 on penalties) and Billericay did slightly better, losing to Leatherhead 3–0 in the third round of preliminary qualification. East Thurrock and Southend Manor are two other teams slightly further afield that made the final round of qualifying and the first round proper respectively. But for me, the pick of the bunch has to be Chelmsford City – the Clarets play Macclesfield Town in the second round over the weekend.
Of late the Cup hasn’t been too kind to us: last year we were paired up with Charlton Athletic in round one; despite two great performances we were knocked out at The Valley after a 1–0 defeat in the replay (0–0 at Underhill). The previous year we were knocked out of round two, at the hands of Accrington Stanley (again in the replay), after beating Darlington in the first round. The 08/09 season again saw us gone from the competition in its first proper stages – losing to Rochdale – and despite a decent round one tie against Southport this year, we face the MK Dons in the second round. To say it’s not to our likely is a real understatement.
No matter the round and regardless of whether or not we are still in the competition, I always get excited for the Cup draw. I’m not sure what exactly is about it, but for as long as I can remember, it has been my personal highlight of FA Cup weekend – waiting with anticipation through all the discussion for it to start. I think it’s a mix of nerves and excitement, simultaneously – if we’re in the cup, will we be home or away? Who will we be playing? Will we face a non-league outfit? Could we cause a Cupset? If we are knocked out, who could we have been facing?
The coverage it gets (although not as good as it once was, some my say) and the fact it involves teams from the very extremes of football: the highest positioned teams and the lowest, set it apart from all other cup competitions. With a handful of teams from Non-League still involved in round two mean Cupsets are still on the cards and for me, the magic of the cup is still very much alive.

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