They say it’s not what it was. They say it doesn’t matter any more. Since the FA Cup Final stopped being the football showpiece of the season, since teams put out weakened XIs to concentrate on the league – whether that’s staying up, or finishing fourth. They say it generates fixture congestion.
Maybe that’s true for some clubs. Maybe it’s even true for some non-league clubs. But on the eve of FA Cup First Qualifying round, the fact remains that countless players and fans all over the country are dreaming of a fleeting glimpse of glory.
At this level it’s not about the chance of getting to Wembley and winning the cup. It’s not about surviving until the start of January and getting a trip to Old Trafford or Anfield. For most clubs, realistically, it’s not even about battling through to the first round proper and getting drawn against a local League 2 side. It’s just something about the sheer excitement of taking part in the greatest, most inclusive footballing carnival in the world.
You could see it in the previous round. On Saturday Bridlington Town picked up a hard-fought controversial win at Guisborough Town. Guisborough, up against an opponent from the parallel Northern Counties East League Premier, raced into a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes but were then reduced to nine men amid allegations of diving and cheating. The atmosphere was turning ugly: both sets of fans had identified a scapegoat among the opposition, fingers were jabbing. And then came the winner, a glancing header from Brett Agnew, and the joy among Bridlington’s players and supporters alike reinforced how the cup means just that little bit more than a league game. It’s not about the chance of winning something, it’s a moment of ‘what if …?’, of keeping that faint hope alive for another couple of weeks, of meeting another opponent from a higher level and testing what you’ve got.
A few days later in Penrith. Dunston UTS clawed back a 3-1 deficit to force this replay but the long drive from Tyneside left them sluggish. Penrith ahead in two minutes and it could have been more. The trailing leg of goalie Stefan Holden denied Martyn Coleman from the penalty spot; justice, according to the keeper, adamant he took the ball in the initial challenge.
Then the turnaround. Level early in the second half, pressure building as the clock ticked down and then, when extra time seemed inevitable, a winning goal from Liam Thear. Manager Billy Irwin, who once reached the Fourth Qualifying Round as a player with Durham City, only to be sunk by a Geoff-Horsfield inspired Guiseley, transformed into a fist-pumping epitome of delight. And all that joy at the prospect of a home tie against Skelmersdale Utd, suddenly playing the unfamiliar role of Goliath awaiting the slings of Dunston’s David.
That’s why the FA Cup still matters, weakened teams, shonky kick-off times and all. That’s why Saturday – Non-League Day – will see the blog off to an FA Cup game.
King George V Playing Fields, Guisborough, England
FA Cup Preliminary Round, Aug. 20, 2016
Guisborough Town 2 (Agnew og, Pennal) Bridlington Town 3 (Agnew 2 (1 pen), Lewis)
Frenchfields Park, Penrith, England
FA Cup Preliminary Round Replay, Aug. 24, 2016
Penrith 1 (Coleman) Dunston UTS 2 (Luccock, Thear)