IF YOU’RE of a certain age, the Monday lunchtime FA Cup draw used to have a little bit of magic about it. Radio Two would break its usual schedule and beam in Football Association headquarters for a bunch of elderly chaps to shake a velvet bag and pick out billiard balls one-by-one to construct the draw for the next round.
Today, it’s not good enough to have such an archaic procedure, the draw has to be a TV event with celebrities and audience participation. Nevertheless, the FA Cup draw, when it gets to round three, still contains some expectation about it.
The FA Cup, we are told, has lost some of its lustre, that the big clubs are no longer that interested in it. The composition of the finals, generally, does not suggest the FA Cup is off the agenda of the bigger clubs. There is still the element of chance about it all, but it is not especially different from days gone by when the FA Cup was a social occasion as much as a football match. It might not be number one priority for teams seeking UEFA Champions League places, but the FA Cup represents a far more realistic target for the majority of Premier clubs than the title.
And for non-league clubs, FA Cup runs still provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences that don’t get repeated too often. In fact, they seem to be repeated less and less for teams at Step 3 and below. When Spennymoor of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier played MK Dons in round one this season, their manager, Jason Ainsley described it as a “monumental occasion”. His team didn’t let him down and they were narrowly beaten by the Dons. Likewise for Chesham of the Evo-Stik Southern Premier, who lost by the odd goal in three at Peterborough United, leaving their boss, Andy Leese, very proud of their exploits.
The fact is, FA Cup runs don’t come around too often. If you look at the current Southern Premier, only five teams have experienced a run to the first round in the last five seasons and only another three in the last 10. Nine clubs have never reached that far and others have been waiting for more than 20 years for lady luck to come their way.
In 2016-17, the three leagues at this level all saw heavy casualties in the early rounds of the competition – a third fell at the first qualifying round stage and the same amount went out in the next round. By the third qualifying round, step three had been decimated, although the Isthmian, with five clubs, fared better than its counterparts.
When we got to the first round, both the Evo-Stik Northern Premier (Spennymoor and Stourbridge) and Isthmian (Merstham and Harrow) had two representatives each while the Southern League had Chesham. Fair play to all of them, I say – a team’s FA Cup run can end very cheaply if you don’t focus on the task in hand. I recall an Isthmian manager some 20 years ago saying at the start of the campaign, “I really want that FA Cup run – it will do more for us than any amount of success in the league”. He got his way – his team reached round two after a very tricky run that began in the first qualifying round and ended up on Match of the Day.
So if the FA Cup has mislaid some of its cachet, and to be frank, television and the FA have both done their best to compromise the traditions of the big day, it has only been diluted in the eyes of the very top clubs. For non-league, the competition is not only a chance to make a name for yourself, it also brings in much-needed revenue.
What we really need from the FA Cup is a few stories that help to enhance the romance of the competition – storybook tales of heroism, giant-killings and most important of all, a grand finale that, for once, does not disappoint. And might I suggest, a return to those velvet bags and billiard balls?
This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday December 11, 2016