HAVE non-league football fans fallen out of love with knock-out football? Is the cut and thrust of sudden death no longer an attraction? What makes run-of-the-mill league games, a large percentage of which are featureless and, ultimately, of no great consequence, more important than the prospect of an exciting cup run? On the day that the FA Trophy gathered momentum, just 265 people turned up to see Hitchin Town play Cheshunt in the first qualifying round. That was more than 40% lower than the club’s average crowd.
Even if Cheshunt are not the most attractive opposition, what makes a game between two Hertfordshire rivals less attractive than a game between Hitchin and, for example, Stratford Town or St. Ives? A battle for three points in the nomansland of mid-table against the chance of a prolonged run in the FA Trophy? Somewhere, we have mislaid the wonder of cup competition.
I blame the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, to some extent, for if football is anything, it is the land of the mimic. What goes on at the highest level invariably gets aped at a lower level. I also blame the plethora of really unimportant cup competitions, the eight-team county cups and the unloved and unwanted league cups. Equally, the fashion to field weakened sides does nothing for the credibility of cup competitions.
The FA Trophy should be right up there with the FA Cup in terms of priority. There should be very little difference between the two for non-league clubs. The chances of a non-league club reaching the first round of the latter are remote, especially for a Hitchin Town type of club (it’s now 22 years since their last good FA Cup run, the worst sequence in the club’s modern history). Let’s say a half decent run is through to 4QR, that means four or five rounds playing non-league opposition. No difference from the FA Trophy, except the prize money is better in the FA Cup – although not remarkably so in the early stages.
The prize for a first qualifying round win in the 2017-18 FA Cup was £ 3,000 – the first qualifying round purse in the Trophy was £ 3,250 so you could argue that Hitchin v Cheshunt was just as important as Haringey Borough v Hitchin Town in the FA Cup.
A brief look across the first qualifying round shows that most clubs posted lower attendances than their league games by a significant number. In the Southern League, Biggleswade were down by 40%, Gosport by 35%, Hereford 38%, Tiverton 17%, Dunstable 33%, Kings Lynn 35%, Stortford 32%. Among the Isthmian clubs, Billericay were down by 36%.
Essentially, the FA Cup is a non-league competition for the vast majority of clubs, but that little glimmer of hope that you might end up playing someone with profile gives it that extra bit of currency. But in terms of genuine possibility, the FA Trophy should also prompt clubs to raise their game and build a run that could get you closer to Wembley than the FA Cup will ever do.
It is equally tough to achieve that given the strength of the National League, but there’s no reason why a good FA Trophy tie shouldn’t be as attractive as standard league fare. In some ways, it could be even more attractive if the draw is right. Games against league stable-mates are not especially attractive as it could be any old game, but against a club from a different league is a chance to pit your wits against fresh opposition. Why not seed the draw to avoid intra-league clashes where possible, especially in the early stages?
Also, to avoid weakened team syndrome, why not demand clubs list a squad for the FA competitions at the start of the season?
Hitchin cruised through to the next round by 5-0, but there was a lack lustre air about the game that you don’t find in league contests. If that is reflected on the pitch, it also drifts to the crowd. “It’s only the FA Trophy,” said one supporter, urging the game to draw to a conclusion. That may be, but a good run in the competition, if handled properly, can raise the club’s bank balance and bring some big smiles to the ground. There’s more chance of that happening in the Trophy than the FA Cup, but try telling that to the fans that stay away and wait for that humdrum league battle that’s going nowhere…