BELIEVE it or not, there are still many people who do not realise that local non-league clubs play in the same competition as Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool. The fact that a succession of qualifying rounds are over by late October, long before the game’s aristocracy even think about the prospect of new year cup-ties, only fuels the mild surprise that Ragbag Rovers from the edge of town actually compete in the FA Cup.
“It’s not important anymore,” say the folk that once saw the competition as part of the social calendar (it used to be listed in Letts diaries as an important part of “the season”), and TV coverage of the final was wall-to-wall, intense and occasionally comical. Try telling that to the teams that win the Cup, that very notable, age of empire piece of silverware that was bashed out by Victorian silversmiths in a back street in Yorkshire. The FA Cup is a product of the industrial revolution in more ways than one. It has history and heritage coursing through its veins.
Today, however, it is a commercial enterprise and although the prize money – £ 3.6 million for the winners – is small beer compared to the riches of the Premier League – £ 99 million for finishing in a relegation spot – or the UEFA Champions League (Real Madrid made around £ 98 million in 2017-18) it is a mark of success.
Silverware and prestige are not necessarily enough for the Premier’s biggest clubs, although they have dominated the FA Cup in recent years. Since Wembley reopened, the top five clubs (Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United) have had 10 wins in 12 years, so contrary to popular opinion, they do not discard the competition that easily.
For non-league clubs, the financial rewards of a FA Cup run can be transformational. The Football Association have just doubled the prize money, making it the most lucrative potential revenue stream for grassroots football. Now it is not just the bounty of the world’s oldest knockout competition, it is also a demonstration of the FA’s commitment to the game outside the top tiers.
So when Hitchin Town took on Hastings United in the third qualifying round, a lot was at stake. Prize money for this round was £ 15,000 , around four or five times the anticipated gate money for the tie. In 2000, the figure for 3QR was just £ 5,000. Somebody suggested that some clubs might be tempted to split the cash with their opponents via a pre-match agreement, such is the “winner takes all” aspect of the hand-out.
Against this backdrop, you might have expected a big crowd to turn up to see this game, but the weather was ugly and Hitchin’s season had yet to catch fire, although a good unbeaten (league and cup) run had lifted them from their early season doldrums characterised by an 8-1 thumping at Needham Market. The attendance was declared at 425, disappointing for such an important game, but cup-ties invariably fall below expectations.
Although Hitchin were a division above Hastings, the visitors had started the Isthmian League South East campaign well, losing just one of their first six games. Hitchin’s scout returned from watching “the Arrows” and declared them to be “the best team I have seen this season”.
Actually, Hastings looked effervescent in the opening 20 minutes, the pace of players like Dayshonne Gelding upsetting the Hitchin defence. At that stage, Hitchin’s chances of ending their worst post-war in terms of getting out of the qualifying rounds looked bleak. But it changed and by half-time, the impressive Lewis Ferrell, the best player on the pitch, had headed the Canaries in front.
A goal to the good at half-time, the Top Field money box was edging open and in the 49thminute, the cash was secured by a penalty from Josh Bickerstaff. Final score 2-0, and Hitchin were suddenly £ 15,000 richer. That makes £ 30,000 this season from the FA Cup – clubs like Hitchin would do well to bank their bonus and put it towards the following season’s playing budget, or use it for something tangible, like much-needed ground improvements. Post-match, a Hastings fan was complaining about the leaking clubhouse roof but added, “they could do with using some of the cash they’re won to stop this…”, pointing to the bucket in the middle of the floor. This is why the cash prizes are so vital to this level of football.
Hitchin move on to face either Leatherhead or Hanwell Town at home in the fourth qualifying round, a game that will have a £ 25,000 purse attached to it. Leatherhead, a name from the club’s past, are in the lower third of the Isthmian Premier, so it will be a clash of equals. Hanwell are a division below Leatherhead, so Hitchin have a good chance to reach the first round proper for the first time in 23 years. But take a look at the Canaries’ FA Cup record of recent years and home defeats against the likes of Haringey, Faversham, Enfield Town, Wingate & Finchley and others are a reminder that you can take nothing for granted. There should be no greater motivation for Hitchin, though – £ 25,000 and a place in the big time beckons.