The Real FA Cup


It’s cold, and we’re now all back at work post-Christmas so that means one thing – FA Cup third round time. For me this is the point where two competitions collide – the FA Cup and the Real FA Cup. To celebrate my competition tie-in with Non League Football Programmes I’m publishing an extract chapter from my book Cup Football: An Exploration which is available on Amazon. As usual – I’m more than happy for programme editors to use this, or any part of this in their publications.

It’s a little known fact that the FA Cup was once graced by none other than Harry Potter. There were though no queues of fully-costumed fans developing outside the entrance to Horndean Football Club’s Five Heads Park ground at midnight ahead of kick-off, all eager to catch a glimpse of their hero coming on as a second half substitute against New Forest based side Brockenhurst in the competitions very first stage, the Extra Preliminary Round. Although mischievously introduced by the tannoy announcer as ‘the wizard’ it was of course not the real Harry Potter, whose game is Quiddich (a real-life version of which seems to be gaining some popularity). Rather it was a namesake; Someone who happened to have the fortune – or more likely, if you asked them, misfortune – to bear the famous name and whose existence, his age dictated, would have pre-dated the boy wizards by several years.

Even had it been the real Harry Potter his appearance would have caused few ripples, coming as it did at the ethereal stage of the FA cup – In Harry’s case the official gate was recorded as just 40. For many people, particularly followers of the big clubs, there is traditionally little attention paid to the cup before what is called the Third round proper, typically played in the tightly wrapped scarf and Bovril climate of the New Year. The cup is though a true iceberg of a tournament which spans the entire season and consists of fourteen separate rounds, beginning with the extra-preliminary round played in the usually sunny month of August.

Two people who definitely do appreciate the early rounds are Damon and Simon, the duo behind the website The Real FA Cup which for the past few years has been at the forefront of a movement to more fully appreciate the early rounds. For them it is in places, like Horndean, where the true spirit of the cup – and indeed football as a whole – resides. On their site they talk of an epiphany they experienced at one such cup game:

In August 2008 two London-based football fans, disillusioned with football at the top level, visited their local team, Dulwich Hamlet, to watch them play Broxbourne Borough in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. They had beer and pie, liked what they saw and spent the next few months visiting teams they’d never heard of, in places they’d never been, alongside a handful of hardy fans. Enthusiasm for football regained. Cynicism remains.

Despite the remaining cynicism the Real FA Cup is a celebration of the hitherto neglected side of the cup and has become a focal point for likeminded people to report on their collective experiences of the cup’s nether regions. Correspondants report from the likes of Jarrow Roofing v Sporting Bengal and more often than not their dispatches are wonderfully idiosyncratic focusing more on either the sunshine, the beer, or the pies. Typical is Stefan Appleby’s 2015 report from a Sussex idyll where he watched the Extra Preliminary round clash between Arundel and Raynes Park Vale

I’m in danger of writing a match report about a football game that includes no mention of the game but focuses instead on the wistful thoughts that accompany sitting on a platform mindlessly watching swallows swooping above. Arundel is the sort of placewhere it is perpetually summer, where the sun always shines on egrets loping lazily up river and hikers yomping contentedly with sticks and sacks. It’s in danger of becoming Country Diary with an unexpected conclusion on burger quality. Especially as I completely missed who scored what and when. I’m not cut out for match reports, I reckon.

The use of the word ‘real’ in the websites title borrows, either consciously, or sub-consciously from the Real-Ale movement, one which is credited with successfully turning around the fortunes of traditional craft-brewed real-ales whose existence was for some time threatened by the bland lagers offered by the multi-national corporation breweries – much the same as some feel that big money threatens the spirit of football. It is also a challenge to the ‘proper’ label which is attached to all rounds beginning with the first round proper, and which somehow linguistically denigrates the rounds which take place before this stage.

Commercialisation though does still manage to make occasional incursions into this pristine territory. The fact that Wembley FC have tended to occupy the strata of clubs who enter at the extra-preliminary stage presents too ripe an opportunity to both journalists and marketing professionals alike. In 2011/12, the first season of Budweiser’s three-year tenure as the competitions main sponsor, the extra-preliminary round game between Ascot United and Wembley was streamed live in its entirety on Facebook – all part of the sponsors commitment of “bringing the world’s most prestigious knockout competition closer to the fans” as Budweiser’s marketing director Ian Newell put it in flawless corporate-media speak.

Wembley were again the sponsors focus in 2012/13; At the same time as Eccleshill United took on Glasshoughton Welfare in front of a crowd of 28 some 654 spectators filed into Wembley FC’s ground to witness a team including the ex-pros Graeme Le Saux, Ray Parlour, Brian McBride and Claudio Caniggia defeat Langford 3-2. Caniggia, a player whose goals have graced the World Cup and Copa America himself got on the score-sheet and unlike many of the goals scored that day, which exist only in the memory of aselect few Caniggia’s is captured on film and can be viewed on You-tube; a defender fluffs a header leaving the 45 Year old through on goal to lash past the Langford goalkeeper. The camera then pans to a smiling Terry Venables, the former England boss acting as Wembley FC team manager for the day.

What Damon and Simon’s view of this is anyone’s guess, but unlike their attempts at generating a wider-appreciation of the tournament such publicity appears garish and somehow undignified with it being questionable just how much this achieves for the clubs competing in the early rounds. It seems likely that their view will at least have similarities with that of Journalist Michael Calvin who writing in The Independent railed that “the devaluation of the FA Cup is complete” dismissing the stunt and its accompanying reality show Dream On as “nothing more than a corporate trinket.” In short the very opposite of real.

In the event it was rather short-lived as somewhat unsurprisingly the ex-pros were mostly unavailable for the next hurdle, the Preliminary Round. Only Ugo Ehiogu and Caniggia played in the 2-2 draw away to Uxbridge, though the game still attracted an impressive crowd of 754. Caniggia was the sole survivor when Wembley received a 5-0 pasting in the replay, his cup journey coming to an end as he was hauled off in the 66th minute.

Such gimmicks aside the governing body did make a real and concrete change with prize-money being awarded to the winners in each and every round from 2001. Announcing the change Adam Crozier, Chief Executive of the FA stated that “This is a unique way of ensuring that The FA Cup is used to redistribute money across every level of the game.” Re- distribution may be the wrong word as the smaller clubs gain is not necessarily the bigger clubs loss – in fact the bigger clubs still enjoy the lions share – but for the clubs entering in the tournaments early stages the awarding of prize-money has had the effect of allowing at least some of the new-found wealth at the top of the game to trickle down to the grass-roots level. The amounts on offer for victory in the early rounds may not be enormous but for the likes of Harry Potter’s Horndean, operating at a level where clubs sustain themselves much as they have always done, on a mixture of local benefactors, the work of volunteers, gate receipts, 50/50 draws and the sale oftea, bovril and bacon baps, the combination of gate receipts and the £1000 prize-money they won (for 2014/15 season winners of extra preliminary ties each received £1,500), for defeating Brockenhurst is a not unwelcome entry onto the balance sheet.

The prospect of this prizemoney has helped to ensure that far from withering away in the face of disinterest the extremities of the tournament are instead nourished. The same however, cannot be said of the main part of the contest. For the clubs in the PremierLeague the amounts on offer for cup success are largely inconsequential compared to the revenue they receive from elsewhere. For the top clubs there is the Champions League, whilst for those lower down the pecking-order the priority is simply maintaining their place on the gravy train. A look at the 2014/15 prize-money figures show that a Premier League club entering the tournament in the third round andactually winning the cup stand to receive in the region of £3.4 million in prize money. This compares to the cost of dropping out of the Premier League which some estimates have put as being at least £20 million in the first season alone. It is therefore hardly surprising to hear comments such as those made in 2008 by Reading Striker Dave Kitson who was clear about his priorities when he stated “I care about staying in the Premier League, as does everybody at this club. Our league status is not protected by winning the FA Cup – simple as that.”

It can be said that in effect the FA cup is really two distinct competitions. On one handthere is the ‘real’ FA cup where small clubs compete enthusiastically for what are relatively large bonus prizes for progression whilst on the other is the ‘proper’ FA Cup where the big clubs compete for the trophy itself. Paradoxically the teams most capable of winning this trophy are amongst the least interested in progressing through the tournament; so much so that finalists almost seem to have the apologetic air of someone who has blundered into a prime position by mere happenstance.

It is though in the overlap between these two different worlds where that the real excitement can happen, where glory is found and fortunes made; This is the mythical giant-killing territory – And slaying the giant really does reveal a chest of gold; according to finance specialists Deloitte Havant and Waterlooville’s cup run in the 2007/08 season, which saw them defeat Notts County and Swansea City before being finally ended by Liverpool in the fourth round proper, netted the Conference South club approximately £600,000, or to put it another way, 70% of the clubs annual income.

Interestingly the Hawks journey had got off to an inauspicious start in the 2nd Qualifying Round with a 2-1 victory over Bognor Regis Town – a game which the match report available on the fan website remarks “was a pedestrian affair” in which “The magic of the cup was far from in evidence.”

The memories however, endure far longer than the money: In 2016 The Sutton United club shop offers for sale at £10 a two-disc DVD set of the clubs 1989 third-round victory over first division Coventry City. In the thousands of games, both league and cup, in over quarter of a century since none has approached the importance of that single cup game. Just ask the fans, players and officials of Havant and Waterlooville; their everlasting memory will always be of the Anfield scoreboard which at one point read Liverpool 1 Havant & W 2. Such a moment seems far away as Harry Potter takes to the field on a pleasant August afternoon in front of a handful of people across the country, at many such places, there will be those hoping that the day might just be the start of something big.

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