Whether you knew it or not, the FA Cup is well and truly underway. If you’re a supporter of an established top-tier team – one of those clubs that sees the world’s oldest football competition as an event that begins in January, and acts a bit of an inconvenience en route to a top-4 finish (or top-17, for the less ambitious) – then chances are you didn’t have the foggiest.
But last Saturday saw the Second Round Qualifying take place, and it’s at this kind of level that the FA Cup has the potential for its biggest influence. The prize money on offer (£4,500 for passage to the Third Round Qualifying) looks like the kind of cash that a Premier League footballer would find lodged down the back of his sofa. But for clubs well down the ladder that are only trying to keep the wolf from the door, this kind of windfall might as well be manna delivered directly from heaven, with a note from C.W. Alcock saying ‘you’re welcome’.
For what other competition offers the prospect for such a redistribution of wealth? Whilst attempting to avoid the pitfalls that clichés offer, the scale and history of the FA Cup is pretty much unmatched in what it can offer to everyman. For the 2012/13 season, a whopping 758 clubs entered, making it ones of the biggest club cup competitions in world. Success is relative – barely eight of the 758 could credibly envisage reaching the Royal Box in May – but navigating a few rounds can make the world of difference to the future of a small side.
If you had caught wind of this year’s FA Cup already, chances are it was something to do with Budweiser’s shameless promotion involving wheeling out a bunch of ex-stars (including David Seaman, Ray Parlour, Claudio Caniggia and Graeme Le Saux) to represent Wembley FC for a bit, for cup matches only. Mercifully though they suffered a 5-0 humiliation at home to Uxbridge in the Preliminary Round, much to the delight of pretty much anyone with a sense of decency and a modicum of respect for the competition… but that’s for another day.
To my knowledge, only the French Cup is bigger – and significantly bigger, for that matter. The 7,422 entrants of the 2011/12 edition of the Coupe de France eclipsed the FA Cup by almost ten times. However, with cash only being awarded from the Sixième Tour onwards (by which time the field had been whittled down to just 196, and when the teams from the third-tier ‘National’ division having completed two fixtures), the majority of those thousands of teams never got near to receiving a sniff of the total €8,500,000 awarded across the tournament by the FFF.
Quite conversely, this year’s FA Cup will also have been trimmed down to 196 by tomorrow, when the last of the 11 replays from the Second Round Qualifying have been settled. But a sizable £1,200,000 will have already been paid out, to clubs ranging between Steps 2 and 6 from the National League System – that is, from the sixth-tiered Conference North and South divisions (who entered this round) right down to the very remote leagues at the tenth level.
The final three Step 6 representatives in the round – Abbey Hey (North West Counties League Division 1), Nuneaton Griff (Midland Combination Premier Division) and Wootton Bassett Town (Hellenic League Division 1) all earned £5,750 by reaching the Second Round Qualifying and missed all out on a further £4,500 by suffering unsurprising defeats. Abbey Hey, in particular, had had a good run – after upsetting St Helens Town in the Extra Preliminary Round, Sheffield FC in the Preliminary Round, and Atherton Collieries in the First Round Qualifying, they eventually lost 6-0 to FC Halifax Town in front on 936 fans at The Shay. Quite a marked difference compared to the 72 that turned out at their own patch to see them defeat Atherton in the previous round.
So the incentives on offer are no small beer for clubs playing in the provincial divisions – and the prospect of a good cup run and the exponentially-increasing income each round is undoubtedly a huge appeal. That point became pertinent to me when talking to a colleague of mine, a season-ticket holder at Isthmian Premier Division outfit Kingstonian, who was bemoaning his team “coming second” to East Thurrock (a 3-2 loss at Kingsmeadow) and being denied the kind of money that would have offset a large percentage of the K’s running costs, for a while at least.
In fact, for clubs which are run entirely voluntarily, and those whose players still pay subs for the opportunity to even turn out in their colours on a Saturday afternoon, to have a few extra grand in the bank offers serious opportunities. The chance to refurbish the facilities at the club, clear debts, stave off the all-too-common need to merge with neighbouring teams… just some of the potential forms of respite that an FA Cup pay-out can offer. And for the larger non-league sides, the pot still grows and the prospect of reaching the First Round Proper – and potentially a televised match – becomes a goal in itself.
Luck plays a part, of course. The wonderfully archaic format of the competition means there are no guarantees beyond having loosely regional ties played during the qualifying rounds. The quality of opposition, fixtures being home or away – all down to the kindness of the balls. And even the most generous draw can’t prevent an upset and the opponents enjoying a fairy-tale of their own. Essentially, rewards are dished out for results and not just for showing up.
Conference North side Solihull Moors, my hometown club (although I’ve never dragged myself down to Damson Park, despite growing up spitting distance from there), will know that all too well after being held to a 1-1 draw by Midland Alliance team Westfields, with the replay to follow tonight. And to my recollection, the best that the club have done in the FA Cup since the merger of Solihull Borough and Moor Green Rovers was in last year’s competition when they missed out on a place in the First Round Proper by losing 1-0 at home to Halifax. The Shaymen drew Charlton in the next round, leaving Moors with a ‘here’s what you could have won’ feeling.
But all considered, it comes as little surprise that Premier League clubs tend to treat the famous old competition with contempt and indifference – and attempt to coax their fans into doing the same. Indeed, it isn’t uncommon to overhear fans greeting their own exit from cup competitions with joy, for it offers an opportunity to concentrate on the league and survival for another year. Not an opinion I subscribe to, at all – indeed, very few people will be telling their grandchildren of their glorious campaign which ended with a 17th-placed league finish (except West Brom fans from 2004/05 perhaps), whereas the intensity of knock-out football provides the one-off moments that ought to be the tonic which makes the year-round suffering all worthwhile.
A Premier League club, who will enter in the Third Round Proper (effectively, in fact, the ninth round) will earn £3,300,000 in prize money for winning the FA Cup. By the standards of the disproportionately inflated finances at the game’s top level, it isn’t worth the effort – and potentially a bit dangerous, if players are on bonuses that exceed what the club can actually afford, like Portsmouth in 2008. When the Premier League was offering increments amounting to £755,062 per league position for the 2011/12 season, you can understand why the chairmen at the top level have been so keen to stress the single-minded importance of the league ahead of the cups.
But don’t let people tell you that the FA Cup needs a revamp, or that the magic is dead. The tournament offers a lottery-style pay-out for clubs that need it the most, and those that are willing to stand up and be counted. You won’t find many fans from the lower echelons that are inconvenienced by the world’s greatest competition.