Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Romance of the Cup

When I started out on this journey, I thought it was just going to be simply that, a journey. A physical journey through the FA Cup, from village to town to city culminating at Wembley. But I am slowly realising that I am also on another journey at the same time. A journey of discovery, understanding what the FA Cup really means to the clubs and to the players. The understanding that the FA Cup is actually all about the small clubs, the non-league teams, who have one big chance to cause an upset, to go on their own little adventure into the later rounds. This is where the passion is. This is where the romance is. The hopes and the dreams.

True, these things exist when the league clubs enter the fray, but it is in these early stages of the FA Cup, in the preliminary rounds and in the qualifying rounds, where the sense that something special could happen is at it's most heightened.

Glancing through the team names of clubs that entered this season's competition (731 in total) I see that there are some fantastic names. Blackpool Mechanics. Cammell Laird. Darlington Railway Athletic. Loughborough Dynamo. Norton & Stockton Ancients. Say these names out loud and they seem to evoke the amateur spirit of the competition. They are clubs that could not be any further removed from last season's finalists, Chelsea and Manchester United.

And it is one of these team names that has caught my eye from the very early rounds; Wootten Bassett Town.

The name itself (to me anyway) conjures up images of the English countryside, the village green and pond, the church with it's Sunday morning bells and cross of St. George. The pub next door. The half-timbered market hall. A thriving local community where the club is run and managed by the locals, most providing their services on a voluntary basis. Where the goalkeeper is also the local plumber. Where many of the players at the football club also turn out for the cricket team in the summer.

Grass roots football. And this is where the FA Cup really means something. This is where the average man in the street, like you or I, can get the chance to play in the world's greatest cup competition.

This has been the most illuminating part of my journey.

I now want to know where Wootten Bassett Town play. I find myself looking at their website on the internet. I am hooked. Although I have only been to three non-league grounds so far on this Road to Wembley, I have been sucked into the world of non-league football through forums, message boards and contacts with a variety of clubs. Only yesterday I was asked to contribute to a publication called the "Non-League Digest". There is a huge following out there of teams who play at this level in front of crowds no bigger than 50. Wonderful.

The sad thing for me is that I know all this will come to an end. There will come a point in the season when my FA Cup baton passes from a non-league team to a league team. Maybe in the First Round Proper. Maybe later. But it will end. At some stage, I will leave the non-league world behind.

And the cup adventures do eventually come to an end for all non-league teams as well. This happened to Wootten Bassett Town, and in spectacular style. They had a great cup run this year. They knocked out Highworth Town (big local rivals) and Bracknell Town (a huge scalp and a big cup shock) before succumbing to Brockenhurst. They lost 5-1 at home. That disappointment was swiftly followed by a 12-0 defeat to Bournemouth in the FA Vase. Yes, you read it correctly; 12-0! Back down to earth with a huge thud.

So for Wootten Bassett Town the dream is over for this season, and for me I need to make the most of these qualifying rounds before the romance of the cup quickly becomes a fading, distant memory.


Dave Cooper said...

Good post!

It's fair to say that the FA Cup is one competition which actually becomes LESS interesting as it progresses, well it does to me anyway!

The Punter's Friend - The Bookies Enemy! said...

Agreed. But it is not only at the 'lower' end of non-league football that the fans take on all the work. I follow Eastbourne Borough (and, for the sins of aprevious life, Millwall), and volunteers provide the stewards, ground staff, programme sellers, ticket collectors, even build new parts to the ground and repair the old! In fact, the club has ONE full-time member of staff only, plus (I think) three part-timers, apart from the players themselves - who all have other jobs, including our local school teacher. And we play at Level Two in the pyramid (Blud Square South - and joint top of that league).
If (when?) we get promoted this season, by FA rules we will need to employ more full-time staff. Quite rightly, as we progress a more professional attitude is needed to keep up the momentum, but it will be leaving behind a certain something that will be hard to replace. Eastbourne Borough are, by the way, the highest ranked non-league club that is entirely run by volunteers, so we have held out as long as we can! We are also one of only a handful of Community Owned Clubs, so we cannot be taken over by one (Russian or otherwise) wealthy individual.
With any luck you'll get to watch us before we depart from the FA Cup, as we are now into the Fourth Qualifying Round, having beaten Welling FC from our own league 2:1 on Saturday. Only once have we ever got further than this round, two years ago, losing to (then) league Two Oxford in a replay, so wish us well and (hopefully) an easy draw from the hat!