The FA Cup is at it again. Every single season there are new stories, new heroes made and new sides who jump from relative non-league obscurity into the full view of the wider footballing world. Perhaps this serves to illustrate why it arguably remains the best cup competition in world football.
The romance with the famous old competition is as enduring as time itself, and every year it’s brilliant to witness the ‘giant-killing’ exploits of part-time footballers, most who occupy everyday jobs such as plumbers, teachers and postmen, overcoming the more fancied opponent.
In many ways it also serves to allow the game to return to its roots, and serves as a distraction from the increasingly money-driven, sponsored, corporate stamp that appears to be making an indelible stain on the nature of the professional game in the modern day. With a top division dominated by a handful of clubs, and where it is becoming more and more difficult to balance the books amid the temptation of splashing the cash on fresh talent, the FA Cup (at least in the earlier rounds) retains its tradition and a link with the communities to which these clubs belong.
Just to hear stories of how entire towns have immersed themselves in the ‘magic of the cup’ evokes the idea of community spirit and togetherness that, to some extent, does not exist in the manner it once did.That’s not to say, of course, that professional clubs do not retain a link with the area they represent. In fact, many Football League clubs still do (particularly those in League One and League Two) and that too is fantastic to see, especially when, at the upper echelons of the game, it is becoming ever more financially crippling to attend matches and therefore clubs are isolating the very lifeblood of their existence – the fan base. One look at the ‘Price of Football’ survey conducted by the BBC will tell you that, particularly with regards to the Premier League.
The FA Cup therefore stands alone in English footballing terms. It provides clubs in the top flight a genuine opportunity to win a trophy as most are resigned to the fact they will never have the chance to win the league any more.
Yet, more so for non-league clubs, a cup run gives them a much needed cash injection which can sometimes be the difference between surviving or folding altogether. The stories and memories that this competition creates makes it difficult not to root for the underdog.
This season, for example, Norton United, Hemel Hempstead Town and Warrington Town made the first round for the very first time, while the likes of AFC Fylde and East Thurrock United were two sides who pushed Football League opposition all the way in their respective ties.
The story of the round arguably belongs to Conference North outfit Worcester City who stunned League One Coventry City by claiming at 2-0 win at the Ricoh Arena, while the aforementioned Warrington Town of step eight on the pyramid put in a spirited performance to beat Exeter City 1-0 eleven days ago and create history by reaching the second round.
Football, and sport in general, generate phenomenal moments that one will continue to recall for years to come. The FA Cup gives sides who dared to dream their opportunity to shine and make a name for themselves. Its relevance goes beyond that, in that there isn’t a competition that provides the prospect of an upset like the FA Cup.
We’ve seen the League Cup provide its fair share of surprises in recent seasons – not least Bradford City, then of League Two, who made the final by virtue of knocking out the likes of Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa back in 2013.
However, the FA Cup has an illustrious history and it has a special place among many football supporters because of its unpredictable nature. The term ‘magic of the cup’ may be
classed as a cliché closely associated with this competition, but it serves as inspiration and a reminder to so many non-league sides who believe it may be their year to create a little bit of history. It’s easy to forget, given the league season commences in August, that the road to Wembley begins for a number of non-league and even amateur sides in the same month.
Then, as now, it’s encouraging to see the FA Cup can still produce the goods. This season proves, with the guarantee of at least one non-league side in the third round in the form of Gateshead or Warrington Town, that the FA Cup isn’t dead but very much alive. Within the context of the uncertain future of modern football, that’s particularly pleasing.