FA Cup third round suffers from absence of non-league clubs

When Hereford’s FA Cup run came to an end on December 14 following their second-round replay defeat at home to Fleetwood Town, it marked the end of another run in the process.

A 2-0 loss for the Southern Premier League side meant that for the first time in 67 years, there will be no non-league club in the third round of the FA Cup this season.

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For the last time a non-league side failed to grace the third round you have to go all the way back to the 1950-51 season, when Newcastle United beat Blackpool 2-0 to lift the famous trophy with legendary striker Jackie Milburn scoring twice for the Toon.

While this hardly spells the end of the tournament as a spectacle, the absence of one of the cup’s biggest attractions from one of the most anticipated weekends in the football calendar does feel a little odd.

The ‘magic of the cup’

The FA Cup is more than just a knockout competition. For all of the stick that English football gets (at domestic and international level), the tournament allows England to show off many of its redeeming qualities.

None more so than the abundance of dedicated fans and staff at hundreds of clubs across the land who are all needed to keep their respective clubs going.

This unwavering passion for the game is magnified when the FA Cup comes to town. It gives non-league clubs up and down the country the opportunity to remind us of what it was that made us fall in love with the game in the first place.

Grounds of little over 2,000 capacity will sell out, and only costing £10 for those who do get in. Tin-foil FA Cups will be waved in one hand while a polystyrene cup of tea warms the other. Those inside the ground are able to stand for the entire 90 minutes. And not a selfie stick in sight…

The players are often part-time and have spent the day on building sites or on shop floors. After clocking off they then line up in the evening against their heroes in front of the television cameras for their moment in the spotlight as millions of viewers look on.

Although the media’s coverage of semi-professional footballers’ ‘normal’ day jobs can be patronising at times, the point still very much stands. At this level the game is played purely for the love of it, and money is secondary.

While many clubs in the National League – the highest tier of non-league football – are now fully professional, it is still a world away from the astronomical wage packets, sky-high sponsorship deals and bulging trophy cabinets that are commonplace in the Premier League.

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Not there to make up the numbers

It’s not just about them having their big day out either; there have been plenty of giant-killings over the years. Many will remember the tale of Northern League side Blyth Spartans who enjoyed a remarkable run to the fifth round in 1978, beating Stoke along the way. Or how about when Conference (now National League) club Sutton United beat First Division Coventry City in 1989?

In recent years we have seen Manchester United come unstuck against lowly opponents, drawing 0-0 with Exeter City at Old Trafford in 2005 before Burton managed the same result at home to the Red Devils the following year.

Conference South outfit Havant & Waterlooville reached the fourth round in 2008 and threatened to cause one of the biggest shocks of all time when they led twice against Liverpool before eventually losing 5-2.

Another piece of history was created in January 2014 when Luton, then of the Conference, became the first ever non-league team in the Premier League era to beat a top division side when they dumped out Norwich City.

Or what about last season when National League duo Sutton United and Lincoln City grabbed the headlines? Sutton shocked Leeds United to reach the fifth round before losing to Arsenal, while Lincoln beat Premier League Burnley to become the first non-league club to reach the quarter-finals in 103 years.

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A different tournament this year

But there will be no repeat of any of the above this season, as with all 64 third-round sides coming from the Premier League and the EFL it means the FA Cup appears to resemble it’s less-reputable cousin the League Cup.

Instead of a smattering of non-league versus league ties we will have a number of recycled Premier League and Championship clashes, except on this occasion they will likely be putting out weakened sides. It is certainly a far cry from the drama and joy of Lincoln’s last-minute winner at Burnley less than 12 months ago.

But this doesn’t mean that we should abandon all hope of witnessing any ‘cupsets’ in this season’s competition.

We also still have a number of lower-league sides in action who are preparing to take on Premier League opponents. Former winners Coventry, now in League Two, host Premier League strugglers Stoke City.

Coventry’s divisional rivals Exeter will have another crack at toppling a top tier side when they host West Bromwich Albion, while Shrewsbury, who currently sit in the League One automatic promotion places, take on a West Ham side improving under David Moyes.

There are plenty of other interesting sub-plots with three high-profile derbies among the 32 third-round ties. Championship duo Middlesbrough and Sunderland contest the Tees-Wear derby; Local rivals Brighton and Crystal Palace meet in the M23 derby; while Merseyside foes Liverpool and Everton kick off the third round in style on Friday night.

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The ultimate prize

Of course there is also the question of who will win the tournament, and all of the favourites to lift the trophy will be entering the competition at this stage.

Manchester City have been swatting aside their Premier League opponents and fans and pundits alike will be keen to see if they can replicate their dominance in the cups, with an unprecedented ‘quadruple’ still a possibility.

Indeed, only one non-league side has ever lifted the FA Cup – when Tottenham beat Sheffield United way back in 1901 – so while their presence will be sorely missed, the non-league pyramid was unlikely to ever provide the name that is eventually engraved onto the trophy at the end of May.

But it isn’t just about who wins at the end, it is about the journey as well, and this year’s journey will not quite be the same without them.

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Matt Friday

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