The Final has the coveted trophy and the glory, the Semi-Finals have the tension and, for the losers, the trauma. The Third Round is a weekend simply not to be missed, but for sheer enjoyment I always think the FA Cup First Round is very hard to beat.
For 32 of the 80 clubs involved in the first round draw just getting that far is an achievement. As many as 608 teams have already fallen by the wayside over six qualifying rounds before we even get to November’s big day.
A special mention here should go to Willand Rovers of the Western League Premier Division, the only club from the ninth tier of English football to make it from the extra preliminary round all the way to the fourth qualifying round, where in their 7th game in this season’s FA Cup they played Gosport Borough only to lose 3-1.
In Round One those clubs more used to being relative minnows in the Football League are suddenly turned into Goliaths, all hoping to avoid a slingshot from some sharp eyed David emerging from the non-league pyramid to make the headlines. It’s a magical transformation which can catapult an almost unheard of club into the nation’s consciousness. This season that opportunity goes to Warrington Town and Exeter City. Their match has been selected for live coverage by the BBC and will be shown on BBC Two on Friday November 7.
For me the weekend of the First Round always stirs memories 2005. I’ve been lucky enough to go to five World Cups and five European Championships in my commentating career, but a game played at the tiny Scholar’s Ground nearly ten years ago ranks as one of the most memorable I’ve covered. It was the year that Chasetown Football Club made that journey from obscurity to prime time.
Chasetown’s ground is a couple of long throws from the M6 toll road at Burntwood and in 2005 they played in the ninth tier of English football in the Midland Football Alliance. They’d already played six games in the competition before reaching the Fourth Qualifying Round where they’d earned a 2-2 draw at Blyth Spartans. The draw for the first round proper pitched the winners of the replay at home to Oldham.
For the Match of the Day bosses looking for a first round tie to televise live, this was too good to miss. Not much than a decade earlier Oldham had been a Premier League club and FA Cup semi-finalists, Blyth had their own special FA Cup history when they came within a few moments of reaching the quarter-final as a Northern League Club in 1978, and Chasetown? Well, Chasetown against Oldham seemed too fanciful to be true.
Chasetown’s manager in 2005 was Charlie Blakemore: “Knowing that we’d be on Match of the Day if we beat Blyth sent the whole thing into orbit. We knew if we won we would raise 10 times our normal annual income in just one game; no pressure then! The night of the replay will live in the memories of all the players, supporters, management, staff and committee members and all their families for the rest of our lives. We had supporters in trees, on the fences and on the roof of the stands. It was awesome. We scored the winner with 4 minutes to go and it was pandemonium!”
Chasetown’s game against Gedling Town in the First Qualifying Round of FA Cup that season had attracted a crowd of 76; more than 2000 people had used every vantage point to watch them win that replay against Blyth. Oldham and the people from the telly were coming to Chasetown.
Neighbours Walsall FC printed the match tickets and provided stewards, temporary stands were built, a local firm tarmacked the car park to prevent the TV trucks from sinking into the mud, new dugouts were bought, new advertisers battled to have their board placed round the perimeter of the pitch and after torrential rain the night before the match volunteers and club staff helped to dry the pitch with blowers.
Again 2000 fans crammed inside for kick off and 3.2 million more watched on BBC One as the team from the ninth tier unbelievably took the lead with a goal from Nicky Harrison against an Oldham team 154 places above them in the League ladder. My co-commentator Mark Bright and I could hardly believe what we were describing. Soon, David Eyres equalised for Oldham; but Chasetown thoroughly deserved their replay.
Charlie Blakemore remembers; “When we scored I felt the ground shake - it was absolutely magic. Oldham drew level but we still had a go and 1-1 felt like a win for us. That one game brought us hundreds of new supporters and gave the club a profile on which we have improved our ground and facilities and we now have a full time academy with forty five 16-18 year olds developing in both education and football. It’s no exaggeration to say it transformed Chasetown.”
At Boundary Park in the re-match footballing logic finally exerted itself and Chasetown were beaten 4-0, but a club with an average crowd of a little over a hundred took almost 2,500 fans north for the replay. That’s why they talk about the magic of the Cup.
Three years later Charlie Blakemore led Chasetown still further in the competition, beating Port Vale and taking the lead against Cardiff City before succumbing 3-1 as they became the lowest ranked club ever to reach the Third Round of the FA Cup.
But that’s another story.