In mid-August the FA Cup journey began for over 200 non-league clubs, all hoping to embark on a run that would at least take them into the FA Cup first round, bringing welcome cash and potential TV money with it. Now 64 teams stand of the verge of making this season’s dream come true as we countdown towards the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round.
For the Blue Square Premier clubs, the journey won’t have been quite as long as the one team left who started out at the very beginning in August. And Leiston, the lowest ranked team left in the competition, have a great chance to make the First Round this weekend, and causing a classic upset.
So dig out your A to Z for some of the more obscure teams, as Soccerlens guides you through some of the 4th Qualifying Round’s tastiest clashes.
Leiston’s long journey
For Ridgeon’s Premier side Leiston, this cup campaign started back on August 16th and now the lowliest team left in the competition have a great chance to progress to the first round proper, bringing with it a money-spinning £12,500. This may be peanuts for the Premier League, but to a small club like Leiston this could make a real difference to them for the rest of the season.
The good news for the Suffolk side is that they have a potentially winnabe tie at home to Blue Square Premier side Lewes. The sides may be four divisions apart, with Leiston the obvious underdogs, but this belies the respective form of the two sides.
Leiston currently sit 4th in the Ridgeon’s Premier and have won three in a row, scoring 16 goals in the process. Indeed, they’ve lost just once this season – a 2-1 defeat to league leaders Lowestoft – and have chalked up two 7-0 victories already. There’s also a star name in the squad – Tes Bramble, brother of Titus, who has plenty of league experience up front for Stockport County and Southend United.
In contrast, Lewes sit at the bottom of the Blue Square Premier with just two wins in 15, and with many observers somewhat unkindly calling them the Derby County of the Conference. They may not be as bad as Paul Jewell’s side last season, but the Rooks look out of their depth in non-league’s top flight and will consider this season successful if they manage to pull off the unlikely feat of avoiding relegation.
Lewes’ season unravelled before it even began when, just before the last game of last season, the board sacked manager Steve King for winning the league. Yes, you read that right: winning the league. The board claimed they’d not asked him to achieve promotion and, as thanks for leading the Rooks to the Blue Square South title, King was shown the door and most of the title-winning squad were sold or released.
In came former commercial manager Kevin Keehan, who had precious little management experience, and a whole host of new faces. It did not bode well for their first campaign in the Blue Square Premier and it took Lewes until the end of September to record their first win, at home to crisis club Oxford United.Another win against freefalling Forest Green followed, but Lewes were brought swiftly back to earth on Saturday when Northwich leapfrogged them at the bottom of the table in their 3-2 clash.
Lewes, then, on paper should be the stronger team. But this is the FA Cup, where reputation and ranking counts for nothing, as Liverpool nearly found out to their cost last season. An in-form minnow taking on a higher-ranked club who’re struggling on the pitch has all the makings of a classic upset, and nobody should be surprised if Leiston are in Sunday’s draw.
We can be heroes
Leiston aren’t the only team looking to cause an upset this weekend but, unlike the Suffolk minnows, Havant and Waterlooville have recent memories of a giant-killing FA Cup run. The Hawks briefly became everybody’s favourite non-league team last year when they first beat Swansea then scored twice at Anfield against Liverpool to remind us exactly what the romance of the cup was about.
This year, the Hampshire team have a tough task to make it to the First Round and replicate that run, as they must first overcome Crawley Town away, which would be a daunting prospect for any team currently.
The Red Devils sit second in the Blue Square Premier and have emerged as one of the surprise contenders for the title this season. They’ve sat to the top of the league for a good chunk of the autumn and, like Aldershot and Exeter last season, have done so playing neat, attractive, and expansive passing football. On form, they could beat anybody in the draw.
Crawley have put their recent financial troubles behind them (it’s become almost commonplace for them to start with a points deduction) and under the stewardship of outspoken and controversial boss Steve Evans have emerged as one of the teams to beat this season.
Evans, who seems to spend most of his time watching Crawley from the stands after picking up sendings off like they’re going out of fashion, has the right blend of youth and experience in his side, although they have now relinquished Conference top spot after losing 1-0 to Histon at the weekend.
Havant, by contrast, are currently playing the role of sleeping giant in the Blue Square South. Tipped as possible promotions contenders at the start of the season, the Hawks are currently 13th, having won just once at home in the league this season, although their away form has been good and it’s this success on the road, combined with the memories of last season’s FA Cup run, that could see Crawley in form a tougher afternoon than they may expect.
The best of the rest
After the above two games, the other tie of the round is Kettering Town v Burton Albion. Kettering have surprised everyone by climbing to the top of the Blue Square Premier in their first season back in the non-league top flight. Out of all last season’s promoted teams, the Poppies were seen as the most likely to succeed at this level, but few expected them to do quite so well.
Managed by former Tamworth boss Mark Cooper, Kettering are tough and direct but are also well drilled and take no prisoners on the field, having lost just twice this season, but one of those came to Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion.
The former Liverpool and Nottingham Forest striker recently celebrated ten years in charge of the Brewers and has presided over the very model of how to build success at a non-league club. Clough has slowly improved year on year, making the Conference playoffs for the first time last season.
Although Burton have had a shaky start to this season, they’ve dug in and are now 6th, level on points with fellow playoff losers Torquay. WIth both Burton and Kettering in form, it’s a hard game to call and don’t be surprised to see the two sides having to replay.
Elsewhere, there are several potential upsets as several out-of-form Blue Square Premier clubs take on lower-ranked teams who are flying high in their respective divisions.
The most likely upset is likely to come in the midlands where Blue Square North leaders Tamworth host recently promoted Barrow, who had a bright start to life in the Blue Square Premier but have faded badly. In contrast, the Lambs are in fine form, as shown by their 4-1 demolition on the road at Workington, and will fancy their chances of making the first round.
Salisbury City are a team who can’t currently win for love nor money and have lost their last six games, so confidence will be low. The Wiltshire club need the cash badly though – the credit crunch has left a hole in their budget and a fortnight ago, they board appealed to the fans to help raise £100,000 in two weeks to help the club in the short term. So far, £45,000 has been raised so any FA Cup prize money will be welcome indeed.
The bad news for Salisbury is they have to travel to student sensations Team Bath, second in the Blue Square South and looking to push for a remarkable rise to the Conference National. Team Bath are unique in that their team is affiliated to the City’s university and all the players are studying for degrees.
Most of these players, however, are ex-pros who’ve been released by league clubs and have dropped down several levels to combine studying for a qualification with putting themselves in the shop window, giving them the best of both worlds. Past alumni include Exeter City trio Matt Taylor, Bertie Cozic and Neil Saunders, and scoring sensation Sean Canham at Notts County.
The Students romped to the British Gas Business Premier title last season and have picked up where they left off, firing themselves into the promotion places in the Blue Square South. Although Team Bath lost 3-0 to Hampton and Richmond Borough last weekend, they’re a formidable outfit and just what a team low on confidence, like Salisbury, don’t want to come up against in the FA Cup.
Ex-league cup winners Oxford United have been having a torrid time this season and although their season is belatedly showing signs of sparking back into life, as evidence by a 2-1 win over Burton on Saturday, the U’s still sit in 18th and would probably like to face easier opposition than Hayes & Yeading, who currently sit 5th in the Blue Square South.
Hayes & Yeading are a relatively new name in non-league football, after forming in 2007 following a merger between Hayes and, erm, Yeading. It’s the latter that, in their original incarnation, have the most recent FA Cup pedigree. In 2004, Yeading beat Slough Town in the 2nd round to set up a tie with Newcastle United, holding the northerners to a goalless first half before eventually going down 2-0. Playing up from for Yeading that day was one DJ Campbell.
Oxford would dearly love an decent FA Cup run, not only to restore confidence and pride, but also to help them out of their financial difficulties that reportedly saw the club sail close to have to enter administration. A win against Hayes & Yeading is by no means guaranteed though.
Grays Athletic are another Blue Square Premier club in both financial turmoil and freefall on the pitch. The Essex side, who lit up the Conference three years ago, have announced all staff will be taking a 50% pay cut and are willing to listen to offers for all members of their squad after several sponsors pulled out leaving the club desperately short of cash.
With owner Mick Woodward no longer prepared to bankroll the team to the extent he has done in previous season, and with the team winless in six and sitting last-but-one, Grays look like they’ll be heading to the Conference South next season, assuming they manage to last until the end of this one.
On paper, Grays should beat AFC Totton from the British Gas Business South and West Division, but the Hampshire side sit 5th and have conceded just three goals this season. With Grays’ inability to score, and with the Essex side about to lose star defender Jon Ashton to a rival club, this is far from a home banker.
Other ties to look out for include Ashford Town (Mx) v Blue Square Premier strugglers Forest Green Rovers, while AFC Wimbledon travel to Maidstone. If the fan-owned club overcome the Stones, there’s the intriguing possibility of AFC Wimbledon being drawn against the MK Dons.
Blue Square North 5th placed side AFC Telford United travel to another struggling Conference club, Northwich Victoria, while Cambridge United take on Boston United, in a game that would have been a League 2 match just a few seasons ago.
And it’s the potential prize of a tie against one of the bigger names in Leagues 1 and 2 that the non-league clubs are fighting for, with Leeds, Leicester, Bradford and Milwall some of the more famous names on offer. Come Sunday, we’ll know which of this year’s minnows have the chance to ‘do a Havant’. Assuming the team in question don’t repeat their feat of last season, that is.
You can see highlights of five FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round games (Crawley v Havant & Waterlooville, Leiston v Lewes, Maidstone v AFC Wimbledon, Oxford City v Eastbourne Borough, and Aylesbury v Sutton United) from Sunday on ITV.com/football. The draw for the 1st round of the FA Cup is live on ITV1 from 1pm this Sunday and will be simulcast on ITV.com.