Today marks the FA Cup's first round proper, and plenty of non-league teams are duelling with league opposition. Here's what it means.
Header image credit - David Child - @davechild28
When you speak to some of those involved at the top end of football, they will tell you that the FA Cup is not a highlight of the season anymore.
Maybe that's because the prize money for winning the competition is outweighed by the financial gains of making the Champions League or even staying in the top flight of English football. It's not an illogical argument.
However, if you dip into the world of non-league football, you'll find a plethora of teams dreaming of an FA Cup run and yearning to compete against one of the big teams. The magic of the competition is still very much alive lower down the footballing pyramid. For certain goalkeepers, once upon a time, the seemingly impossible became possible, thanks to the FA Cup.
Back in early 2006, Burton-upon-Trent was more famous for its brewery industry than its football team.
However, the town’s team, who played in the Conference Premier at the time, were about to make their mark on the world stage when they were pulled out of the hat alongside Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup.
Between the sticks for the Brewers at the time was Saul Deeney. He recalls what it was like when Burton were matched up to host the Red Devils.
“It was crazy, they're the biggest club in the world, aren’t they?
“At the time they had some insane footballers playing for them. For me, it was more special because of the fact I have nine brothers who support Manchester United. It was a bit of an ‘Oh God’ moment; ‘how am I going to get all these tickets?’.
“I did get them all in the end, thankfully.
“I had family who brought 48 people on a busload over from Ireland for the game. They loved it. I think half of the people who had come hadn't seen me play football in my life, so it was more about family and friends who were showing support to my mum and dad at the time.
“It was nice to see those people I hadn’t seen for a few years on such an incredible occasion.”
The Brewers held their own in front of the 6,000 or so fans packed inside the stadium, as they held Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to a 0-0 draw - despite Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo coming off the substitutes’ bench.
Reflecting on the moment the full time whistle blew, a proud Deeney said: “You have to pinch yourself to realise that this did happen.
“Deep down, you feel a sense of pride and, I think just to give something back to the club that put their faith in you, they gave you an opportunity.
“At the time, the club was such a family run club, the players we had then were so close. The Chairman, the manager, and the people working there, everyone was pulling together.
“So, I think, looking around and at the player next to you, you just sense that it's what ‘team spirit’ is all about.”
Ten days later the Conference side were heading up to Manchester for the opportunity of a lifetime, to take on Manchester United in their own backyard. This time, Ferguson took no chances by starting the likes of Louis Saha, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Darren Fletcher, whilst Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand took their seats on the bench.
In the end, it proved too much for Burton who fell to a 5-0 defeat.
Looking back on the night, Deeney said: “The replay was a bit different. You sense the reality and the actual effort it is going to take to keep the score down at Old Trafford like that with them being at home.
“They would be more relaxed and someone else being a bit more nervous in front of a bigger crowd on a bigger pitch. You know they can step it up a few levels while for us, to play at the same level at the time would have naturally been difficult.”
Despite going out of the competition, Burton certainly made some good money from the run. They were able to pay off the outstanding balance on their recently opened Pirelli Stadium, in which they won promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history in 2009.
“The money they got in from the run got allowed them to bring in better players,” said Deeney.
He continued: “Burton had great training facilities even when I went there to start with.
“We used to train at St. George’s Park. The facilities were always first class, and the club would always treat the players well.
“They invested the money back into the club and the club is in a very different position even now; a lot of that comes down to the fact that they have had a couple of great cup runs even since 2006.”
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about eliminating replays in the FA Cup,
meaning ties will be decided on the day. It also means that non-league clubs would miss out on a money-spinning trip to the likes of Old Trafford if they are lucky enough to get into that position. It's something which Deeney thinks could cost non-league clubs dearly.
He said: “I think the excitement, for non-league players especially, is that we could get a replay and get sort of a reward for the hard work.
“Financially, non-league clubs need it because they haven't got the foundations or the support that some of these professional clubs have. With the way society is at the minute, it’s really difficult, and, unfortunately, money talks.
“People need money, the clubs need money to run and, if you’re not getting support or you’re not getting promotions year in and year out, then you’re struggling.”
To many traditionalists, it feels like those calls to scrap replays are coming from the so-called big six Premier League clubs and that their calls to get rid of replays are just hogwash.
However, Deeney disagrees and believes they are entitled to their views.
He commented: “I don’t think it’s rubbish.
“I think they have got a lot of games, these top Premier League clubs. They’re playing two games a week for the whole season, in the Champions League and so on and so forth. The guys are going to the World Cup and the EUROs so they don’t get a break.
“There is a lot of pressure on those players and they see it as they would rather have it as a one-off game.
“At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I think the magic of the FA Cup is the fact you can get a massive reward financially and personally for any kind of result.
“Non-league players, and even some League One and League Two players, are happy to get a replay against one of the top clubs.”
Meanwhile, in Lancashire, Matt Urwin was part of the Chorley team that made the fourth round back in the 2020/21 season.
The Magpies made it to round three for the first time in their history after seeing off
Gateshead, York, Wigan and Peterborough. In the third round, they were drawn at home to then-Championship side Derby County.
The game was a strange one for Chorley as no fans could attend due to the Coronavirus pandemic and Wayne Rooney’s first team were struck down with the virus. No senior players travelled, meaning that a young Derby County side would form the opposition.
It was a game that Chorley won 2-0 in front of the BT Sport cameras.
“It was good, the big broadcasters got involved at the time" recalls Urwin.
"It was kind of marred a little bit by the fact a lot of their players had Covid, and it ended up not being their first team. So, that was a little disappointing, but you can only play who you’re up against.
“I remember early on their forward came one-on-one with me. He tried taking it around me and I got a touch on the ball but the referee gave a penalty.
“However, the assistant referee flagged and told him I got the ball, to which he changed his decision. At the time, he 100% gave the penalty. You might not be able to see it on the footage, but he gave the penalty, so I’m thinking ‘wow this early on they ’ve got a penalty which never was' in front of the cameras!
“So, from my perspective if they get a penalty or he goes around me to score it’s a
completely different story. However, it ended up quite a comfortable afternoon for us due to the fact they played quite a lot of young lads. I think we had the physicality over them.”
As well as that trip to the fourth round where they narrowly lost to Premier League side Wolves, Urwin has made it to the first round on four separate occasions - three of them with the Magpies. He says that one of his favourite games in a Chorley shirt came in the first round proper of the competition back in the 2018/19 season.
He said: “It’s always something you get yourself up for.
“I still say to this day, when we had Doncaster at home, it's still one of my favourite games I’ve been involved in in a Chorley shirt. In the first game we drew 2-2 - still one of my most memorable matches. Just the atmosphere, the number of supporters there and I was really happy with my performance that day.
“It’s massive and something as a club I think in the seasons coming up we would like to get back to. It’s not for lack of trying but sometimes in the Preliminary rounds, you get tough games. Of course I want to get to the first round again, it’s massive.
“It helps with money for the infrastructure for the club and it gives the players, the club, and the staff that national exposure. Sadly, this year we couldn’t get across the line, but it’s a fantastic cup competition and it will give you memories that will last a lifetime.”