For the pundit class, the FA Cup first round draw is an opportunity to display some authenticity. Non-entities like Tim Lovejoy — who, in his autobiography, referred to a ‘League Three’ — can earn some cred by talking wistfully about The Magic Of The Cup™ over clips over Hereford ’71 and Sutton ’89.
Four years ago Luton Town beat Norwich City 1-0 with a late strike, the first time a non-league side had won away at a top division side since 1986, and yet this clip is never shown. The problems with the FA Cup are more deep-rooted than can be addressed with the sticking plaster of nostalgia, and part of it is to do with the appropriation of The Magic into the establishment narrative. When Ronnie Radford’s goal won it for Hereford, that match was the last game shown.
Of course the FA Cup is still important to the non-leaguers, and of course, the financial aspect is a part of this. Heybridge Swifts currently play in the Isthmian Division One North — they sit one point outside the playoffs but have six games in hand. The reason for this is their long cup run — they beat five teams over seven games to reach the first round. Haverhill Rovers, Arlesey Town, Metropolitan Police, Frome Town and, sadly from my blinkered North London perspective, Haringey Borough.
Their run has already netted them upwards of £30,000 and a lucrative away trip to Exeter City — the gate money in the FA Cup being split down the middle. This is money that can build a new stand, lay down a new pitch, or just keep the club going.
But a great deal of the loyal following the competition still has in the lower echelons lies in the opportunity to travel. It’s more a truism than a cliché to say that Saturdays are a great day out interrupted by a football match. The chance to explore new places through regional bus services is exciting — what else could possibly take me to Dereham?
Thus, to make the first round, to finally escape the regionalisation of the qualifiers, is very exciting for clubs playing at the sixth level and below.
I know London and Suffolk very well from my time following the Isthmian League, and though Enfield Town fell in injury time of the last hurdle replay, I can still feel vicariously thrilled by the journeys of my non-league comrades — Maidenhead in Coventry, Bromley in Rochdale, Chelmsford in Gateshead.
The bigger sister of the interesting-away-tie is the big-name-home-tie, and Hyde United have caught one alright. They’ve got one of the biggest clubs in the draw and also easily the evilest: MK Dons.
Distaste for the club, for many, crossed the line from run-of-the-mill footballing grudge to deep-burning ideological hate, merely by its formation. The relocation of Wimbledon F.C. fifty-odd miles North, with a change of name, colour and badge and the resultant destruction of a community — or rather, attempted destruction, with the genuine fairytale of AFC Wimbledon — has soured their image for most.
Get yourself over there on the 4th of November. It’ll be spicy. It’s a game where a draw will feel almost as good as a win, and hopefully, Hyde will stick the boot in and flood the dressing room — make them feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t just make footballing sense, it is a moral imperative too.