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Every year, when the FA Cup first round trundles along, everyone always claims that Hemel Hempstead taking a three-hour trip up the M1 and M6 to Bury is the magic of the FA Cup. Fans of Liverpool or Chelsea can scoff at this, but it is true. Bury may not be the big guns of the English footballing pyramid, but compared to their regular fixtures at Wealdstone and St Albans City, it is a dream tie for the Hertfordshire club.
Likewise, East Thurrock United and Worcester City drawing League 2 Hartlepool United and League 1 Coventry City respectively. Unfortunately for Thurrock fans, Hartlepool proved too strong for the Isthmian Premier League side but on the other hand, 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry City were not too strong (something I would not like to remind you about).
Sure, Coventry have suffered a well known decline since being relegated from the Premiership in 2001, but in the first round teams like Coventry, Sheffield United and Notts County are the dream ties for the non-league clubs. As a reward for dumping out one of the FA Cup’s big guns, Worcester are now rewarded with a trip to Scunthorpe, in anticipation of pulling off another coup and being in the draw with multiple cup winners.
This is the magic of the FA Cup. A non-league team, 63 places behind their defeated adversaries, now one match away from a potentially money-spinning TV tie at Old Trafford. Or Stamford Bridge. Or even having Falcao and co come to Aggborough. It is an incredibly difficult task to argue that the magic of the FA Cup has gone, when thousands of Worcester fans get to see World Cup stars flocking to their home ground.
The only depressing fact about Worcester’s victory over Coventry (aside from my bitterness), is that less than 9,000 fans filled this 32,000 seater stadium. Worcester’s army filled a third of this paltry amount. So although Coventry fans will claim that there is no magic, Worcester will rightly argue otherwise.
The type of people who claim that there is no magic in the cup tend to be fans of middling clubs, like Fulham or West Brom, who unless they go on a serious cup run, would claim that the cup is merely a distraction from league football. Fulham facing Leeds United or Tottenham in the FA Cup means nothing to them. The Cottagers have played these teams on numerous occasions in the past so another trip to Yorkshire or London has no magic whatsoever.
But the FA Cup isn’t for these teams. It’s about the smaller teams getting a chance to punch above their weight. Coventry are no stranger to shocks, having been disposed by non-league Sutton United in 1989 (19 months after that mighty, mighty triumph). Previously Hereford United dumped Division 1 Newcastle out in 1972, another non-league shock. Luton Town have been the only non-league side to dump out a top division team since Sutton, when they defeated Norwich City 1-0 in January 2013. There is no magic for Norwich and Newcastle, but for Luton and Hereford there is just sheer elation on the faces of their fans and players.
This was also seen this year, when Warrington Town, of the Evo-Stik First Division North, condemned Exeter City to FA Cup shame with a 1-0 victory courtesy of plasterer Craig Robinson. This sparked a mass pitch invasion, proof that the magic of the FA Cup is still alive. Warrington don’t even need to defeat their non-league rivals Gateshead in their next round to have cemented their place in FA Cup history.
The replays also give lesser sides another bite at the cherry. Weston-Super-Mare gained a stellar draw at Doncaster, meaning they were able to host the League 1 promotion favourites at their own ground. Same applies to Concord Rangers at Mansfield. Doncaster and Mansfield might not claim there is magic in these ties, but their opponents would disagree. And rightly so.
And who can forget magical cup run of Havant & Waterlooville in 2007/08? When the Conference South side scraped through six rounds of the FA Cup, including disposing of big scalps such as York City, Notts County and Swansea City, to obtain a dream tie at Anfield against Liverpool. The non-league side led twice against the team that beat AC Milan in the Champions League not three years ago too. Only the most cold-hearted of cynics can deny the magic here.
The magic isn’t just limited to non-league sides too. Wigan Athletic, often looking over their shoulders fearing relegation from the Premiership, shocked Manchester City with a last-minute Ben Watson header to win the FA Cup for the first time in their history. This moment will stay with their fans and players forever. It was also the silver lining in a season where they were unfortunately relegated from the Premiership. But that is what the FA Cup is for. A magical distraction.
So the cynics can try and claim that the FA Cup is lifeless all they want. But the tournament isn’t for them. It’s for the young fans of smaller clubs, ready to give the footballing world a minor tremor by upsetting one of the favourites. And we all love an underdog.