Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Last weekend was one of my favourite times of the football season.

The first round of the FA Cup is just a magical time, and although this year didn’t produce a plethora of cup shocks by the minnows, it did produce some cracking games, goals and highlights.

763 teams will take part in the Cup this season, by the time the big guns come in to the mix in January.

After months of qualifying games, the first round proper saw 32 non league teams taking part, including eight all non league ties. 17 non league teams now proudly take their place in the second round draw, including the lowest ranked team in round one, Redbridge, but how many will be there once all the replays are decided?

The Ryman League Division One North side, now face a replay against fellow non-leaguers Oxford City for that place in round two and a visit to high-flying, and big spending, Crawley Town.

Another side to watch for in the replays is Stourbridge. You would think that scoring three goals away to ten man Plymouth would have been enough to see them advance, but they conceded a heartbreaking late equaliser, albeit from a cracking goal.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this year’s FA Cup is the number of teams in the draw that have fought back from not just the brink of extinction, but the actual death of the original club itself.

Sadly, in this modern age, the number of clubs having to be wound up and start all over again is growing each year. Seeing the likes of AFC Telford United, FC Halifax Town and, of course, AFC Wimbledon, is inspiration to all football fans who agonisingly see their club die in front of their eyes.

One of the results/highlights I was particularly looking forward to seeing on Saturday was that of Bradford Park Avenue. It’s a name I know from my childhood programme collecting days. Great to see them back. Not so great seeing them get two men sent off and thumped by an amazing 8-1 scoreline by fellow Tier 7 minnows AFC Totton, from the Southern League Premier Division.

My full interest in the FA Cup seldom lasts past round four these days. Even rounds one and two have a slightly less shock appeal than previously.

The gap between the top Conference sides and League Two opposition seems to narrow more each year. League One teams, on the whole, do provide a much sterner test for their non league counterparts. The gulf between the bottom two divisions of English League football does seem to be a step too far for many.

Fleetwood Town beating Wycombe Wanderers, and deservedly, is still a shock, but one which we, and many others, expected.

Even when you see some heavy defeats like the 4-0 ones suffered by Alfreton Town and FC Halifax Town, the scorelines on paper don’t convey the full story of what played out on the pitch.

It was great to see so many of the games broadcast live, or in full on delay, across the world. I did wonder what the American public must have thought when they tuned in Fox Soccer to watch Alfreton Town on Saturday morning.

I loved it. Perfect setting, perfect atmosphere, perfect weather. Just a shame the result wasn't different.

There were some real grounds of character on display and a fair few I want to see on a groundhopping trip at some point in the future.

You can stick Maidenhead United’s York Road ground on that list. It was amazing to think that you were watching TV pictures from a ground that first hosted a FA Cup tie 140 years ago after the club moved there in 1871.

Halifax Town may have risen from the ashes of the original club, but they still play at the Shay and it’s a cracking ground worthy of hosting League football once again.

There’s just something special about seeing any old ground that still has terracing these days.

I always regret not doing more groundhopping when I lived in the UK, especially since some of the grounds that I’d have loved to have seen, like Chesterfield’s Saltergate (another ground that was first used in 1871), are sadly no more.

The usual thing I guess. You don’t realise all the great things on your doorstep till you move away.

Non league football is such a thing with me as well. I always loved it. Watched East Fife on numerous pre-season jaunts to some weird and wonderful places, but never explored all the possibilities fully, due mainly to following the Fife around the country every Saturday.

One thing that’s definitely on my bucket list though is taking some time to watch the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup one year. Right from the very start in August.

Anyone who has read the excellent Real FA Cup website can't want anything else.

One year...

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