If you were to ask a hundred football fans of different clubs what the best competition in football is, I guarantee the majority would say ‘The FA Cup’, writes Craig Priest.
Whilst the majority stand no realistic chance of lifting the trophy at Wembley Stadium, the magic associated with the cup is irresistible.
The majority of league fans have no idea it’s FA Cup day on Saturday and in truth four years ago, we wouldn’t either – but as is the harsh reality of non-league football, you have to qualify to enter the first round draw. So far on our non-league journey we’ve managed to reach the first round proper every season with fourth qualifying round draws over York City, Altrincham and FC Halifax respectively. This year we face a tougher task against our promotion rivals Fleetwood Town, whilst it’s a winnable fixture I believe it’s a game which will help push us on when we return to league action the following week.
Discussions will take place as to whether Paul Cox will play his strongest 11 and give the likes of Shane Redmond, Rhys Day and Matt Bell a run out, I’m sure the Fleetwood fans are saying the same as realistically, neither side are going to embark on a sensational run and win the entire competition, the more realistic promotion to the football league will always be a priority, no sane manager would risk the big stars for an outrageous dream.
That said, neither side will see the first round proper as a step too far, just qualifying for round one can be a league sides round three, the number of big names in league one and even league two now would still see a big gate and a decent turn out. Anyway, away from the money side of things, playing Fleetwood in a cup competition at this stage of the season can be the perfect springboard for our promotion ambitions.
A large proportion of football and success in mindset, when that whistle blows at 3PM, it’s not about what competition you’re playing in, it’s about who you’re playing and the one outcome everyone wants – a win. Beating Fleetwood on our own pitch would be a massive plus for us, as when the league fixture comes round we’re not thinking ‘oh these might turn us over today’, we actually begin to think ‘well we’ve beaten these once, there’s nothing stopping us doing it again’ we become less cautious and open to mistakes, and become more attack minded and focussed. Not only does it become a focus point for the players, it becomes something that clicks for the fans too, take for example Luton in the FA Trophy last season. Nobody on earth believed we could beat them but in the end, we did and since then haven’t lost too them in our two league meetings. One tiny factor and result can have a reaction that lasts a life time.
On the other hand some say that a decent cup run can affect league form, a look at the fixture and results list from 2007-08 season will back that theory up as whilst we reached round four and battled with premier league Middlesbrough, we fell through the trapdoor and began life in the conference. I’m not going to rake over the heartbreaking past or make excuses for what was an awful footballing side, but what I will say is – we’re better equipped now and a decent cup run would do us no harm.
In that terrible season our two TV appearances saw us put up in front of the nation as laughing stocks in a way, against Harrogate Railway we we’re there to be shown up (and very nearly were) whilst against Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough, we began the day as underdogs but ended up showing the nation how broken we we’re as protests and politics shone. Again that’s done and done with, my point is that people have forgotten Mansfield Town FC, wouldn’t it be nice to burst back into the picture by defeating a decently ranked Championship side or a struggling premier league side – live on TV?
I’ve been lucky to see two decent cup runs as a Stags’ fan, the trip to Newcastle in January 2006 a particular favourite in my memory, matching the magpies equally throughout, only to see a historic moment knock us out, step forward Mr Alan Shearer. The second run is of course the relegation season one. My memory of that run comes not from the defeat at home to Middlesbrough but from the tight victory away at Harrogate Railway – a proper cup tie.
Played on a Sunday to accommodate the TV cameras, the bitterly cold December weather was all part of the magic, the air was chilling to say the least, the downpour of rain depressing – I’ll never forget watching the game back and seeing fire engines pumping water off the pitch prior to kick off. The walk over a muddy Sunday league pitch to reach open to the elements terracing was challenging – but at the end of the day, the joy and relief at full time when we’d proved the doubters wrong and won the tie – was absolutely beautiful!
In a twisted way the events of that day we’re a mere warm up compared to some of the BSBP adventures we’ve had since, however the day gave us lots of stories to tell, mine include watching Sammy the Stag struggling to get his foam head off the supporters coach, a lady losing her heals in the mud and watching Jonathon Pearce climb the BBC’s scaffolding with a burger in one hand and a Bovril in the other! I quote “It’s a good job I’m an athlete”.
Back to the here and now, let’s beat Fleetwood use that to boost us in the league and see what the first round draw throws up – isn’t it time we face the C word again and showed them whose boss?