FOOTBALL: Up For The Cup
All football clubs, great and small, are bound to regard league matches as their bread-and-butter. Whether you’re English Premier League or Bostik League South East, it is the league schedule which determines your status in the national pyramid; and where you finish in the table at the end of the season will determine that status for the season to come – rising up, sinking down or staying on a level.
The FA Cup, on the other hand, is still for many players and supporters, the cake: the oldest football competition in the world, contested annually (apart from in two World Wars) since 1872. Top professionals may still regard an appearance at the Wembley final in May as a career pinnacle to dream of. Lesser players at lesser clubs can aim for glory at a lower level: victory over a higher status team; qualifying for the first round proper, and the chance to play a Football League side; qualifying for the third round, and the prospect of playing a one-off tell-your-grandchildren game amongst the elite.
In most popular team sports there is perhaps limited scope for a lesser side to upset a more proficient one: at rugby the more powerful team will simply steamroller the opposition; at cricket a Test batsman may be bowled first ball by a club bowler, but the replication of that success is unlikely over the course of an eleven-a-side contest. The chance elements of football, however, and in particular the comparative difficulty of scoring goals against even plainly inferior opposition if they are well-organised and committed and have some luck going for them, make for less certain outcomes. Over a league season these chances tend to even themselves out, which is why you’ll get very short odds against Manchester City winning the Premier League. But in a single match played on a knock-out format, a footballing David can always believe in the possibility of slaying Goliath.
Each season the Cup pits teams from different leagues at different levels against each other – early on for those like Hastings having to contest a preliminary round followed by four qualifying rounds before the end of October in order to make it to the first round proper. In order for each of these qualifying rounds to be completed in time, the matches are played in priority to the league schedule. This means that Cup successes lead to league postponements and often in past years to a fixture backlog.
For clubs with serious promotion ambitions (or relegation fears), that can make for a dilemma. League and cup successes don’t always run in tandem. Two years ago Wigan beat Manchester City in the FA Cup Final. Three days later they were relegated from the Premier League after defeat by Arsenal. And at a lower level Hastings United have recent experience of a similar fate: in 2012-13 they reached the third round of the Cup for the only time in their history, only to suffer league relegation (from what was then the Ryman Premier) three months later.
Was the Cup run worth it for the ‘U’s? Yes, in financial terms: the TV money bankrolled the club for some years thereafter. And yes, too, in the memories of both players and supporters who can recount the tale of the glorious goal that United scored at Middlesborough (in a 4-1 defeat). Status is one thing; glory another.
In any event the prospect of fixture overload should be less of a concern this season. The restructuring of the Bostik League has meant a reduction in the number of clubs in the newly engendered South East division from 24 to 20, and thus the number of home-and-away fixtures from 46 to 38. There’s room enough in the schedule for the diversion of Cup matches.
And so far, so good for Hastings. Two home fixtures and two wins – 3-2 over VCD Athletic back in August and 2-1 a couple of weeks ago over Bostik Premier League outfit Kingstonian before a crowd of over 600 – have brought them to the second qualifying round. Tomorrow (Saturday) they make the 300-mile round trip to Suffolk side Leiston to try to progress further. Their hosts play in the Evo Stik League, at the equivalent eighth tier, so should be well-matched opponents.
The ‘U’s will have been hoping to arrive there unbeaten in both league and cup fixtures. But after six consecutive victories since the start of the season they suffered a first league defeat last Saturday at Hythe.
A reality check? Forget reality. This is the Cup. Anything can happen.
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