The professionals are here. The 1st Round ‘Proper’ (as it is laughably monikered) is widely seen as the round where the professional clubs in. But it isn’t really, it’s the round that sees 48 league clubs enter. The 4th Qualifying Round is the real entry of the pro sides, the Conference Premier sides are here and they are, these days, almost all professional set-ups – unsurprising as the division is littered with former league clubs
To emphasise the point somewhat, of the former league sides who join the competition now, Grimsby Town have reached the FA Cup semi finals (twice), Bristol Rovers have reached the quarter finals (thrice), Wrexham have reached the quarter finals (twice) and almost all have managed the 5th Round on a few occasions. A few eternal non league sides have made the 5th Round, including Blyth Spartans, knocked out by Wrexham (of which more here) en route to one of their own quarter final appearances, but they are an exception that allegedly proves the rule.
However, as they all stand here now, in 4th Qualifying, thoughts of the 5th Round are pipe-dreams for pretty much all non league teams, though Luton Town did manage it just 2 years ago. Getting this far for some has already been an extraordinary achievement and they are tantalisingly close to the promised land of a tie against actual, current, league opposition – maybe Preston (36), maybe Sheffield United (39), maybe Bradford (4), maybe the Orient (22). Come Monday night’s draw those are just some of the names and numbers Saturday’s successful non league sides will be looking to be plucked from the velvet sack.
Spennymoor Town, Witham Town, Norton United, Willand Rovers and Greenwich Borough have already won the tournament, this is the furthest all of those clubs have ever got. But they may never get another chance to get into the 1st Round. Willand, Greenwich and Shildon are also the lowest placed teams (level 9) left in the tournament but, also, have already won 5 matches, which is as many as the finalists will have won (assuming Premier or Championship finalists).
Norton, on paper, appear to have the easiest task of reaching the 1st Round as they play a team below them (Shildon). But Shildon have already disposed of four teams above them in the pyramid – three of them away from home and three of them from higher up the pyramid than Norton. So, errr, scratch that, this looks like it could be a very close tie and maybe one of the ties of the round for the romantic.
Spennymoor and Willand face tricky tasks with ties against teams 3 tiers above them, AFC Telford & Gosport Borough respectively. Though the underdog is at least at home in those ties, Greenwich Borough face a 3 tier deficit and are also away from home at Worcester City. Witham Town host Weston-super-Mare, only one tier above and struggling near the foot of the table so, for upset watchers, a tie to keep an eye on.
Another is Dartford v Burgess Hill Town. Conference Premier strugglers Dartford host a side three tiers below them in the football pyramid but a side yet to taste defeat this season. Along with their four fa cup wins the Hillians have won their last 15 games in all competitions, including a convincing 3-1 win over Conference South side Sutton in the last round. Burgess Hill have never made the 1st Round in their 43 attempts, losing to Hereford and Harlow on their only two previous ventures this far.
Of the 27 other games only four are all Conference Premier League ties, which is rather odd and also rather convenient given it’s only been a short while since folk were moaning there were too many all-Conference games in 4th Qualifying and too few made it to the 1st Round payday. The biggest games of the round, in terms of ‘glamour’ (teehee) and current standing are probably Aldershot v Torquay and Macclesfield v Wrexham (Friday), though the one that has caught the imagination (and the eye of the rozzers) is Stockport v Chester.
Stats courtesy of Phil Annets