FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round
The saddest of all the rounds. *Weeps*
Why? A number of reasons. Primarily, it’s the final graveyard, the final exit on the boulevard of broken dreams for the real minnows of non league. They’ve gone this far, some have already won as many games as it will take a top flight club to get to the final.
There are only 20 proper non league clubs left, while the pseudo pro clubs and wannabe pseudo pro clubs of the National League join in and scupper the hard work put in by the REAL non league sides.
Also, this is usually the start of the end for us. Usually. Your Wrexhams, your Tranmeres, your Grimsbys hold little or no romance or even underdoggerel at this stage, they are the giants here and to be despised. Ok, ‘despised’ is going way too far but it’s not until next round they become our underdog and carry the hopes of non league. For now they are the big side to be cut down to size.
The genuine underdogs going into the 4th Qualifyjng Round are this bunch:
Sporting Khalsa – 5th in the Midland League Premier Division<
Didcot Town – 13th in the Southern League Division 1 South & West
Bamber Bridge – 12th in the Northern Premier League Division 1 North
Harlow Town – 9th in the Ryman League Division 1 North
AFC Hornchurch – 3rd in the Ryman League Division 1 North
AFC Rushden & Diamonds – Southern League Division 1 South & West
Northwich Victoria – 1st in the Northern Premier League Division 1 North
Sporting Khalsa v FC United of Manchester
The smallest of the small with a big story. Sporting Khalsa. There’s been a bandwagon for a few rounds now. Rightly so. We’ve been holding off calling them the story of the season because, until now, there have been other teams from the same level of the football pyramid. But, now, they stand alone, representing what the FA persist in calling ‘Step 4’ – but we call Level 9. Despite the fact that English football has been a continuous, fluid pyramid for some time now, the FA still consider non league different, separate to professional football. Their ‘Step 1’ is the National League top flight, as if it is another universe of competition. In some ways, it is, of course but, as there are two promotions spots from National League to League 2 and most 5th tier clubs are professional, it is not a closed shop and separate entity. hasn’t been for years. Get with the times, grandad.
Anyway, Khalsa. They’ve now won five FA Cup matches this season, two against teams from a higher league, and, in all likelihood, only the eventual winners will win more. They’ve already won the FA Cup in our eyes. They are the only team who started the competition at the start, on August 15th, to still be in the cup. This is also only their third FA Cup campaign. Their record is W8 D3 L2. Our regular readers will no doubt have read about them already so here’s a synopsis.
Their opponents in the 4th Qualifying Round will be another team with a unique history. Also, they just happen to be The Real FA Cup’s 2011 team of the season for similar feats of FA Cup mastery. The genesis of FC United of Manchester is well known but they made news this week with their press release commenting on a BBC request (via the FA) to move the game date and try out their new “BBC Mobile Match of The Day Live Experience”. FC united gave the idea short shift, as you can read in this rather amusing short link. Whether you agree with the stance or not, you have to admire a football club sticking to its’ principles in this day and age.
Braintree Town v Harlow Town
57 teams separate Khalsa from FCUM in the football pyramid, a similar number separate National League side Borehamwood from the Ryman League 1 North’s AFC Hornchurch. But the tie with the starkest gap this round is more. Separated by 68 places in the pyramid, Braintree Town will host a local derby with Harlow Town. Historically, it’s not unkind to suggest that Harlow are the bigger name, indeed they have a mighty scalp in Giant Killing – Leicester City. But, despite their proximity and erratic non league histories, these two sides haven’t actually met that often. For their part, Braintree are a funny beast. In their 80 year history they have almost no cup pedigree to speak of but their current status is their best ever. In 2011 they broke into the Conference National for the first time. With that status came the opportunity to enter the FA Cup at the 4th Qualifying Round, big chance to draw the big boys. Until 2011, Braintree had only ever once got past the 4th Qualifying Round and, even now they start with one foot in the propers, there they’ve never got past the 1st Round.
The minnow with the best chance of progress is probably Didcot Town. Both they and AFC Rushden & Diamonds face teams from only one league above them but Didcot have home advantage against Brentwood Town who, in the last round, struggled for two games to get past a side two tiers below them. Didcot have also beaten a side from Brentwood’s league already in the Cup, knocking out VCD 4-3 after a replay.
A couple of other ties see struggling National League sides visit promotion chasing Northern Premier League sides. Bottom of the table Kidderminster Harriers have a rather tricky trip eight miles down the road to Stourbridge. The Harriers miserable season threatens to get worse as they take on a side who went 10 games unbeaten until losing to Ilkeston last time out with their eyes temporarily off the league prize.
Salford City host perennial muddlers Southport. Southport, a side who always seem to crop up in our thoughts but who rarely seem to do anything except get knocked out in the first round. Except last year, when they got to the 3rd Round and lost to Derby. Also except the olden days when they were regulars in the 3rd, 4th and 5th Rounds, even the Quarter Finals once! Salford of course are another side with a whiff of Manchester United hanging over them, with their cabal of ex-United stalwarts playing Football Manager. Their promising season sees them in the play offs despite having only won 1 home game. A one hundred percent away record keeps them in the title hunt.
The biggest game of the round is without a shadow of a doubt Tranmere Rovers v Lincoln City. The only genuine tie between two long standing professional clubs fallen on hard times. Of course, Lincoln have been out of the league for longer but they’re still a big draw. It is one of a suspiciously low number (four) of all-National League ties. It’s almost as if it was planned, after the whingeing of recent years.
Various stats courtesy of @FACupFactfile