As Americans fall more in love with soccer, particularly English soccer, we often have more than the rules and traditions of the game to work out. Sometimes we actually don’t even know what competition we’re looking at.
In the States, there are just the leagues: the NFL, NBA, NHL, or Major League Baseball. They play, there’s a champion, and we all go home.
But in England, we keep running into these Cups and Trophies and whole other Leagues that play in Europe but involve English teams. I have covered all this in another blog post, but for today I want to talk a little more about the biggest (and my favorite) of these not-the-league competitions, the FA Cup.
First of all, the FA is the Football Association, the sports governing body in England. And I should point out that the word Association is where the word soccer comes from.
The FA Cup is simply a tournament for pretty much every soccer team in England. And I don’t just mean the 92 fully professional clubs, though that’s a lot. I’m talking more than 700 clubs, right on down to the local police union hall, or pretty much anywhere 11 blokes gather with a ball. The Cup, which runs from August to May, is a non-seeded, no-bracket tournament that sorts through all of these clubs in a fully democratic way, then crowns the champion on the closest thing England has to our Super Sunday.
I am simplifying a bit, but the tournament starts with several Qualifying Rounds. In the first of these, dozens of clubs are tossed into a basket, with the first one drawn out being the home team and the second the visitors. In these rounds, they keep it regional, since the union hall doesn’t exactly have a travel budget. Everybody plays, draws are settled by replays at the other teams’ stadium, then all the winners go back into the pot for the next round. And, by the way, each round gives the winners an ever-larger cash prize, so some of these tiny clubs can make their whole budget, or get serious work done on their stadium, by winning a few games.
This goes on for four qualifying rounds (actually more, because they have Extra Preliminary Qualifying Rounds and other nonsense) which lead up to the First Round Proper, an exquisitely English name which occurs in the first weekend of November. It is here that the professional clubs from League One and League Two, those being the third and fourth tiers of the big leagues, go into the pot.
Here is where we start to see what is known as “the magic of the Cup,” because at this point we still have fully amateur clubs, where the players have regular jobs, and the stadiums, if they exist, hold a couple thousand people, often without seats. And since the whole thing is unseeded and has no bracket, these teams will then host, or travel to, fully professional clubs which, if you’re paying attention to the game beyond the Premier League, you may recognize the names of.
For example, I once caught a game in the First Round Proper, Notts County play at Boreham Wood. Notts County happens to be the oldest football club in the world, but they are way down in League Two at the moment, ranked something like 75th in the country. But Boreham Wood, a club in the northern suburbs of London, is a level below that. Imagine a Single A baseball team traveling to a Rookie League team, or maybe Coastal Carolina playing basketball at North Dallas Community College.
Notts County, where I have actually seen a game before, is in Nottingham, where they play second fiddle to Nottingham Forest (where I have also seen a game). They have a large stadium and devoted fan base, so according to one theory Boreham Wood would pray for (and perhaps play for) a draw, so they can have the lucrative replay in Nottingham, where they would get a share of the gate. County, on the other hand, would probably play a lot of reserves, resting the starters and hoping the reserves can take care of business.
It was a very entertaining 2-2 draw, so The Wood got (and lost) their replay at Notts County. Here are the highlights; my friend David and I were right in front of the celebration of The Wood’s second goal:
And here is where we see how some of the Cup’s magic has been diminished over the years. There is now so much money in the Premier League and the European Competitions that, if a team is struggling to get into Europe or stay in the Premier League, they will consider the FA Cup a distraction and probably play a bunch of reserves in it. So there are lots of different motivations here: the tiny clubs seeking glory and a paycheck, the bigger clubs not wanting a replay but also resting starters, and the neutrals just hoping they get to see a giant killed — even if it’s a giant that “played the kids.”
The Second Round Proper, in early December, is more of the same, and depending on the draw and results, some “minnow” could make it all the way through to the Third Round Proper, in early January, when the Championship and Premier League teams go in. It’s at this point where, every year, somebody like Manchester United has to go play at Gateshead, or Oxford United travels to Newcastle, or — in another form of excitement — two big teams that really hate each other, like Arsenal and Tottenham, might happen to get drawn together. Sometimes, this is two teams in different leagues who never play, such as Bristol City of the Championship and Bristol Rovers of League One. Or perhaps like Nottingham Forest having to play Notts County for the first time in years.
In that case, another quirk of the FA Cup adds to the excitement: Normally, the visiting team is only given about 5% of the tickets to a league game, or at the most 3,000 seats. But in the Cup that number goes up considerably. So we have the spectacle of 10,000 Cambridge United fans at Old Trafford, or an entire end of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge being filled with Scunthorpe partisans. It’s also fun to see throngs of Everton fans packed into temporary bleachers at Stevenage FC.
Or, like I did in 2018, you might catch a bonus Merseyside Derby — Liverpool v Everton in the First Round and get to see 9,000 Everton fans at Anfield:
That is one of the most special moments I’ve seen in all my English soccer travels, and in many ways, it could only happen in the FA Cup.