Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Seconds Out... Round Two

You might think that I'm a little early with this, but it's time to take a look forward to the second round of the FA Cup. There is a practical reason for this. There's not a lot going on this week. There are half a dozen matches on tomorrow night, and I'll be taking a look at them on Thursday night (unless anything more exciting happens before then), so I thought I'd throw this is in tonight.

Part of the joy of the FA Cup is that every round means something. In this cash-obsessed age, it might only be a lucrative pay day in the next round, but for the clubs living on or below football's poverty line, but consider this: Nationwide Conference clubs Burton Albion and Exeter City, who both took Manchester United to a replay in the FA Cup third round, are both believed to have earned over a year's revenue from their respective ties. That's a lot of money.

For those of us that watch non-league football, the second round isn't quite as exciting as the first round. The spread of minnows is thinner, but the stakes are much higher. There aren't many teams that wouldn't welcome the money raised by a live TV appearance on the BBC in round three, or from splitting the gate receipts from a 75,000 crowd at Old Trafford. In the first round this year, though the non-league clubs didn't exactly cover themselves in glory. Only Basingstoke Town and Rushden & Diamonds managed to upset teams from the Football League, none of which bodes particularly well for the second round but, well, hope springs eternal.

Basingstoke were handed a harsh draw in the second round, away to local rivals Aldershot Town, who are a division above them, in the Conference. Aldershot were formed in 1993, after the original Aldershot FC became the last Football League club to fold in the middle of the season. Blessed with a League standard ground, and League sized grounds, and rose up to reclaim a place in the Conference in 2003. Though they have faltered since then, they are are well-placed in the Conference this season, and a place in the League is a possibility in the next couple of years. Rushden have fared a little better, having been handed a home draw against fellow Conference strugglers Tamworth. Relegated from the League at the end of last season, they have spent this season in free-fall, but will still be optimistic of taking a place in the third round.

Sky Sports and the BBC have, I think, called it correctly in their choice of live matches. Sky are featuring King's Lynn vs Oldham Athletic. It seems scarcely credible that Oldham took Manchester United to extra-time in a semi-final at Wembley in 1994, but they did. After that brief few seasons in the limelight, they're back in the lower divisions, and could well be ripe for an upset against a King's Lynn team that are having an excellent season. They're a funny team, are King's Lynn. They've come pretty close to folding on more than one occasion but, with a very large catchment area for supporters and a (by non-league standards) a large, and well appointed ground, they're currently second in the Southern League, with average crowds nudging 1,000. The BBC, on Sunday lunchtime, will be showing Salisbury City vs Nottingham Forest. Salisbury are also having a good season. Having been promoted into the Conference South, they lead it at the moment, and could be playing Conference National football next season. As for Nottingham Forest... well, I'm glad to see them clear at the top of League One. Their decline has been long, slow, and painful to watch. Twice champions of Europe, they should be at least capable of a place in the top two divisions of English football.

The remaining two non-league sides have got mountains to climb. Stafford Rangers, who, as I reported last night, required 96 minutes to get a draw against St Albans City at the weekend, travel to Brighton & Hove Albion, who thumped eight goals past fellow Conference side Northwich Victoria in the first round, whilst Morecambe, a decent, if slightly under-achieving Conference team, have a tough trip to League Two promotion challengers Swindon Town. I can't with any degree of honesty, see either of these teams getting a result.

When the dust has settled, on Monday lunchtime, the draw for the third round will be made, complete with Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, and all the rest of them. Forget the Champions League. This is what it's all about.


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