FA Cup minnows could be swimming with big fish, literally
Eastleigh, the only non-league club left, roll out the welcome mat for Bolton Wanderers in David v Goliath match-up
Lower league minnows might swim with the big fish in more ways than one this weekend if the biblical rains continue during the FA Cup third round fixtures, which sees EPL and Championship teams join the fray.
The competition reminds us there is more to life than the Premier League razzle-dazzle glitz bubble, injecting raw drama, gritty realism and making heroes out of ordinary Joes – Davids taking on Goliaths in no-thrills stadiums that literally shake when a prized scalp is taken.
Forget Prozac to get over the winter blues. There’s nothing like a team of everyday players earning everyday wages beating their wealthy superiors.
For many lower and non-league fans, it’s the ultimate fantasy league where you dare to dream at an affordable price.
It’s also a moment to savour and shine for players who ply their trade with passion and commitment at the base of football’s vast pyramid.
This supporter will be swapping a seat at St Mary’s, where the Saints take on Crystal Palace, for standing room only in a glorified bike shed at the Silverlake ground (capacity just over 5,000) at Eastleigh FC, the home team of a small industrial town just north of Southampton.
Nicknamed the Spitfires after the famous second world war fighter plane which was built and made its maiden flight at the nearby airport, Eastleigh is the only non-league club left in the FA Cup.
Weather permitting, they will today take on Bolton Wanderers, who have lifted the iconic trophy four times, been runners-up on three occasions and played in seven semi-finals.
Eastleigh, promoted from the provincial southern tier to the National League for the first time last season, usually compete for obscure silverware and are sponsored by local building contractors.
Playing an illustrious team like Bolton – it was a founder club of the Football League in 1888 – is a landmark day, even if the Trotters have fallen on hard times and are tinkering on the brink of relegation from League Two and financial oblivion.
The idea of Eastleigh making it to a Wembley final in May is, of course, laughable.
But the excitement and romance of a good cup run is palatable. Up and down the land, several other small clubs have seen their ticket booths and hotlines inundated by fans.
League Two outfit Exeter host Liverpool, Wycombe Wanderers welcome Aston Villa, while Dagenham and Redbridge travel to Everton.
Buses stuffed with Scunthorpe supporters will leave at dawn for the long journey to London’s Stamford Bridge, where the middle table League One hopefuls take on EPL champions Chelsea.
The FA Cup also offers chance encounters with old rivalries and brings greatness and history together.
Manchester United host four-time cup winners Sheffield United, while West Ham take on Wolverhampton Wanderers in what could prove the final FA Cup tie at Upton Park before the club’s relocation to the London 2012 Olympic Stadium. Championship side Wolves are also four-time winners and will be cheered on by 3,000raucous fans.
Not only does the cup inject January with colour and racing heart beats, it lets everyone celebrate tradition and reconnect to the game’s heritage at an affordable price, with tickets up to two thirds cheaper than the EPL.
That’s why the naysayers and snobs at large clubs should rethink their belittling of the tournament. In sneering acts of football fascism, many declare the “magic of the FA Cup” as irrelevant and detrimental to their fixture list.
EPL clubs make a big play of being part of, and tuned into, the local community. But it’s hard for such bonhomie to penetrate the barrier that wealth erects – marquee cars in the car park, large police presence and barriers, VIP lounges and executive suites, secure zones around the pitch and sky-high ticket prices leave many fans feeling alienated.
They could take a leaf out of the Wycombe Wanderers’ hosting manual. The club’s Supporters Trust has helped set up a tented away village inside their modest ground – serving hot food with a full bar – for the travelling Villa fans, “to show appreciation” for the long journey made, and is inviting them to decorate the canvas in their colours “to make them feel at home”.
No fear there of having your banner whipped away by stewards if it covers an advertising hoarding or deemed a health and safety risk, as is often the case in EPL stadiums.
In Eastleigh, the sale of unofficial FA Cup third round scarfs were rounded upon by fans on social media, who want to protect the unpretentious, old school club from the corrosion of values that commercialism can bring (Eastleigh and visiting players mingle with home and away fans in the clubhouse after every game).
An umbrella stall could prove profitable, however.