If passing over the opportunity to condemn the seemingly impermeable Football Association of their crimes last week had seemed a minor offence in itself, we’re setting the record right this week; returning to usual procedure by highlighting the deranged share of riches in the world’s most historic, and most financially prosperous, club cup competition. Usually overshadowed by the romanticism of particular ties, astounding tales of individual players and recently the decision by many managers to rest entire first-choice elevens, the inequality of the FA’s premier cup competition; their financial reward packages, or lack thereof in many cases, is the aspect of the coveted subject that we will be attempting to shed light on in this miniscule corner of the footballing media spectrum. Hopefully, my personal insight into the experiences of many small-time clubs locally, and the juxtaposition of such discounted dots on the national scale with the loudest voices – complete with the existing financial budgets to prosper – of the Premier League, will ignite a new perspective upon the fixtures this weekend, and the following, unforeseeable future of the FA Cup, in each of you reading. Why? Well, personally, I truly believe that in the future of football in this country, this issue will only exasperate without sterner consideration from those at the top.
Some may argue the presence of Lincoln City and Sutton United – coincidentally, a side as a Lewes fan I have seen in FA Cup action before, when the U’s trekked down to the Dripping Pan for a Third Qualifying Round match in late 2013 – presents a realistic, if overly-favourable, depiction of the existing opportunities for non-league clubs in such an elite tournament in recent years. I say otherwise. They are far from stooges – Lincoln, seeing off Ipswich over two matches, and then overturning a single-goal deficit against a markedly David Stockdale or Niki Mäenpää-less Brighton and Hove Albion (well, there has to be some excuse as a Seagulls fan), and Sutton, impressively ousting the in-form duo of AFC Wimbledon and Leeds – but representatives of the fortunes of all other relevant non-league sides (those entered in the competition), they are not.
Two sides, though not unalike to a majority of their Vanarama National counterparts in this regard, who have spent heavily (in the circumstances) to have such a shot at success, without arguably the distant investor presence as at Football League clubs – Sutton’s boss Paul Doswell, unpaid in his position, ploughing £100,000’s into the club alongside chairman Bruce Elliott, redeeming pride in the club since its decline from the heady heights of the late 1980’s. Lincoln, another fallen giant in respect of their long Football League spell between the post-war period to the 2010/11 season (bar the 1987/88 season), can point to the healthy injections from South African hedge funder Clive Nates in aiding chairman Bob Dorrian’s efforts, which currently see them top of the non-league scene, imminent to regain their professional status and rise to their reputation as the dominant side in a 38-mile radius in Eastern England.
How often do you see non-league sides qualify for the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, though? Well, since 1994, there have only been two previous cases of non-league sides appearing in such an advanced stage in the competition – Crawley Town, memorably, in the 2010/11 season, and Luton Town, more recently, in the 2012/13 term. In fact, so seldom occurring is it, that only nine clubs from outside the top four tiers of the English footballing pyramid have achieved it in the post-war period – Lincoln and Sutton making up two ninths of that total, of which just less than half has arrived in the past six years. This is far from a renaissance period for non-league football on one of the biggest stages, however, as in the past, it was the case that there was less of a financial bridge between professional and semi-professional set-ups, with pot luck on the day a far greater factor than it now assumes, as the might of even the likes of League Two clubs Doncaster Rovers and Leyton Orient – at opposite ends of the table – far outstrips that, I’m sure, of Lincoln and Southport (the sides in the equivalent positions a league below). While League Two clubs can afford to purchase the odds and ends of Premier League and Championship clubs – more often on free transfers, it must be noted, but with telling wages – the respective sides a league below must settle with the offcuts of such sides as Donny and the O’s, either on the wrong age of 30, or lacking significant experience in most cases.
As the paltry broadcasting deal between the Vanarama National Leagues and BT Sport pales in comparison to the income Football League clubs receive, in addition to the shortfalls in prize money, sponsorship, transfer income and, less important in the modern day, gate receipts, there is surely a deficit in the way of hundreds of thousands of pounds between the semi-professional game and the lowest stretches of the professional ranks. That financial shortfall certainly plays a massive part in the competitiveness of such clubs – if you can’t afford, sustainably, to sign an ex-Football League winger on a free transfer because of agent fees, for example, obviously your season as a manager is going to be a whole lot harder, especially when clubs you face in the FA Cup can afford transfer fees in the millions and wages in the tens of thousands. It says a lot about the quality of managers Paul Doswell and Danny Cowley, at Gander Green Lane and Sincil Bank respectively, that they have achieved, together, but in entirely differing circumstances, an unprecedented record in the post-war history of the FA Cup.
While Sutton and Lincoln live their fairy tales, however, there are hundreds of equivalent, and lower-ranked, clubs waiting patiently for their day in the sun. With so little support on offer from the national FA to regional leagues and clubs, financial or otherwise, the prize money on offer, only raised minutely in 2012/13 (from £750 to £1,000 in the Extra Preliminary and £1,500 to £1,925 in the Preliminary) after calls on the likes of David Bernstein to stop ignoring the plight of semi-professional and amateur teams, is the main form of remuneration on offer from the FA to the practitioners of its sport; the heartbeat of its existence. If it doesn’t seem at least a little cruel to incentivise the short-term survival of the framework of your company with a series of perhaps unlikely victories against similarly financially desperate sides around them, then I think your moral compass needs inspecting. For example, after the FA reportedly received a record number of applicants for places in the Extra Preliminary Round this season, my club Ringmer FC, so acquainted, perhaps taking the position for granted, to entering, and failing in the cup every season, were rejected, along with 12 of the other 17 sides in their division, for apparently not performing well enough in recent editions to deserve a place over debutants, after 146 years of the competition, including Hollands & Blair FC, Longlevens and Ashby Ivanhoe. While the cup should theoretically be open to all clubs with the necessary ground grading, pedigree and paperwork, it seemed that this season, the FA’s capacity of 736 teams wasn’t sufficient to include sides from the second tier of Sussex county football, or step 10 in the pyramid. Presumably, this wouldn’t have been such a striking issue from the 2008/09 season to the 2012/13 edition, in which time there was between 758 to 763 sides consistently involved, and the Extra Preliminary Round began either a week or two after the birth of the league season, rather than a week prior.
Unless I’m very much misunderstood in the theory of pyramids, I don’t believe the FA could’ve placed another slab at either step nine or ten, which would provide the extra demand for places amongst sides at this level, who compete in the Extra Preliminary Round. Why then, are clubs like Ringmer, but also league leaders Saltdean United, 3G-pitch equipped Steyning Town and consistent performers Bexhill United, amongst a catalogue of others, being denied their only source of income from the FA? To my calculations, there are 1,005 clubs from step one to ten in the English footballing pyramid – already leaving a quota of spaces overflowed by exactly 269 teams, which is 30 sides less than currently exist in step nine alone. Ignoring this obvious faux pas on the part of the FA, as analysing the torture of regionalised organisation in the endless events of unpredictability for county FA’s would take us forever, surely it would make sense either to exclude step 10 in the competition, or include each side at that tier. The only issue there is, obviously, the FA won’t see sense.
In its current guise, the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup ostracises, objectifies and threatens to condemn certain clubs to the end of their existence. In selecting only the cream of the crop of regional, semi-professional football around the country, the FA limit so much of what makes the historic FA Cup so great, yet so tarnished currently by the primary word of its title. I can understand, certainly that there are a number of sides who don’t live up to the ground grading regulations that the organisers set to enter the competition, and that one or two sides might miss out on the relevant paperwork in the time; but there is no coincidence in this occurrence. The lack of FA funding for these sides, strangely, restricts the possibility of what these clubs can manage. If they can’t afford a new set of floodlights – as I have come to recognise well, on my non-league travels this season, many couldn’t before they had no choice but to cobble together the funds this season – or purchase even the most minimalist of stands (yes, some sides at this level can’t – Billingshurst the prime example, bereft currently of either), they realistically have no choice but to pull out of application for a tournament so coveted for its financial opportunities at this level. Due to the growing lack of board members so far down the pyramid, and the discouraging absence of young attendees at the matches, the funds for such clubs are drying up desperately, where, you would assume, the FA should step in to save such clubs from administration and eventual collapse in worst-case scenarios. But no, it seems the self-interested cronies on the FA Council, who, as former chairman Greg Dyke regularly pointed out, are predominantly elderly white males (currently 90 of the 120 members are over 60, while just 12 of the 120 are female, or from ethnic minorities), are far too busy sucking up to the biggest, most self-sufficient leagues and clubs in the country. This may be the opinion of a cynic, but it is one that is increasingly impossible to ignore.
The FA preaches grassroots funding; their practice, in reality, proves their eye is somewhere else entirely. According to an August 2015 article, the FA were committed to investing £260 million of their undoubted billions, which, conveniently, was supplemented at the cost of the taxpayer, rather than from the organisation’s own pockets, but realistically, how far does £260 million get you in today’s game? To my knowledge, 3G pitches, after grants from Sport England, can cost anything from £500,000 to £1,000,000 for the very best spec – floodlights, fencing, goals, various pitch markings, planning permission, grading and, in the impending event of, like Ringmer, making it your match-day pitch, the club facilities surrounding that. Realistically then, if the FA say they’re currently spending £260 million over a four-year cycle from 2015 to 2019, they’re only going to be able to help purchase, let’s say at the minimum price, 520 3G pitches around the whole of England, or maybe 450 or so when clubs find their own chunk of investment. When you consider there are 637 clubs at steps nine and ten alone, and that 3G pitches are becoming increasingly popular -Sutton United, Maidstone United and Steyning Town just three examples off the top of my head of the recipients of these fantastic facilities - in the English game, you do honestly wonder whether the FA is doing all it can to aid the development of the un-professionalised expanses of the game. Especially when factoring in the 30 ‘city hubs’ that the FA is aiming to build by the summer of 2019 – just one, in Sheffield, currently brought to fruition.
It’s hardly worth, either, entering the FA Vase (for 592 sides below step eight of the pyramid), or the FA Trophy (for the 276 sides from steps five to eight), if you are looking for a godsend of a payday as a non-league club. Of the eleven sides below step eight to reach the Third Qualifying Round in the FA Cup this season – each from the ninth tier, where 299 clubs reside – who received £7,500 for their efforts in getting to that stage, on top of the £10,925 they would’ve gained by winning in the previous four rounds, they would have to reach the semi-finals of the FA Vase – a highly unlikely occurrence, unless a fortunate injection of cash has seen them strip local clubs of each of their best players – to even equal that figure of £18,425. In reaching the Second Qualifying Round, as Ringmer did this season, of the FA Vase, they would’ve only earned £1,400 on top of the big fat total of zilch they won in the FA Cup. You do begin to realise the frustration of many non-league chairman towards the FA as an organisation when this occurrence leaves them perilously close, in many cases, to liquidation, every season – especially when considering the case is very similar in the FA Trophy - the success of village team North Ferriby United in the 2014/15 edition of the top non-league cup competition not quite as romantic as it seemed, as they were bankrolled by Hull City owner Assem Allam’s daughter Eman, and husband Steve. If clubs already receiving more than their fair share of income to bolster playing budgets, build new 3G pitches and improve ground grading results are the only ones with a realistic shot at success in these competitions, what is the actual point in other sides entering, when they might only get through a round or two, earning themselves a measly few hundred or thousand pounds to help run the club for an entire season?
It is undeniably inconsiderate on the part of the FA to place clubs in this lottery of survival. From last season, four sides in steps nine and ten alone folded or withdrew from competition – Mickleover Royals, Northampton Spencer, Northwich Manchester Villa and Pilkington XXX, and while this can’t be blamed on the lack of FA funding alone, it certainly played a pivotal role. Royals, for example, didn’t participate in the FA Cup, and were knocked out in the First Qualifying Round of the Vase last season, Spencer got through a single round in both competitions, Villa were eliminated in the Second Qualifying Round of the Vase, while not entering the Cup, in similar fashion to XXX, who faced the same fate in reaching the SQR of the Vase.
This, quite easily, could be the fate of a side like Ringmer again this year, as nothing, truthfully, has changed for clubs at our level, despite what some at the FA might like to tell you. As I’ve said before, the examples of financial shortfalls claiming community hubs in their football clubs have bitten far closer to my area in Rye United and Sidley United, both fortunately back in action now, in comparatively smaller capacities than before, but with the ambition and level-headedness to survive this time. The FA can’t let clubs manage on their own though; for many people, their local football club is their life, and with so much – emotionally and financially – invested in its fortunes; it is heart-breaking to see your efforts go, effectively, to waste. Realistically, there is no safety net in place, nor will there be for the continuation of their lives as semi-professional or amateur clubs, and really, there is very little alternative when you are a sustainably-run village club like Ringmer but to point the finger of blame at the FA, and a system of remuneration amongst the cruellest in human existence, especially when you peruse the salary of a ‘Head of Strategy’ at FA HQ – reportedly between £88,000 and £95,000 annually, for what? I don’t see a very positive ‘strategy’ in place at the FA currently, nor, I imagine, do any club chairman at the semi-professional level.
If anything, I see the FA, throughout their current system, playing the role of Ancient Roman Emperor, overseeing the carnage of the gladiatorial battles from a safe distance as to not get spatters of blood on their togas, gleefully congratulating the sole victors of the brutal battle at its conclusion, but brushing aside those viciously culled in the midst of battle. The trouble is, for these clubs, it isn’t the physical culling - the knocking out of the tournament at such an early stage - that is most agonising, rather the callous ignorance of the FA in their case, too busy handing the spoils to the beefy gladiator who won the battle, in the form of millions of worthless pounds for someone like Manchester United, to perceive the plight of the undermined and the ostracised. That, at least in my opinion, is how it feels for endlessly frustrated, but passionately unremittent, non-league club officials and fans currently, and I think it is unacceptable.
Unless, as Dyke, four fellow former FA chairmen and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee argue the Football Association, who have been wallowing in their own self-interest for countless decades now, failing to open themselves up to forward-thinking or diversity, self-reform, it will be impossible for this situation to change for clubs of Ringmer’s level – and I use this as an example, rather than a cry for personal salvation. Something has to give, and I highly doubt that will come under the hypocritical stewardship of the likes of chairman Greg Clarke or chief executive Martin Glenn, feeble businessmen of insufficient conviction or vision to attempt to challenge the institutionally flawed, erroneously self-governing FA Council of stubbornly self-interested relics from former glories.
It is, quite honestly, a disgrace, and a disservice to the practitioners of their sport, that this case has persisted over the years of increasing division between the top tiers and those left without, so I, for one, believe the Government have to force through reforms for our arrogantly impervious FA, or allow such ignorantly unethical acts to continue. It is now or never quite honestly, and if our sporting community beacons are to survive, the FA Cup as a playing field needs not to have equality, but equity, for clubs, as it is not the measly £3.3975 million (over six rounds) that Manchester United accrue for running out their second-string side that is important, it is the £3,425 that clubs, who actually get a place and get through the Extra Preliminary and First Preliminary Rounds, for example, get sent, which can, realistically, be the saving grace for a troubled club. Fine margins matter down here, and the FA needs to hear that at every opportunity available.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!