The road to Wembley begins again
An historic, traditional and unshakeable feeling of optimism will pervade supporters throughout England this weekend as the world’s oldest domestic cup competition begins in earnest for yet another season.
In the Football Association’s 150th year, its flagship tournament – the FA Cup – holds the first round proper from Friday, with 80 teams from across the country starting an annual journey which could potentially end with a trip to Wembley, the spiritual home of English football.
Established in 1871 when a mere 15 teams entered and now little-known Wanderers lifted the trophy following a 1-0 final victory over Royal Engineers, a mythology has grown around the cup – with lower-league teams in particular sensing their opportunity to claim a Premier League scalp and grab their portion of glory.
More than 700 teams will play some part in the competition during 2012/13, with preliminaries actually beginning as early as August to whittle down the entrants before the heavyweights enter the fray in January’s third round.
Classic showpieces have made heroes of the likes of Stanley Matthews, Bert Trautmann and Ricky Villa and elevated clubs including the former Wimbledon and Portsmouth to unthinkable triumphs, as an enraptured nation watched on.
“The FA Cup final is the greatest single match outside the World Cup final - and it's ours,” said the late Sir Bobby Robson, perfectly encapsulating the mood which has transfixed football supporters for more than a century and made the cup final the pinnacle of the game in England.
That said, criticisms have been levelled at the tournament in recent years, with Premier League managers often fielding weakened teams as they prioritise other battles, be it championship contention or relegation.
Many have claimed such decisions denigrate the cup’s glamour and appeal, although the fact that the competition has been won almost exclusively by the country’s leading clubs during the last two decades – European champions Chelsea have lifted the trophy four times in the past six years, for example – suggests those conclusions are misguided.
Initiatives such as Non-League Day, which encourages fans of top clubs to visit their local side when their usual team are out of action and took place on 13 October this year, have also generated increased interest in the lower realms of English football, with many people preferring the amateur nature and lower prices offered further down the pyramid.
Certainly none of the 80 teams featured in Round 1 of the 2012 edition will be considering anything other than the magic of the cup on a day which many supporters highlight on their calendar when the season schedule is revealed.
Fylde epitomise the fairytale
Among those will be AFC Fylde, a Lancashire outfit who are currently playing in the seventh tier of the game in England but will attempt to defeat both the odds and their opponents Accrington Stanley on Saturday in their maiden appearance at the first-round stage.
Fylde manager Dave Challinor summed up the feeling perfectly: “The club has come a long way in a short period of time – hopefully we will get a big crowd. It's been great for the community, everybody's talking about us.
"We're at home but we need to be at our best. We're under no illusions that Accrington are a full-time team in a full-time league, but anything can happen. I think we epitomise the FA Cup – a small team playing at home against a bigger side.”
As part of the FA’s century-and-a-half celebrations, the Three Lions will take on Brazil in February 2013, while three months later Wembley will host the UEFA Champions League final for the second time in three years.
Sandwiched in between, though, on 11 May, undoubtedly following a series of enthralling encounters and giant-killing upsets, is a match which will be viewed around the world and remains unrivalled by any other with regards to history, spirit, sentiment and passion – the FA Cup final.