Mark Carruthers: This is why the FA Cup matters so much to the proud North East non-league scene
It seems a commonly held belief that the FA Cup has lost some of its glitz and glamour as challenging for the Premier League title and qualifying for the Champions League takes priority for English football’s elite clubs.
Try telling that to non-league players, managers, supporters and volunteers around the country as they look to embark on a run that could change their clubs for generations to come.
For while many would have you believe the competition gets underway during the January gloom, for most clubs, the FA Cup adventure began in the sun this month.
For some, dreams of the first round proper and a possible tie against former winners like Sunderland, Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers is already over for another year at least.
But for many others, those dreams remain very much alive as they prepare for preliminary round ties this weekend.
The competition has provided some memorable moments for North East non-league clubs and memories of giant-killing exploits remain fresh in the mind in each generation at the likes of Crook Town, Tow Law Town, Whitley Bay and Blyth Spartans.
However, the Northern League is experiencing something of a famine when it comes to clubs reaching the first round of the competition in recent years.
Not since Ray Gowan’s Shildon saw off the likes of Durham City, Frickley Athletic and Stocksbridge Park Steels to reach the first round in 2003 has a Northern League club participated in the stage where the competition truly hits a national stage.
On that day, David Bayles, Jamie Middleton, Keith Emmerson et al fell to a 7-2 defeat at Notts County – but little did they know they would be the last Northern League players to feature in the first round for almost 20 years as they made their way off the Meadow Lane pitch.
As it stands, ahead of this weekend’s preliminary round fixtures, 10 Northern League sides remain in the competition and at least three are guaranteed to be in the first qualifying round draw after landing ties against opposition from the region.
Luck will have a large part to play as they look to navigate their way through four more ties to land a lucrative place in the first round proper as non-league’s bigger fish enter the already hazardous waters.
After all, for all of its obvious strength and FA Vase success, we should not forget Northern League clubs compete in the fifth and sixth tier of non-league football and – almost inevitably – they will run into a bigger fish in the latter qualifying rounds.
Some have come close in recent years – who can forget Dunston UTS meeting local rivals Gateshead in the final qualifying round three years ago?
And Shildon have twice come close to matching the heroics of Gowan’s Railwaymen before succumbing to Norton United in 2014 and Guiseley three years later.
Bishop Auckland also fell agonisingly short of securing a historic tie the first round in 2016 when Stockport County inflicted a 2-0 defeat on Steve Riley’s side in the fourth qualifying round.
Could that all change this year? Could we finally see a Northern League club reach the first round?
Or will one of our Northern Premier League or National League North clubs hit the headlines and enjoy their 15 minutes of fame?
Northern Premier League East Division quintet Dunston UTS, Hebburn Town, Marske United, Shildon and Stockton Town will also hope to progress into Monday’s first qualifying round draw where the likes of Morpeth Town and South Shields lie in wait.
National League North quartet Blyth Spartans, Darlington, Gateshead and Spennymoor Town enter the competition one round later and all four clubs have recent experience of life in the first round proper.
Spartans – one of English football’s most well-known FA Cup giant-killers – beat Altrincham in the first round in 2014 before seeing off North East neighbours Hartlepool United (sorry Richard Mennear!) to set up a third round tie with Birmingham City.
Spartans even had the audacity to take a two-goal half-time lead against a Blues side featuring £6m striker Nikola Zigic and former Newcastle United defender David Edgar – before three goals in six second-half minutes saw the former Premier League club progress into the fourth round.
Gateshead’s first season as a supporter-owned club saw them bravely beaten by Oldham Athletic in 2019 and Jason Ainsley’s Spennymoor Town gave MK Dons a real scare at the same stage three years earlier.
Darlington head into this year’s competition looking to reach the proper rounds for the third consecutive season under Alun Armstrong.
A brave replay defeat in front of the BT Sport camaras against Walsall brought an end to their run to the first round in 2019 and last season they reached the second round with a fine 2-1 win at Swindon Town before falling to a 6-0 defeat at Bristol Rovers.
South Shields – in their first season as a full-time, professional club – will also fancy their chances of reaching the first round for a second consecutive season after they were beaten at Cheltenham Town at that stage just over 12 months ago.
There has already been plenty of memorable moments and stories created by North East non-leagues clubs in the extra preliminary round earlier this month – and more lie in wait over the coming weeks as the real magic of the FA Cup is conjured up by players, coaches and supporters that will never take it for granted.