By Adam Virgo, BT Sport pundit
The FA Cup first round proper is always a special occasion. I cover the National League games alongside commentator Adam Summerton but the cup gives me a chance to go a bit further down the ladder.
I always enjoy going to Non-League grounds anyway because you see the other side of football that is a million miles away from the Premier League. Much like at Hereford last season where the volunteers did everything they could do get their game on with Fleetwood.
Then for the FA Cup I work with Peter Drury – a commentator who has covered World Cups and European Cup finals. Yet he absolutely loves it at a Non-League ground!
At Hampton & Richmond Borough last Monday night, the old-fashioned pitch roller came out and they were painting the six-yard box with a brush.
“That’s what the FA Cup is all about,” Peter said. Of course, he’s used to 80 mowers going up and down a pitch to make sure every length of grass is perfectly cut to the millimetre. I had to tell him to calm down!
It’s great when a Non-League side reaches the third round but I love the first and second rounds because it’s where you get all the stories; the clubs that have been struggling and how the finances from a good run are so important.
I remember Mark Jones at Oxford City last season when they went to Notts County and almost got a replay. I’d spoken to him before the game and he said, ‘If we can win this we can pay off debts and really move forward’.
Jorge Grant scored in the last minute for County to win 3-2. I saw Mark after and it was the only time I’ve really felt sorry for a manager. I just didn’t know what to say to him – it’s like a bereavement.
He was there at Hampton on Monday waiting to be part of the televised draw programme. We’re covering their replay against Tranmere this week – following the 3-3 draw – so it was good to see him and it’s nice they’ve got a second chance in the FA Cup.
Often a club will have a great run in the competition but you won’t see them again for another three or four years – sometimes even longer!
People will always talk about the tradition of the FA Cup and the Non-League giantkillers – people who go to work 9am-5pm. Yes, you still get that but the difference these days is the professionalism shown by the players right throughout the Pyramid is a lot better. They are a lot fitter now and look after themselves a lot more.
Maybe 20 years ago you might have a stereotypical overweight player in a Non-League side or that big immobile centre forward. Whereas at Hampton, Chris Dickson ran Oldham ragged for 75 minutes.
So there are still FA Cup upsets – but, in a funny way, they’re not always. If a National League side beats a League Two side then it’s not always a big surprise. Maidstone beating Macclesfield is a so-called ‘shock’ but it’s not really a shock. The two divisions are so competitive.
Hampton pushed Oldham close last Monday, leading through Dickson’s penalty, but in the last 15 minutes you could tell the goal was going to come.
In the first half, Hampton keeper Tom Lovelock was having the game of his life and you thought it might not be Oldham’s night. In the end they got two quick goals but it showed just how far Non-League football at Step 2 has come. Hampton were a real credit to the National League South. Bring on the replays – and then the second round.
You can see all the best odds for the next round of the FA Cup at betting.org.
We’re slowly seeing a gap emerge in the National League where it is becoming harder than ever for a part-time side to compete with the big boys.
Yes, the FA Cup often throws up part-time sides beating full-time sides but, over a season, it’s a tougher task.
Managers will always say they haven’t got much money, they’re struggling with this or that, and often have different versions of what part-time is. But the money in the National League is prevalent now more than ever.
At the moment there is a cluster of teams you could make a case for winning the league.
Wrexham were top of the pile before this weekend – they’ve surprised me with how well they’ve started under Sam Ricketts. He’s doing a really good job. They had a strong defensive unit last season but he’s been able to really rotate the options up front.
Stuart Beavon offers something different to Mike Fondop, who offers something different to Chris Holroyd or Rekeil Pyke. Jordan Maguire-Drew too can add a change of pace. They share the goals around.
It’s not a stretch to say Salford City will be up there. My only slight concern with them is defensively – they’ve only kept one clean sheet in their last five.
Yes, they’ve blown some teams away but when sides I’ve played in have finished as champions, you look at the defence.
Take Manchester City. They roll teams over but defensively they are very strong – and you also see how quickly they win the ball back all over the pitch.
That’s where I’ve seen a massive difference in Leyton Orient under Justin Edinburgh. With nothing riding on the back end of last season, he was able to suss them out.
He’s only added a couple of players and by keeping Macauley Bonne it gives them a real chance of winning the league. They’ve got good experience, a bit of luck with injuries, and are strong at the back.
And that’s where Salford may falter. If they’re not going to blow teams away every week, they need to win games ugly.
Don’t count out AFC?Fylde. The one really bad game they had last year was in the play-offs against Boreham Wood. They just didn’t turn up.
If they convert their draws into wins, they’ll be in the conversation.