By Russ Penn
The FA Trophy is set for a fantastic finale. Whatever happens in the semi-finals we will be blessed with a top-notch final with all four teams capable of bringing big numbers to Wembley on Sunday, May 19.
It’s rolled out as one of football’s oldest clichés, but walking out at Wembley remains a dream of pretty much any English footballer. Despite league duties taking the priorities of so many clubs, a visit to play under the Arch is definitely on nearly every player’s bucket list. We all want to tick that one off!
Finals Day itself has been one of the great innovations in recent years by The FA. Four teams; two games; one ticket.
Since it was introduced in 2016 the numbers have been impressive and last year, the sight of nearly 20,000 Bromley fans jammed into the West Stand at Wembley was one to behold.
With that, Finals Day was achieving the objective it set out to do: twenty thousand Bromley fans cheering them on at Wembley with the hope that just a small fraction of that number would catch the bug to support them for life.
But the road to Finals Day hasn’t been so smooth. Last week’s quarter-final attendances were pretty poor, as have been many of the attendances in the earlier rounds of the competition.
We know Leyton Orient have their eyes fixed on the National League title, and the Trophy is a competition that hardly resonates with their fan base, but still, to see only 1,563 through the gate for a clash between arguably the best supported club in Non-League and the reigning champions was a real disappointment.
Elsewhere, Stockport County – playing a club from a higher division – drew in 2,585 for their game against Maidstone United. Not bad on paper, but just a week earlier 4,708 had seen them beat AFC Telford in the National North.
Solihull Moors’ gate of 1,577 was also down week-on-week despite facing Telford in what promised to be fiery local derby (and it certainly lived up to its billing), while the biggest drop came at AFC Fylde, who saw off Barnet in front of a paltry 795.
There are so many theories for what has to be done to improve the numbers, and I admit, the money on offer hardly makes it appealing, with just £60,000 pocketed for the winners. But The FA can’t just keep beefing up the pot.
Instead, more needs to be done by the clubs themselves. Are they incentivising these games enough to draw in the fans who follow them week-in, week-out in the league, while also looking to bring in new faces?
I’m thinking kids going for free, half-price tickets or promotions via the regional press. I don’t see enough of this. What do clubs want? Do they want to take this competition seriously? A competition that gives many players and fans the easiest route to reaching the hallowed turf of Wembley, or do they want to look for excuses and for the FA to come up with the solution?
Hatters can seal the deal
As a player at Kidderminster Harriers, I have seen first-hand just how strong the National League North has been this season.
Believe me, that league suffers no fools; you don’t want to be falling into its clutches because it’s a battle just to survive.
The two best teams have been Chorley and Stockport County – and they are rightly riding high at the top of the tree. But Spennymoor have surprised everyone and that is a place, said with the greatest respect, no club fancies going to. They are an uncompromising outfit and are where they are on merit.
That said, I still think Stockport will muscle their way to the title. They have a bit of everything; goals, some bite in the middle of the park and they can shut teams out when they need to. Plus those gates they get in the league – believe me, that will make a difference in key games.
Meanwhile, in the South, I have said all season that Torquay, under Gary Johnson, are a class above the rest. Woking certainly have it in them to go up, but Alan Dowson’s side will likely have to do that via the play-offs. The Gulls have always looked the team to beat!
it’s time to get busy!
It seems like only yesterday that we were watching Barnet take Brentford to a replay in the FA Cup, Dan Sparkes’ wonder goal being one of the highlights of the season in the Non-League game.
But now Darren Currie’s side are slipping towards the relegation trapdoor.
To be honest, their games in hand – along with the fact there is a lack of quality below and around them in the table – should see them home and to safety. But there is no hiding place in the National League. Teams that come down who are not prepared for some mud-slinging will end up face down in it!
I have been in all situations; play-offs, promotion chasing, trying to stay up and I have also been relegated. When you slip into the momentum of losing games it is hard to get out of and that’s when excuses start coming out from the staff and from the players.
Still must be made of stone
John Still’s move to Maidstone United has surprised many, including myself.
Firstly, let’s be clear: John is an absolute legend of the game, not just in Non-League where he has enjoyed so much success, but in all walks of football. When he walks into a room, you stop what you are doing and when he talks, you bloody well listen.
But after walking away from Barnet we were led to believe he was set for retirement, so taking on a job at a club that is rooted in the relegation mire – as a sporting director with Hakan Hayrettin – seemed odd to me.
That said, he has a special relationship at Maidstone after taking them into the league 30 years ago, and it seems like they are perhaps building for the future by putting into place an infrastructure for next season – which looks like being spent in National League South.