By Alex Narey
Last May, myself and a few colleagues from The NLP visited Wembley for the season’s curtain-caller – Finals Day where Thatcham prevailed against Stockton Town in the FA Vase, and Brackley produced a come-from-behind victory against Bromley in the FA Trophy.
There are little things that stick in your mind when you attend these games, and I’ll never forgot our senior writer, Matthew Badcock, turning to me as the clock hit 94 minutes in the Trophy clash with Bromley winning 1-0 – his 800-word match report just waiting for his introduction – before asking: “This will be the first time they have won this, right?”
It was at that moment the ball hit Roger Johnson’s out-stretched boot and deflected past David Gregory to hand Brackley their leveller, before Kevin Wilkin’s side went on to win an emotionally-draining penalty shootout. Watching the players celebrate and commiserate, I saw first hand what this piece of silverware really meant.
But for now, and for many National League sides who will line up in the competition for the first time in a couple of weeks, the Trophy appears to be nothing more than a hindrance. Just as Premier League sides treat the FA Cup with nothing but disdain in the early rounds, many National League managers appear to be doing the same with the Trophy.
Ask Gary Waddock at Aldershot what he wants for Christmas and it isn’t a place in the FA Trophy second round; a home tie against Bedford Town serving as the perfect opportunity to rest players ahead of the hectic festive period. It will be the same for Leyton Orient against Beaconsfield Town and Wrexham at home to Boston. Winning remains the objective, but these clubs have priorities elsewhere.
With the National League opening up the play-offs to the top seven teams, clubs know the window for a promotion chase has widened substantially. Did Macclesfield and Tranmere really need the extra games last season as they chased their dream of a place back in the Football League? Was it a surprise that both went out in the first round?
The FA Cup brings financial gain and national recognition, but the Trophy simply blocks up the fixture programme and stretches squads to the limit as clubs prepare for the home straight of the league.
Then there is the issue of the prize money at stake. There is £6,000 on offer for clubs taking part in the first round on December 15 – decent money for the likes of Stratford but a weekend’s cleaning bill for their opponents, AFC Fylde. It costs clubs to get to Wembley, so even the £60,000 pocketed by the winners could get lost in the expenses.
To be honest, I understand some National League clubs’ stance on the Trophy. There are Football League sides who appear to be in denial about their Non-League status as it is as they attempt to turn their vessel around to head back to where they came from. So who are we to tell them where their priorities lie?
What to do? For me, the National League involvement needs to happen earlier. Playing the first round ten days before Christmas doesn’t help; so why not get the big guns in a few weeks before so managers aren’t as tempted to rest players with such a demanding schedule looming? Christmas can make or break a season, we all know that. If the National League sides came in a round earlier it also gives more Step 3 and 4 clubs the opportunity of
landing a big draw. Or why not keep National League (Step 1) clubs away from each other in the first round draw. This again opens up more opportunities for smaller clubs to land the dream tie.
Having witnessed the Trophy at the sharpest end, I can see what it means to the players and the fans. But there is too much baggage in the way and the FA needs to address this. It’s a competition worth fighting for!