I know it’s early in the season to describe any fixture as a “big game”, but that’s precisely what this afternoon’s match is.
There is no tournament quite like The FA Cup. No football competition is older; the FA Cup was established 150 years ago last month.
None covers so many levels of competition in the same way. Clubs from 10 different tiers participate in fourteen rounds which stretch from August to May. Our visitors are on the first ‘Cup Run’ in their history; this is Campion’s third season in the competition, but their inaugural victory came a fortnight ago, away to Athersley Recreation.
Cables have a rather longer association with the tournament, although like our guests this afternoon, Prescot initially found the English Cup (as it was often called by the press) a daunting challenge. Prescot FC made their debut in the First Qualifying Round on 3rd October 1891, at home to Crewe Alexandra. The Sheffield Evening Telegraph carried the following brief record of the match in that day’s edition:
“Played at Prescot before 3,000 spectators. Prescot soon pressed, but Crewe scored three times in rapid succession. Half time score: Crewe 4 goals, Prescot o. Full time score: CREWE ALEXANDRA 7 goals, Prescot 1 goal.”
The following season, Prescot travelled to Rhosllanerchrugog in Wales and won 8-2, only to be beaten at Chester in the next round. It was many years before Prescot returned to the competition, after that.
But that first victory, up in the hills near Wrexham, hints at something else that makes The FA Cup unique, which is that it really isn’t just the “English” Cup; ties have been played in all four countries of the United Kingdom and, with Jersey Bulls playing at home in the last round, in the Channel Islands too.
In fact, during the Cup’s first few decades Glasgow’s own Queen’s Park reached the Final twice and the semi-finals four times. In 1886-87, Cliftonville were the first Irish club to enter and had the honour of staging the first tie played beyond the mainland of Great Britain, when they beat Blackburn Park Road 7-2 in a First Round Replay. In the next round, Cliftonville were drawn against Partick Thistle; this remains the only tie played between two non-English teams from different countries.
The only FA Cup tie ever played on Christmas Day took place in Ireland too; Linfield Athletic beating Cliftonville 7-0 in a Fourth Qualifying Round Replay.
I wish I could say that I’ve been reeling these facts off from memory but, the truth is that I’ve been reading the excellent FA Cup 150 by Phil Annets, who you may also know from his Twitter account, @FACupFactfile.
It is from this outstanding collection of sometimes quirky lists of statistics and stories from the competition that I learned that, by the end of last season, Cables had scored 376 goals in FA Cup Qualifying Round matches, placing them joint 122nd in the all-time list. That’s not bad going when you think about how many clubs have played in the Cup over a century and a half!
The enduring appeal of The FA Cup is that anything really can (and does) happen. We only have to look at the journey our neighbours Marine went on last season, going from this stage of the competition all the way to the Third Round Proper. The Mariners became the first team from the eighth tier of the pyramid to take on a top-flight opponent in The FA Cup, making both memories and a fortune.
Will Cables or Campion emulate, or even surpass, Marine’s achievements this season? It’s an idea that sounds far-fetched but isn’t really; after all, Cables were one penalty kick away from knocking Darlington out in the Second Qualifying Round last season, and they went on to reach the Second Round Proper.
A bit of luck or a moment of magic could change a game, and even someone’s life. Can we go from the IP Truck Parts Stadium to Ipswich Town? Or from Prescot to a Premier League ground? Campion’s players and supporters will have dreams of their own that this could be their year for a little run in the tournament, so a tough game is assured.
Whatever happens in this afternoon’s match, it is a staging post on the fabled ‘Road to Wembley’, so I’ll end as I started: this is a big game!