by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
Far from the glitz and glamour of last season’s Chelsea versus Liverpool final, this season’s FA Cup continues the early stages of its journey from the smallest non-league grounds to Wembley.
This season’s tournament got under the way on 10 August when Ascot United of the Hellenic Premier and Sandhurst Town of the Combine Counties Premiership kicked off with the first game in the Extra Preliminary Round. The result was a 6-1 win for the Ascot side, with four goals for new signing Ben Knight. This was a milestone for the club being their first every victory in the FA Cup, and they were rewarded with £1000 prize money and a trip to Bishop’s Cleeve of the Southern League Division One, one level above them in the football pyramid.
Bishop’s Cleeve, which lies in the Cotswolds, have a long history, having been formed in 1905. Their best run in the FA Cup was in 2005 when they reached the 4th Round Qualifying, one step from the First Round proper, before losing to Eastbourne Borough. Last season, under new player-manager Alex Sykes, Bishop’s Cleeve had their best finish ever when they finished 11th in Southern League Division One. They also reached the final of the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, beating sides from Forest Green, Bristol Rovers, and Cheltenham along the way, before losing 6-0 to Bristol City reserves in the final.
Bishop’s Cleeve totally dominated the first half of the tie against Ascot at their Kayte Lane ground, and went in at the half-time whistle leading 2-0. However whatever the Ascot manager said during the break certainly had an effect as Ascot came back with two goals from captain Jack Smillie. However with just a few minutes left, and with the underdogs Ascot looking like they had done enough to get at least a replay, the heavens opened, and the thunder and lightning and the strength of the downpour forced the ref to abandon the game with the score at 2-2, meaning Ascot will have to make the trip back to the Cotswolds and do it all again.
The next round, the First Round qualifying, will see the eventual winner fancying their chances of progressing when they host Bracknell Town, who are a division below Ascot in the Hellenic Division East. However, they did beat Hellenic Premiership side Shrivenam in the last round.
Although the bigger teams, and the FA themselves, may have helped to tarnish the image of the FA Cup in recent years, the magic and romance of the world’s oldest competition is still keenly felt in the lower reaches of the football world. Bishop Cleeve’s manager, in a newspaper interview before the Ascot game, stressed how important the competition is to him and his team, and how a good run can give a previously unknown team, like Bishop’s Cleeve, and their players their 15 minutes of fame and its certain that the Ascot team will be as keen to progress further.