The Blueprint for the future of Non-League football – The FA Cup


Day five and a superb piece from back in 2013 about how the FA Cup could be revamped to give the Non League sides more of a slice of the pie, thanks to Mr Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold.  

The 2013 final saw one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history, but that’s an outlier – the competition has been one almost exclusively by clubs from the traditional big six for two decades.

English football is geared towards benefitting the top teams – but there is still plenty of work that can be done to change football for the better.

The FA Cup is, arguably, a tarnished bastion of English professional football in times where the collection of wealth has become a greater priority than glory. League status and European qualification is more lucrative than the kudos of a cup win or run, so priorities have been adjusted accordingly. As a consequence this oldest of cup tournaments is now not taken seriously by the vast majority of clubs in the top two tiers of the English pyramid. The majority of Championship clubs have their eye on the main prize of promotion to the cash cow, the majority of lower Premier League clubs are too busy sucking nervously at the udders to bother with the Cup*, and the top Premier League sides are more interested in getting in to, or retaining their place in, the top four.

That’s life, and the lure of cold hard cash is not just the preserve of the elite, it is also a driver for those in the lower and non leagues, it’s just the figures are lower and the need is greater. That lucrative promise of a tie against higher opposition focuses the mind of the lower league sides. While some non-league teams view the early Preliminary/Qualifying rounds in similar ways, the revenue that can be generated just by winning a few games might mean the difference between the club house getting a lick of paint and it being pulled down for houses. But the kudos does also play a part, ask the Giuliano Grazioli’s of the world, taking the tournament seriously can invigorate your career.

So, my proposal for improving non-league football is to shake up the FA Cup to give more non-league sides a shot at a league side.

There is an appetite for the Cup in the non-leagues like at no other level.  To many clubs it’s still the oldest and best loved cup, players can say they played in it despite never playing above the amateur game and a spot in Round 1 is coveted as much as the odd pro covets a Wembley date. The fans feel the same, just look at the (admittedly slightly selective) stats. Southern League (now Isthmian League) Cambridge City got to Round 1 this year and it took them 5 games to get there. In those 5 games, four of them were attended by significantly more than their average league gate of 333. Given they largely played teams in or around the same level in the pyramid, that says a lot about their fans’ view of the tournament itself, especially when you consider the attendance drop off when similarly ranked PL or Championship teams are drawn against each other.

The story was even more marked for Hastings United, who got to the dizzy heights of the 3rd Round. Until they got there, they only played fellow non-league sides. In the 2nd Round they played Harrogate Town, who were only one tier above them in the pyramid and a club of similar stature. Hastings’ crowd for the home replay was a mind-boggling 4,028, ten times their average league gate of 404. Similarly to Cambridge City they only had one home FA cup attendance below their league average gate – and even in that very 1st Qualifying Round game the attendance was actually higher than their league average at that time of the season, despite playing a team further down the pyramid.

That’s not to say that this applies across the board, of course, some ties turn out to be damp squibs and, as implied above, getting back into pro football can turn higher placed Conference sides off the FA Cup temporarily. And, due to regionalisation of the early rounds, the very smallest teams often find themselves pitted against their fellow league sides, which is a bit dull for fans. A bit like if Norwich were to face Stoke in the 3rd Round, the world and indeed both sets of fans would shrug with indifference. But, that appetite of NL clubs/fans should be embraced, it could invigorate both the non leagues and the FA Cup. Which brings me to the proposition for improving non league football:

Firstly, change the names of the rounds to be more inclusive. The current 1st Round is actually the 7th round of the competition, let’s not pretend it isn’t. This separatism suggests non league sides don’t count and are playing in a different competition just to get into the real competition, a feeling exemplified by the exclusionist colloquialism for the 1st Round onwards, the ‘propers’. The football league is now an open shop to non-league teams, why not make the FA Cup seem like that too and start the thing off at Round 1 and be inclusive?

Secondly, bring forward the time when professional clubs enter the competition. Why should these teams be treated so favourably when so many treat the competition with such disdain? Top-two-tier sides have to win less games to win the Cup than many non league sides currently have to win to even get a chance to play those big sides. This seems very unfair. The pot is skewed as it is, why not even it up a bit, make the league sides work harder to win it and make the non league sides feel further included in their national cup?

Three, (in fact a consequence of the second one) increase the number of non league sides with the potential to draw a league side. At present only 36 non league sides have a chance to draw a league side in the 1st Round. The chances of those sides being from outside the National League system are extremely low, due to the fact that the Conference Premier sides only have to play one game to get in to the main draw and often they only have to beat a side further down the pyramid. When the Conference is full of professional ex-football league sides, the chances for the lower non league sides to progress to the current 1st Round are further distorted. Under our proposals the league clubs would enter with all of the National Leagues sides. Under this system, what would become the 5th Round would comprise 256 teams – with 92 of them from the Football League and Premier League and, therefore, 164 non league sides get the chance to draw a plum tie instead of 36.

OK, so in this system a club in the top 2 tiers drawing a minnow won’t field their strongest side but, then again, the vast majority don’t field their strongest side in the FA Cup anyway. Also. many pro sides send development or reserve sides to play local non league sides in pre-season now anyway – and those games attract larger than normal crowds at those non league grounds. So, in a competitive match, who is to say that number won’t be even larger.

Finally, as happens in France, the lower league side in any tie always plays at home. Many big clubs won’t relish this but it makes perfect sense and means they get forced to put something back into the lower leagues.

At present, the trickle down of cash to the lower leagues is minimal, this system would arguably widen the spread of income around the pyramid.

Simple Plan:

1st Round – Effectively the Qualifying Round, to even up the numbers – There are usually about 600 clubs below the National Leagues who enter the FA Cup so the lowest will play-off to whittle down to 384.
2nd Round – 384 NL Clubs
3rd Round – 192 NL Clubs
4th Round – 256 Football Clubs (96 NL CLubs from 3rd Round, 68 National League Clubs + 92 League Clubs)
5th Round – 128 Clubs
6th Round – 64 Clubs
7th Round – 32 Clubs
8th Round – 16 Clubs
QF – 8 Clubs
SF – 4 Clubs
Final – 2 Clubs

*Couldn’t let this pass without commending Wigan, they pretty much sacrificed their league status for Cup glory. TOP NOTCH. Time won’t pay much heed to their league position in 2012-13, their ‘honours’ section, though, will say “FA CUP WINNERS”, you can’t take that away.

Bulls create FA Cup history in the sun Shine


CqN87_iWAAAabgoThe was the top FA Cup tie in the Preliminary Round.  That was undisputed as AFC Mansfield were first in alphabetical order.  It was also another first for AFC Mansfield as this would be their first ever home tie in the world’s oldest cup competition.  In fact, this would only be their second ever FA Cup tie, after last season when they lost 2-1 to today’s visitors, The Shiners from South Normanton.

It has only been four years since they were formed as a community club by a splinter group of Mansfield Town directors, who were unhappy with the direct that the Stags were going.  They found a home at The Forest Town Arena, a cycling track 2.5 miles north-east of Field Mill.  Since then they have won promotion twice, taking their place in the Northern Counties East Premier League, or step 5 of the Non-League pyramid to me and you and reached the 5th round of the FA Vase two years ago.

Whilst The Bulls will probably never gain the same profile as other “protest” clubs such as FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, their progress so far has to be admired.  Funds are tight in the grass-roots of the game but focusing on the community aspect will win them friends and enable them to find their level.  Oh, and their manager is called Rudy Funk which makes them a winner in my book.

I’d manage to escape from Centerparcs for a couple of hours, leaving the Fuller girls high up some trees, tied very tight to some ropes.  A few weeks ago when I looked at potential “diversions” the one that stood out was a potential tie at Clipstone.  Alas, they lost at Brigg Town and I had a moment of panic where I thought I may have to spend the whole afternoon in some sub-tropical biosphere carnage, without a game within a “reasonable” distance.  By reasonable I had been told I could go AWOL for three hours maximum.  “Why don’t you go to AFC Mansfield?” Suggested Lolly.  “What? Why do you say that? I scoffed, after all what does she really know about the East Midlands Non-League scene?  “Well, they are the first game on the list and Mansfield is just *there* on the map”.  Whilst I didn’t let on, she was onto something.  Clever girl my eldest daughter sometimes.

So at 2.30pm I headed out of Centerparcs, passing the Workshop Van Hire Stadium home to Clipstone FC, the headstocks of the former Clipstone Colliery that dominate the skyline, a boarded up pub called The Olympic Spirit and a pet grooming parlour (I think) called Doggy Style.  A couple of miles down the B6030, take a left and there was the Forest Town Welfare with the Arena behind it.

29011184182_fc9c5632a5_kWithin two minutes I had spent £10.50 on admission, a programme, a beer and a chip “cob”.  Ten Pounds Fifty.  That wouldn’t even buy a programme these days at Wembley on Cup Final day. Ah yes, The Emirates FA Cup, two organisations that have pots of cash have come together.  What interest do they really have in these early rounds?  Zero really.  736 clubs enter the club, £30 million was the reported fee the FA have received yet the level of prize money on offer in the early rounds of the club has not changed since last season.  Today’s winner would receive £1,925.  The prize money on offer in the latter stages of the tournament means almost nothing to be big clubs.  I’m sure that the £1.8m Man Utd won by beating Everton in last year’s final was a footnote in the bank account, whereas the prize money in the early rounds really means something for the little clubs.

So here is a suggestion.  Reduce prize money for Premier and Football League clubs by 50% and use that as a pot for the losing teams in the Qualifying Rounds to soften any blow of elimination.  Or perhaps use the money to fund a “kids go free” scheme in the cup for all Step 7 and below clubs?

So armed with food, drink and programme I took my seat on the concrete steps of the Arena, watching the teams warm up.  To my right Mansfield’s substitutes and a man dressed as a bull peppered the reserve keeper with shots, with the Shiners subs tried to boot the ball as high in the air as possible.  Ah yes, the South Normanton Athletic nickname.  Up there with the best in my view.

29116468405_34ff130dd5_kThe nickname ‘Shiners’ derives from the mid-1750s when South Normanton was at the heart of the ribbed stocking industry. The people involved in this craft worked long hours sitting at their windows on wooden stools, so much so that the backsides of their trousers became very shiny making them instantly recognisable as coming from the South Normanton area; since then local people have been referred to as ‘Shiners’.  Not my words, but those of Wikipedia so it must be true.

AFC Mansfield 2 South Normanton Athletic 0 – The Forest Town Arena – Saturday 20th August 2016
They were certainly dancing in the streets of Forest Town after AFC Mansfield won their first ever FA Cup tie, easily beating the conditions and The Shiners thanks to two second half goals from Gary Bradshaw and earning a big cheque for £1,925 in the process.  Wouldn’t it be more fun if at the end of the game they got a small FA Cup (one that gets bigger depending on the round you are in) and a cheque (again getting bigger in size depending on the round) presented on the pitch?  They could even have someone by the side of the pitch engraving their name in the trophy, just like at Wembley, but perhaps using a compass or a large safety-pin.

The strong wind caused both teams issues but it was the home side that always looked the more comfortable as they created a number of first half chances but a combination of the bobbly pitch, the strong wind and comical attacking somehow kept the game goal less.  The club offer a strange twist on the golden goal where you can buy two tickets, one for each half.  The chap next to me saw his luck wasn’t in when he drew minute 1 and 90.  I was relatively happy with my 73rd minute ticket though.

The Welfare Club was relatively full as the crowd ventured in a half-time to escape the rain.  Sky Sports on the TV’s, decent bar and a couple of snooker tables.  Years ago the locals would have been protecting their pints of mild.  Today it was all bottles of rosé in ice buckets on the tables and talk of  The Great British Bake Off.

29011200432_cec726563c_kThe second half saw the home side take a more direct approach, with the wind behind them.  Finally the deadlock was broken when striker Gary Bradshaw poked home in what I thought was the 73rd minute.  Alas, the official time-keeper ruled me a minute out.  My career record of winning the golden goal still stands at one (Cray Wanderers v Lewes in April 2012 if you ask).  The South Normanton manager was not impressed with his defence, nor the officials a few minutes later when his centre midfielder was flagged offside.  It seemed that he had done his homework and was quoting chapter and verse on the new regulations to a bemused linesman.  He was right too.

AFC Mansfield wrapped the game up with ten minutes to go as that man Bradshaw picked up on sloppy defending and rounded the keeper to slot into an empty net.  The Shiners would be heading back to Derbyshire empty-handed whilst The Bulls would be able to look forward to another home tie in two weeks time as they would be hosting Stratford Town.

The magic of the FA Cup had come to Forest Town.  It’s just a shame that the powers that be still aren’t taking the qualifying rounds seriously.  Good luck to AFC Mansfield and let’s hope that the prize money they earn will help them build on and off the pitch.

The Christian way


Living in a hot-bed of Premier League and Championship fans (oh, and Millwall), Non-League football sometimes doesn’t get a look in.  It’s all Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Arsenal and West Ham in these parts (oh, and Millwall), yet on our doorstep there are some grassroots clubs who are doing quite nicely too.  Of course they’d all like more fans, but it is hard to move the Soccer Saturday crowd from their comfy sofas.  Just down the road from TBIR Towers is Badger’s Mount (yes, I know it technically should be Set), home of Cray Valley Paper Mills, a club who currently play at step five of the Non-League pyramid, or in words that a Premier League fan may understand, eight promotions underneath them.  They’ve built up a nice set up, with a tidy ground, new well-appointed club house and thriving youth football.  They also share their facilities with fellow South Eastern Counties League side Erith Town, and it was the tenants rather than the landlords that I was wandering down the road to watch in the FA Cup Preliminary Round.  Doing my bit for the environment you could say, by walking.  The fact that The Park Tavern enroute had a beer festival had no bearing on my mode of transport at all.

20998353722_a806bd3e75_kThe clubhouse was heaving when I arrived, not due to an influx of Groundhoppers, although there were a fair few of them too clutching their plastic programme wallets and discussing the merits of Britain’s smallest Wetherspoons (The Banker’s Draft up the road in Eltham apparently).  There was a wedding reception on.  South East London’s finest with 50 shades of orange, had taken over the club. I would imagine when they booked that they had no idea they’d be sharing their big days with a bunch of Dockers of Erith and Christians from Horsham. However, with a decent crowd for yesterday’s cup game against big-spending Hasting United and the profits from the function, it will have been a “nice little earner” for the club over the weekend.

The winner of this tie could look forward to hosting Burgess Hill Town in the First Qualifying Round as well as a cheque for £1,925.  At this level, with most players on sub-£100 per week wages, that is a decent boost to the budget. Horsham YMCA, not that long ago of the Ryman League, came into the game as favourites at kick off, sharing a five-way lead in the Southern Combination League and still unbeaten whilst Erith had two wins from three games in the league.

The Dockers of Erith used to have their own stadium, in Erith, called bizarrely, The Erith Stadium.  A relatively impressive multi-use facility owned by the council. And therein lay the issue.  The club used to turn up to find grass unmowed, goal posts absent and huge holes in the pitch from shot put competitions.

Happier times indeed here and within touching distance of welcoming The Hillians.  All that stood between them and a potential £3k in prize money was the Young Man’s Christian Association of Horsham.  Not that you’d have known that’s who they were judging by the language from their bench during the game, which included an impressive three-hyphenated swear word at the linesman at one point.

Erith Town 2 Horsham YMCA 4 – Badger’s Mount – Sunday 30th August 2015
And so to the action.  First thirty minutes it was all square with little to write home about.  Then Horsham took the lead when midfielder struck from close range. Erith’s response took ten minutes when Tom Garrick beat the offside trap, dance round the keeper and slotted home.  Horsham should have gone in at half-time in front but for Sullivan’s powerful goal bound shot hitting an Erith player on the line squarely on the chest, knocking him into the net in the process.

20385635374_fde5b94f53_kTen minutes into the second half Horsham took the lead from one of the many free kicks awarded on the edge of the box.  Dan Evans strike clearing the wall and the keeper.  Number three arrived soon after, centre-back Matt Crane headed home from a free-kick then Brown made the tie safe with his second and Horsham YMCA’s fourth.  Despite a late Garrick goal for the Dockers, poor discipline in the second half in conceding so many free-kicks had been their undoing.

20820186050_5170df7dc0_kWith rain looming overhead and an approaching bus that run to the end of my road it was just too tempting.  Of course I hopped off one step early and stepped up the pace so I arrived home all of a fluster.  My reward for my healthy afternoon, a beer or two “because I’d earned it”.  Who doesn’t love the FA Cup?

In God’s Country


The new TV deal signed last season by the Premier League sides meant that this weekend’s football coverage started in unusual circumstances with a live Friday night game.  With games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, there has never been more games on TV than today (metaphorically not literally).  And for every game that is shown, cash flows onto the pockets of the clubs and ultimately the players pockets.  But whisper it quietly, Friday night also marked the start of the 2015/16 FA Cup.  In fact just 15 miles up the road from Villa Park, Coleshill Town were hosting Ellesmere Rangers at Tamworth FC in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round.  Whilst you would need the best part of £50 to get a top range ticket at Aston Villa versus Manchester United, you could pay almost a tenth of that to see the first step on the Road to Wembley.

The first few rounds of the FA Cup often bring some of the best moments of the season.  Normally, the FA will drawn the first three rounds of the competition, meaning that Step 7 clubs like Lewes will know the four potential opponents we will play before a ball in the competition is kicked.  I know that my good friend, and half of the brains and brawn behind The Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold believes one way to bring a bit more interest into the competition is to draw all of the rounds up until the Semi-Final at the start of the season, so that every club know who they could play if they win their next game (and the nine after that).  Slipping on my Chairman’s coat again you also have an eye on the draw for the potential to earn some cash.  Three wins in the competition at our level means £15k in prize money plus half of the gate receipts, or around another £500 a week on the playing budget.

20009867753_9c172e40a1_kWhilst we all dream of a trip to the Third Round, few teams ever get that far in reality.  On Sunday one of the final ties of the round featured AFC Emley of the Northern Counties East League Division One host Parkgate.  Whilst they may be eight victories away from the Third Round, the club has been there before.  Well, sort of.  Back in 1997/98, Emley AFC reached the 3rd round where they were drawn against West Ham United. Given zero chance of getting anything from The Boleyn Ground, they found themselves 1-0 after just four minutes.  But they weathered the storm on and off the pitch and equalised in 55th minute.  West Ham finally found a winner with eight minutes to go but the Yorkshiremen were given a standing ovation as they left the field at full-time.

The glory day for the club was forgotten within a decade as the club had been forced into a merger with Wakefield, then lost their identity altogether.  But Non-League fans are made of sterner stuff and in 2005 the new club, AFC Emley had been formed, bringing football back to the Yorkshire village.  In their first season in the West Yorkshire League they gained promotion to the level they are at now.

So why was I driving up into God’s Country to watch the start of the FA Cup?  That will be David Hartrick’s fault.  Being not only a jolly good chap but also the publisher of my next book (in all good bookshops by Christmas) we had boring stuff like fonts, typefaces and binding to talk about. Back in the day Hartch used to grace the turf at The Welfare Ground, not that he likes to talk about it.  On doing my research for the game I couldn’t help noticing the following words on the Emley website, which too me could have been stolen straight off my Lewes FC laptop (in fact it probably was it is that good).

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

With such a mission, who was I not to pay them a visit, picking up Non League Day’s finest, and fellow Ockley Books author, Mike Bayly who just happened to be hanging around Barnsley Interchange on a Sunday lunchtime.  He was on his own mission to find the top 100 grounds that we should all visit before we lose our marbles and whilst I am quite sure that The Welfare Ground wasn’t on his list before the game, perhaps it could be afterwards.

20636702625_1b299a43fb_kThe opponents, Parkgate, played in the league above Emley – the Toolstation Northern Counties Eastern League Premier Division (that one rolls off the tongue – and came into the game full of confidence after a fine 4-3 win away at Tadcaster last week.  Few would have backed the home side to get anything from the tie, but fortune sometimes favours the brave.

Sometimes beauty comes from the most unlikely places.  There couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than the afternoon we spend in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.  “Go down the country lane and just head for the Big Tower”, Dave told us.  You can’t appreciate the instructions unless you have been to Emley and seen the Emley Transmitting Tower for yourselves, a 330m erection that is the tallest freestanding structure in the United Kingdom.

AFC Emley 7 Parkgate 1 – The Welfare Ground – Sunday 16th August 2015
20444075419_cfeb6c092b_kFrom the moment we paid £6 (SIX!) to get into the ground and saw the first prize in the raffle was a “do-it-yourself” breakfast, an upmarket spin on a meat raffle – well, it contained at least two non-meat products, we knew we had arrived in one of the closest places to Non League heaven.  Decent food, served with a smile and just for a pound (pie, peas and gravy – tick), locals who loved to chat and one of the best team displays I’ve seen for a long long time.

Emley didn’t just win, they destroyed a team from a higher division.  It could have easily have been double figures.  Parkgate were missing a number of key players due to work commitments but even Huddersfield Town may have struggled to contain the attacking threat of Emley, who at times seemed to play with five up front.  Defending appeared to have gone out of fashion this far north.

It all started relatively calmly, with both teams playing the ball around, feeling each other out.  Then in the space for seven first half minutes Ash Flynn scored a hatrick, notable for the fact that Mike missed the first two (on the pie and peas run then toilet) and Hartch the third (bathroom).  Parkgate pulled one back from the penalty spot and had they gone on to convert one of their other chances before the break it could have been a different story.

20604498906_5ef88aa001_kBut Emley went for the kill as soon as the second half started.  Flynn scored a fourth, again missed by Hartch before the star of the show, right midfielder Jordan Conduri set up Kieron Ryan for the fifth after a superb exchange of passes, before scoring the sixth himself.  Number seven came in injury time when Alex Hallam drove home.  It was truly a rout and one that Parkgate will want to forget very quickly.  For Emley, the delights of Burscough await in the Preliminary Round.  Half as good a performance as this will see them progress even further.

Alas, we didn’t win the raffle but we did find the winner – he offered us the prize for a tenner, fifteen if we wanted to go to his Mum’s house and she would cook it for our tea.

US and them


We are very keen on eulogising about the magic of the FA Cup in this country and quite rightly so.  It is the oldest football competition in the world, full of nostalgia and goosebump-inducing moments.  Every fan of every club will have a story, a moment in history that they will never forget.  Some of us have experienced the elation at seeing our team win the trophy, such as I did as a ten-year old when perhaps the last ever second tier side, West Ham United, won the trophy. Some have had the despair at losing in a final, perhaps none so cruel as on penalties (stand up again West Ham fans for the last final to be settled in this way back in 2006). Today, with football dominated by money at the top-level of the game, many fans of Premier League clubs may not care about the FA Cup anymore. The Football Association themselves showed their true colours by selling naming rights and moving the semi-finals to Wembley Stadium, scheduling kick-off times when fans can’t use public transport to get home.

Many fans don’t know that the tournament actually starts before the Premier League kicks off in August.  Why would hundreds of thousands of fans want to know that?  After all, they are only interested in when their team plays – which for the most part is the Third Round on the first weekend of January.  By then, on average, there will be one “plucky” Non-League side left in the competition.  This season 736 teams entered the cup, with the first game being played on Friday 15th August when Hebburn Town kicked off against West Allotment Celtic.  The 182 winners in the Extra Preliminary Round back in August all received £1,500, whilst when Arsenal scooped the trophy in May they walked away with a cumulative sum of £3,737,500 which is not quite a drop in the ocean to them but enough to keep Jack Wilshere in tabs for a few more weeks.

Our national treasure is slowly becoming blighted by the same disease that has tainted the top-level of football in this country – money. Whilst the winners of the tournament pick up a cheque for £1.8million for lifting the trophy, Emirates will sponsor the tournament from next season for £10m.  Does the world’s oldest football challenge cup really need a sponsor?  As with most of football, if it has public recognition, then it can be sold.  FA Cup semi-finals are now played at the convenience of the global TV audience rather than so fans of the teams involved can actually easily get to and home again.

As luck, or more precise, work would have it, I was back in New York this week.  Of course I did my research into what sporting events I could attend post work.  I seemed to have chosen a good week – The Mets and Yankees were both at home, but more importantly it was the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup, the American equivalent of our FA Cup.

Now in its 102nd year, it is an older competition that the Super Bowl and the NBA Championship Play-Offs.  Whilst early winners such as Bethlehem Steel and St Luis Simkins-Ford are no longer around, it was the first tournament that united “soccer” in the country.  Last seasons winners, Seattle Sounders pocketed just $250,000 for winning the trophy, but they had already kissed goodbye to this year’s challenge, losing 3-1 at home to bitter rivals Portland Timber, finishing the game with just seven men.  Even better was the sending off of Clint Dempsey who then proceeded to snatch the referees notebook and rip out the page featuring his misdemeanour.

I had the choice of two games.  Tuesday had the New York RedBulls hosting Atlanta Silverbacks and Wednesday saw moneybags Manch…sorry, New York City travel to Long Island to play the legendary New York Cosmos.  Alas, whilst I would have loved to have seen both, I promised to be a little bit social and go out for dinner with the team in New York so it came down to a coin toss (which is ironically how they decide who will play at home in the US Open cup).  The RedBulls won.  Part of me was a little disappointed but in terms of logistics it was the better choice.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kWhilst New York Cosmos actually play in New York State rather than the RedBulls in New Jersey, it is a pain to get to.  Subway, then train into the heart of the ‘Burbs of Long Island then a school bus to Hofstra University where the James M. Shuart Stadium is.  Tickets were selling for over $50 on StubHub, which would get you a small place to park your bum on a metal bench, with no shelter from the forecasted storms heading in from the Atlantic.  You could also bet that Man…sorry, New York City wouldn’t be fielding “designated” players David Villa or Frank Lampard for the game.  Instead I paid the grand sum of $7.77 for 3 tickets for the RedBulls.  It was only fair that I treated Luge Pravda (of course) and TBIR rookie Tom Wells, who for those of you who want to be nosy, is the 13th different picture of “Tom Wells” on a Google Images search.  Generous to a tee.

RedBull Arena sits in Harrison, New Jersey, a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan.  I’m not sure what else would bring people to or from Harrison as alighting from the train all you can see is derelict buildings and parking lots that were once derelict buildings.  Since the 25,000 capacity stadium opened in 2010 the area around the stadium has remained, to put it politely “undeveloped”.  Whereas new build stadiums in this country always seem to be quickly surrounded by bland, uniform retail parks, the Americans, who love an out-of-town mall, seem to be missing a trick here.  There’s not even a spot to have a beer.

18690660598_6a98567ab8_kThe tickets I’d procured were in the name of Joey Levensberg.  As we entered the stadium we got a very warm welcome – “Welcome back Mr Levensberg.  Enjoy the game” – either he was a known name in these parts or the staff were simply very happy to see someone, anyone come to the game.  I had a feeling that based on previous experience that the crowd would be on the sparse side.  Back in 2012 I made my first trip here to see the RedBulls take on “rivals” DC United.  The place was rocking and both sets of fans gave a great account of themselves.  A few months later I returned and saw Sporting KC visit.  The official crowd that day was 11,000.  I’d estimate there was around a tenth of that in the stadium.  Apparently, the crowd was so low because the Yankees were playing on the same night.

Last year I was lucky to get a ticket for the World Cup Warm Up game between USA and Turkey – once again, superb atmosphere.  For this one we could choose which section we could have to ourselves.  I appreciate that the cup doesn’t hold the same interest as the league – that is a reserve of Germany and Germany alone it appears these days and that the Atlanta Silverbacks, who had just finished the Spring Season of the 2nd Tier NASL rock bottom weren’t the biggest draw, but surely the club could have given tickets away to local schools or community groups to boost the attendance?

18255958174_51fc4905a0_kThe visitors were managed by the English duo of ex-Enfield, Aylesbury and Welling United player Gary Smith, ably supported by ex-Leicester City winger and one-cap England wonder Steve Guppy.  However, with miserable league form had only been brightened up by an extra-time win away to NPSL (Third Tier) side Chattanooga in the previous round.  The RedBulls weren’t taking any chances and whilst across the Hudson and the East River, MLS rivals  New York City would be resting “designated” players Villa and Lampard, and Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be included in the LA Galaxy’s squad for their game against PSA Elite, their English star would be starting.

Many people may be surprised to hear that alongside the English duo, plus global stars Villa and Kaka, the MLS also features Bradley Wright-Phillips.  Son of Ian and brother of Shaun, it is fair to say he has been a bit of a sensation since he pitched up at the RedBulls in 2013 after leaving Charlton Athletic.  33 goals in just 51 games tells its own story.  Wright-Phillips can arguably call himself the most valuable Englishman in the MLS at the moment.

We waited for kick off which was supposed to be 7.30pm, but as usual in US sports when the time arrived, nobody was where they should be.  Luge had gone to sniff out some IPA whilst a small group of the RedBulls hardcore fans at the far end struck up a version of Twist and Shout.  At 7.39pm we got underway.  A couple brazenly came and sat in our section, although quickly apologised.  Apparently the low crowd was partly due to the Mets being at home and a new episode of Orange is the new Black on TV.

New York RedBulls 3 Atlanta Silverbacks 0 – RedBull Arena – Tuesday 16th June 2015
With fifteen minutes on the clock, Ronald Zubar tapped in from close range to put the home side 2-0 up and effectively end the tie.  The RedBulls had come out of the traps flying and dominated the opening exchanges with another ex-Charlton Athletic player, Lloyd Sam stroking home on 7 minutes after great work from Wright-Phillips and then Zubar in the right place at the right time.  It could have been an embarrassing night for the Silverbacks but the home side took their foot off the gas until the closing stages.

Bizarre licensing laws meant that despite even our poshest English accents couldn’t get us a beer after the 67th minute and our last cheer of the evening was reserved for Sean Davis (not that Sean Davis) scoring his first ever professional goal with just under twenty minutes to play.  It was time to leave and head back to the big city.  The official crowd had been announced as 5,585 – even the most ardent Red Bull fans would have scoffed at that number.  But it is what it is.  The US soccer fans seem to have the same attitude to the cup as those football fans in England, Italy or Azerbaijan.

Two days later the draw was made for the next round and what would you know, the Cosmos, fresh from beating New York City on penalties who make the trip to New Jersey to play the RedBulls. Let’s hope there are a few more fans in the stadium for that one.