It is not only the FA Cup that mixes minnows with giants: county cups do so, too. Gavin Willacy champions these wrongly neglected events

Having despatched Northern League Second Division strugglers Prudhoe, Newcastle United face the University of Northumbria in the cup ­quarter-finals. This is not fantasy football, FIFA 08, or Football Manager. It’s the Northumberland Senior Cup, one of the many county cups that feature Premier League giants taking on not only players who are unknown outside of their front doors, but whole teams that few people have even heard of. In the midst of the 21st century sports business world, they are as much of an anachronism as the Boat Race, the ­Varsity Match or cricket festivals.

Last season, a young Newcastle second string beat Blyth Spartans on penalties in the final at St James’ Park in front of more than 2,000. En route they had visited Alnwick Town (where they won 7-0), North Shields and Whitley Bay: the NUFC brand was taken into its heartlands and on to Sunderland territory, in a way that is seldom seen these days. Similarly surreal fixtures are repeated on Merseyside and in the west midlands.

There are several reasons why Premier League clubs still enter. There is tradition, as most county cups were among the first competitions these clubs ever contested. There is a desire for extra games for young professionals; they are an opportunity to promote the club to the fanbase; some have a commitment to local football; while others have to – some county FAs make entry an obligatory part of senior membership. The three London associations sadly do not. So there is no humbling of Arsenal, Tottenham or Chelsea youngsters on the bobbly pitches of Dulwich Hamlet, Harrow Borough or Wembley FC.

The demise of reserve-team football has led to a rise in the role of the county cup in Manchester, where the Senior Cup is a ­season-long competition featuring the area’s six League clubs. Man Utd reserves – managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – have just nine FAPL Reserve League games in the first six months of this season, potentially leaving several players without competitive football for weeks. Instead, those reserve-league games are supplemented by a five-game cup schedule running from September to February, followed by a final. United are the current holders after beating Bolton at Old Trafford last May. They also won it in 2006, when two goals from Fraizer Campbell and one by Giuseppe Rossi saw off Oldham; Gabriel Heinze also played. Man City, meanwhile, had beaten Ricky Sbragia’s United at Eastlands in 2005. Occasionally someone else gets in on the act: Oldham defeated City (including a young Joey Barton) in 2002.

As with the FAPL Reserve League, fewer star names turn out in the county cups than in the past. With so many European matches, the top clubs want to protect players rather than risk them in reserve games, where they will often be up against teenagers. Most Newcastle fans would not even recognise any of the youngsters who began the defence of their title at Prudhoe. But how many Sculcoates Amateurs players care that the Hull side they knocked out on penalties in November didn’t include a single Premier League player? That Tigers reserve team still beat Man Utd the next week. Marine players will reminisce for years about the night they beat Liverpool in the Liverpool FA Cup final. That Waterloo Dock and East Villa are in the draw along with Liverpool and Everton is surely something to treasure.

Unfortunately, this all happens in a media vacuum. Most county FAs do not have the budget or staff to promote their competitions. It is down to the clubs and most do a dreadful job. The crowd for St Albans City’s only game against a League club this season – at home to Barnet in the Herts Senior Cup – was less than half than their Blue Square South average. It wasn’t even listed in their fixtures and there was no programme. But Barnet boss Paul Fairclough hardly enjoyed watching his team’s hapless 3-0 defeat.

How much the cups matter varies around the nation. Stoke v Port Vale in the Staffordshire Senior Cup final will never be a reserve-team amble, and when Preston met Blackpool in the Lancashire Cup final 12 years ago, 4,000 were at Deepdale to see David Moyes captain North End to victory.

The Lancashire Senior Cup epitomises what these events offer. In the late 1980s, this was a feisty pre-season tournament for the old mill-town clubs, until the Lancashire Constabulary brought an end to it. Now a 12-club, reserve-team, mid-winter knockout competition, it includes five Premier League clubs – among them Man Utd and Bolton, but not Man City. Last July, United beat Liverpool in the 2008 final. Liverpool had beaten Accrington in their semi-final, and Stanley face United in the first round this month. If United win they will play Rochdale next. With the FAPL Reserve League and academy youth football promoting exclusive elitism, it will be a rare opportunity for such minnows to host the European champions. Long   may that chance continue.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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