Barring an aberration when the powers that be decided the FA Cup 3rd round should be played before Christmas, the fans of the bigger clubs get their first taste of the world’s oldest knock out competition in the first week of a new year. The clubs in the bottom two tiers of league football traditionally join the competition in November with the 1st round proper being the start the main stream media coverage.
The FA Cup adventure for the clubs in the Northern League however began back in August of this year, in only the second week of the Premier League season. Unfortunately for the clubs in the Northern League, this year saw the FA adopt a new groupings format that meant in the first three qualifying rounds, the Northern League clubs were drawn against each other. Thirty-five out of thirty-six Northern League clubs surveyed protested at the new arrangements, arguing that the adventure and magic of playing different teams was lost as they were drawn against their regular league opponents. Thankfully this has been changed for next season and the draw, whilst remaining geographically sensible for clubs at this level, will include a wider range of potential opponents.
This weekend sees the fourth and final qualifying round of the FA Cup and two Northern League clubs have battled through numerous ties to be within 90 minutes of the first round. Hebburn Town of the Northern League Division Two are up against near neighbours and Blue Square Premier outfit Gateshead. For a far more detailed preview of this game take a look at Andy Hudson’s piece for In Bed With Maradona and also numerous features on The Real FA Cup.
Also facing a daunting task are Ashington AFC who travel to Cleethorpes to face former Football League club Grimsby Town. So far in the competition Ashington have disposed of fellow Northern League clubs Ryton & Crawcrook Albion, Northallerton Town and Shildon before knocking out higher level opposition in the shape of Vauxhall Motors and Guiseley. Ashington manager Gary Middleton has assembled a squad of good young talent combined with some astute signings of youngster released from the local professional clubs. Johnny Godsmark, Matthew Grieve and Darren Lough were all on the books at Newcastle United and featured at junior and reserve level for the Magpies. Godsmark is a flying winger who has the potential to cause problems for the Grimsby defence with his blistering pace. Grieve, an Ashington lad, joined in the summer after a trial at Leyton Orient, and his performances have alerted scouts higher up the football food chain. Lough is an attacking left-back who unfortunately won’t feature against Grimsby after suffering a fractured skull against Vauxhall Motors in the second qualifying round. Lough is one of three players to have suffered serious injuries along with Steven Young and Gareth Bainbridge. The Ashington players have said in the build up to the game that they want to win the game for these players.
Ashington have sold out their supporters buses for the trip to Lincolnshire and many more fans are expected to make their own way to Blundell Park. Here is hoping that Hebburn Town and Ashington can make it two Northern League clubs in the hat for the first round proper.