Can you name an English soccer team?
OK, besides Manchester United?
Two years ago, i couldn't either. So i had no appreciation for the nature of what transpired this past weekend during the 3rd round of England's FA Cup.
Here's the background. The FA Cup has been contested annually since 1880. It is open to all English football clubs, at every competitive level, and the winner gains entry into the following year's prestigious Champions League competition featuring the best sides in Europe. This year, something like 750 teams entered.
The nearest thing like it on the American sports scene is the NCAA basketball tournament held over 3 consecutive weekends in March and April. In that tournament, the champion of the Atlantic Sun or Horizon conference can find themselves drawn against a team from one of the powerhouse conferences like the Atlantic Coast or the Big East. So the FA Cup is like that, only more so.
See, in England, everybody plays football. So pretty much everybody's on a team. And all these teams get to enter the Cup.
Now, there aren't any brackets or seeding committees to deal with, either. What happens is that the teams playing in the top flight of competitions get byes through to later stages of the tournament. There are four nationwide competitive leagues in England, the Premiership, the Championship, League One, and League Two, from top to bottom. The Premiership is where you find teams like Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and, of course, Manchester United. Rosters on these clubs are chock full of players who are starters for their countries in international competition. Below these are the regional conferences and various local affiliations. During the course of regular league competition, teams that finish in the top two or three in their league can be promoted up to the next level of competition, while teams that finish in the bottom places can be relegated down a division. Entry point into the competition is based on a team's place during that year.
So, there are 6 rounds of qualifying play before the actual tournament proper begins. At that point, the 48 teams from League 1 and League 2 enter the competition against the remaining 32 teams from the various conferences. Don't forget, most of the conference teams are made up of weekend players who have full time jobs, kids, rent, all of the other distractions that make up a life for someone who isn't a top level professional athlete.
The first two rounds of the competition proper reduce the surviving teams down to 20, at which point the 44 teams from the Championship and Premiership are drawn into the tournament.
So, let's take a brief look at Nuneaton Borough AFC
, who play in the Conference North
, and are still alive in the competition. Nuneaton entered the tournament in the 2nd qualifying round, and won their home match with AFC Telford on September 25, in front of 1174 fans. Their 3rd round qualifier against Chelmsford City FC
(who sit mid-table in the Ryman League Premier Division) ended in a 1-1 draw at home, with just under a thousand in attendance. Nuneaton won the replay 4 days later on October 12 2-1 at Chelmsford, with 379 fans attending. That won them a fixture against Tiverton Town FC
, who are a mid-level team playing in the Southern Premier League. Once again, the first home match ended in a draw, and the replay, at Tiverton, saw Nuneaton advance 1-0, in front of a crowd of 885. In the first round proper, Nuneaton picked up a match against Ramsgate FC
, who play in the Ryman First Division, and had themselves won matches in the Preliminary, First, Second Third and Fourth qualifying rounds. Nuneaton won that match, 2-0 on November 4, as attendance climbed to 2100+. This earned them a fixture with Histon
, an upper table club who play in the Conference South, with a shot at promotion at the end of the year. The first leg played at Nuneaton ended in a 2-2 draw on December 3. Nuneaton took the replay 2-1 at Histon, with almost 3100 attending.
This past Saturday, Nuneaton got their reward, as Premiership club Middlesbrough
, currently 16th in the top flight but still alive in UEFA Cup competition in Europe, visited for the 3rd round draw. 6000 fans turned out for this game as Nuneaton, who sit around 100 places below Boro, earned a 1-1 draw, and a replay at Middlesbrough for the right to take on Championship side Coventry in the fourth round.
As The Guardian describes it
Mark Viduka and Yakubu Aiyegbeni led the attack against a Nuneaton central defence of the 39-year-old semi-retired Terry Angus and the 32-year-old club captain Neil Moore. The two forwards may yet be spared a repeat performance if Angus cannot take next Tuesday off work.
"You might look at it overall and say a draw is fair enough," said Angus. "If I get there, work permitting, we'll give it a go in the replay. We've got a game plan and we'll go for it."
So, hopefully that gives a bit of perspective on the accomplishments of some of these teams this past weekend. Nuneaton holding Middlesbrough to a draw is kind of like your church league over-30 roundball team taking Duke to double-overtime. League 2 Leyton Orient took out Premier side Fulham FC 2-1, which is kind of like the Stetson Hatters beating Carolina.
But for the biggest, most inspiring match of the weekend, look to the Brewers of Burton Albion FC
, home of great pale ale and the worlds worst logo
. Remember at the top of the piece i asked you to name an English soccer team? Well, Conference North Burton, who played a local Cup competition earlier in the season before 119 family members, drew Manchester United as their 3rd round opponent in a home fixture. Nearly 6200 fans packed the Pirelli Stadium, as Burton held the Red Devils to a 0-0 draw, and earned a replay on the 18th at Old Trafford. That's like your church league team taking the San Antonio Spurs into overtime.
And that's an inspiration for every one of us who strives to compete, at any level, in any endeavor. The Burton-Man. U game is being rebroadcast tonight (Monday 9 January) at 8 eastern time on Fox Soccer Channel. I'll be watching.
Labels: bad logos, FA Cup
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