Hand-painted signs from an FA Cup tie at Sheffield United.

(Updated October 2018)

One of the best things about watching English soccer is that there are so many games to watch – and some of them are magical just because of who is playing who. Nowhere is this more true than in the FA Cup.

Not exactly a "jumbotron"

The FA Cup will take you to some old-fashioned football matches.

In English football, there are several different competitions, even for teams at the top level of the game. There’s the league schedule, then two ongoing domestic tournaments and two European tournaments … and, of course, that’s just for the clubs. Countries play each other in regional competitions like the European Championships (next in 2020) and the World Cup (2022).

For me, though, the greatest of them all is the FA Cup.

What is the FA Cup?

English football leagues and cups.

The FA Cup. Actually, this is a replica of the 1911 Cup, in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

It’s simple: You take pretty much every team in the country and have a tournament. For the 2018-19 version, which is #138, there were 736 eligible clubs.

But it isn’t like an American tournament, where some committee seeds the teams and the top team plays the bottom team in Round 1, and so on.

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The FA Cup works like this: there are several qualifying rounds where tiny, non-professional teams all play each other, grouped by region so they don’t have to travel very far. But it’s completely unseeded, and who plays where is completely random. You take all the teams for that qualifying round, throw them into a pot, and pull them out: first team home, second team away. Whoever wins moves on and gets a (progressively bigger) check from the Football Association.

Then, you take all the winners from that round, introduce slightly larger teams, throw them all into a pot, and do it all over. Eventually you get through six qualifying rounds and 32 teams arrive at the First Round Proper.

A Pyramid of Leagues

English Football Pyramid

All the leagues of England.

Now, let me take a moment to explain the pyramid system. You’ve heard of the Premier League; that’s your Manchester Uniteds, your Liverpools, etc. That’s the top tier of a multi-level system, which you can see in the picture above. (If you really want to delve into this stuff, read my post A Guide to the Leagues and Cups of English Soccer.)

In the FA Cup, at each round, they introduce teams from the next level up. So at this First Round Proper, all 32 teams who survived the previous rounds – and some “minnows” may have won six straight games to get here – are joined by 48 fully professional teams from the Football League’s lower two divisions, which are called League One and League Two.

These 80 teams play another unseeded round, then the 80 winners play Round Two. And then, at the Third Round on the first weekend in January, those 40 winners are joined by the teams from the top two levels, the Football League Championship and the Premier League.

Minnows vs Giants

English football leagues and cups.

Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United. I saw 4th Round FA Cup game there in 2014.

Remember, each round is 100% random as to who plays where. This is why, in these first two or three rounds, you start hearing the phrase, “The Magic of the Cup.”

This is why Liverpool might be playing at a place called AFC Wimbledon, Birmingham City has to go to Blyth, and mighty Manchester United might be playing at Yeovil Town. (All of these happened in recent tournaments.)

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A little perspective here: Liverpool has 18 league titles, seven FA Cup wins, and a stadium with 54,000 seats. But they once had to play the first weekend of January at AFC Wimbledon, a team which didn’t exist until 2002 and has a stadium that holds 4,850 people – only 2,265 in seats! The rest are on terraces. Imagine Duke not just playing Coastal Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, but having to play at Coastal Carolina.

Again: Manchester United, 20 league titles, 11 FA Cups, probably the best-known team in the English-speaking world, playing at Yeovil Town (9,000 capacity, 5,000 seats). Imagine the Yankees having to play a single-elimination tournament game in, oh, Topeka, in front of 5,000 people.

This “magic of the cup” is among the many reasons I think American fans will fall in love with English soccer.

Croft Park, home of Blyth FC (via Paul Armstrong on Flickr)

And as for Blyth … let’s talk about them. You hear the phrase “non-league.” That means they are somewhere on the pyramid below level four, or the top 92 teams in the country. This is like NCAA Division 3 or lower. This is Rookie League baseball. Blyth FC, in a town of 35,000 people way up near Scotland, was founded in 1899. In 2014 they were in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football. They were probably ranked about #150. They’ve only made the Third Round three times, and once they went all the way to the Fifth Round, which is the round of 16. Their stadium, Croft Park (left), holds 4,435 people – but it’s only got 556 seats!

How did they get here? Well, in the Second Round they played at Hartlepool United, then a League Two (fourth tier) team, and got the winner in the final minutes. This lead from the BBC story tells you all you need to know:

Jarrett Rivers became part of FA Cup folklore by scoring in the 90th minute to send non-league Blyth Spartans through to the third round at the expense of League Two side Hartlepool.

Rivers, 21 – who works in his mother’s convenience store – broke forward on the right, produced a lovely step-over in the box before firing in a low angled shot that beat the reach of Scott Flinders.

It sparked jubilant scenes as the scorer was engulfed by his team-mates, while some of the 1,111 Spartans fans that travelled the 40 miles down the north east coast ran on, overwhelmed with emotion in front of the BBC TV cameras.

(Emphasis added, and I translated “newsagent” into “convenience store.”)

Speaking of the cameras, here are the highlights, Blyth in green. Look at the size of the stadium – it’s almost twice as big as Blyth’s!

And while we’re here, enjoy this story about a man who has seen 1,500 consecutive Blyth games – every one since 1987. Think he had fun in Hartlepool the other night?

And here, truly, is the Magic of the Cup; Blyth’s ball came out first for the Third Round, which means they got to host Birmingham City, then in the second tier and ranked #39.

(Update: Blyth was leading Birmingham, 2-0, at halftime … but lost, 3-2.)

A Great Time to Go

England at Christmas: A party on and off the pitch.

With the Third Round on the first weekend in January, the holiday period is absolutely one of the best times to see soccer in England, if you can stand the weather. All the leagues also play several games during the holidays, including the whole nation on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

Another great time is for the semifinals, which are played on the same weekend at Wembley Stadium in London. For the 2018-19 edition, that’s April 6 and 7. The Final is May 18, 2019.

Whenever you can get there, if it’s an early or middle round of the FA Cup, you’re bound to run into some footy magic. There’s nothing else like it.

 

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