The FA Cup, restored to season-opening status for clubs at tiers nine and ten, has lost none of its draw as a unique occasion for non-league sides in the 21st century. As AFC Uckfield Town welcome Little Common FC to The Oaks tonight, the curtain-raiser for a season set to be like no other presents a significant opportunity for both, writes Will Hugall.
In all its 148 years of history, football’s oldest ongoing cup competition has seldom seen changes like those enforced this calendar year, with the return of spectators under managed numbers only very recently confirmed. Just one month on, also, since Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2020 Final, the cup starts up again to ensure the sheer number of entrants can remain as in any other season.
There are other changes this season. Replays have been scrapped in order to minimise the need for travel, so ties must be finished on the day, with extra-time and penalties if required. Prize money for the competition has also been affected; being reduced at every stage after an FA announcement citing the financial impact of COVID-19.
Six months on since their last competitive action, however, the clubs entering at the earliest possible stage – the Extra Preliminary Round – tonight will have little concern over those changes. The steps taken even to get back to making these games playable have been huge, and the rewards for those sacrifices will be in seeing action return to grounds.
So, as Steve Ives and Graeme Mintrim’s Uckers squad prepare for the test of Russell Eldridge’s Green Lane Boys, it would be appropriate to see how both have been preparing this summer.
The Uckers, of course, will see this match as an exciting opportunity for their new-look line-up. The first official match in charge for Ives – who previously managed Uckfield from 2014 to 2015 – and Mintrim as a pairing, it follows a testing pre-season that took them to Haywards Heath Town, Corinthian FC and Sutton Common Rovers before finishing with a 1-1 draw at home to Ramsgate last weekend.
This evening’s visitors, who have built an interesting rivalry with the Uckers in recent seasons, followed a season in which they sat 13th before the abandonment of play with three recent friendlies; travelling to Westfield, Hailsham and Storrington and picking up impressive results at each. With news over the summer that they could return to their previous home at Bexhill Recreation Ground in the near future, efforts have been focused towards the necessary improvements there, but they are currently scheduled to continue playing at The Oval in Eastbourne.
Only first entering the FA Cup in 2017-18, Common secured their first-ever victories in the competition last term by impressively beating Corinthian and Three Bridges, together leading to a narrow exit to Hendon at the First Qualifying Round – a result they will hope to improve on this term.
Raising their game in each of the last two seasons for the cup, the Uckers reached the Second Qualifying Round in 2018-19 to give Dartford FC of the National League South a genuine scare, and also last year came a whisker away from defeating VCD Athletic at the Preliminary Round as a penalty shoot-out had to decide a tie that lasted for over 210 minutes.
Hopes will be high that both teams can replicate their recent glories in the competition tonight, with either Stansfeld or Punjab United awaiting in the Preliminary Round and £1,125 also on offer for the winners.
As football returns in the oldest cup competition the world has to offer, the occasion could scarcely be better for a pulsating return to non-league football for the 2020-21 season. Kick-off is 7:30pm at The Oaks tonight, with 300 spectators now allowed at the ground, and entry is £6 for adults, £3 for concessions and free for Under-16s.
Come on you Uckers!