THE FA Trophy splits opinion.

Non-league football’s version of the FA Cup is often seen as little other than an unwelcome distraction to clubs and fans from the National League downwards, but with Macclesfield Town and York City gearing up for this year’s final, we take a look at the merits and pitfalls of the tournament as a whole.

Macclesfield Town and York City in the FA Trophy Final photo shoot. (Credit to the York City Facebook page)
Macclesfield Town and York City in the FA Trophy Final photo shoot. (Credit to the York City Facebook page)

The Case for the Prosecution

In 2016 Cheltenham Town arranged their second round trophy replay with Oxford City within 24 hours of a crunch league clash with rivals Kidderminster Harriers.

Although this move was eventually blocked at the eleventh hour by a combination of the FA and National League, the intention was perfectly clear.

The senior team was to play in the Kidderminster game whilst the trophy tie would be viewed as just another fixture for the youth side to fulfil.

Why should it matter that the matches were played at such close proximity when only one would actually feature the fully-fledged Cheltenham Town players?

“Everyone is aware the overriding priority for us is winning the National League” said Cheltenham chairman Paul Baker after calls from the media and fans alike that his team were disrespecting the trophy.

“Like any business we prioritise our resources” he remarked, all but rubber stamping that his side would not be lifting that particular piece of silverware come May.

When the trophy tie was played a week later the Robins lost 3-0 and fielded a side of whom only three players had a recognised senior squad number.

Interestingly the decision was somewhat vindicated as the protected senior team went on a five-game winning streak, conceding just two goals in the process and even winning that rearranged Kidderminster game with consummate ease.
Less than three months later they were National League champions and promoted to the Football League free from any thoughts of the FA Trophy.
This was not an isolated incident of a team blatantly treating the FA Trophy with discontent.
In this season’s first round trophy clash with Harlow Town, National League side Eastleigh fielded a team of first year scholars which bore the shirt numbers 33 to 44, unheard of in non-league football.
The Eastleigh manager at the time was Martin Allen and he has previous in looking at the FA Trophy unfavourably.
In 2014 when managing Barnet he fielded a very similar line-up at home by Concord Rangers, his young charges were humbled 6-2.
Allen clearly sees the FA Trophy as a problem he could do without.
But why?
The prize fund distribution for the 2016-17 FA Trophy. (Credit
The prize fund distribution for the 2016-17 FA Trophy. (Credit
With prize money for every round successfully negotiated and most non-league clubs operating on something of a hand-to-mouth existence, surely the trophy should be seen as a chance to boost the bank balances of clubs who are often counting the pennies on a regular basis.
Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, the final of the trophy is held at one of the most iconic stadiums in world football, Wembley Stadium.
Most professional footballers never get to play at England’s national arena.
Non-league players even less so, and yet the opportunity can sometimes be passed-up with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, or is that just an urban myth perpetuated by the headline-making cases of Eastleigh and Cheltenham?
We’ve crunched the numbers to see how supporters and clubs alike view the FA Trophy and the results make for interesting reading.
Team Selection:
If the FA Trophy is genuinely seen as a second-rate competition, then it would be assumed that managers would experiment in terms of team selection, certainly more than the average tinkering which goes on between league matches.
Since National League teams have largest squads of all the teams that compete in the trophy and therefore more opportunity to preserve their preferred players for the next league clash, we’ve analysed exactly how many changes each team has made to their starting eleven for each FA Trophy game and then how many changes were made for the two league games (or FA Cup game, a tournament with undeniable prestige) either side of that potentially unwanted trophy tie.
Replays (which are usually played within four days of the initial tie) haven’t been included in these statistics. Additionally, on occasions when a club has played in two rounds of the FA Trophy with no league game in-between, only one reading has been made.

Changes Per Game (CPG) before matches
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We found that over 58 instances, an average of 2.91 changes per game (cpg) were made for an FA Trophy game, whereas only 2.38 cpg were made for the league (or FA Cup) matches either side of them.

So we know that more changes are made for FA Trophy ties but not by an overwhelming amount, certainly not enough to prove the tournament is superfluous.

Interestingly there is a quite incredible disparity between the top half of the National League and the bottom half with regards to rotating for trophy ties.

While both halves of the table independently made 2.38 cpg for league encounters either side of trophy commitments the lower half actually made as few as 2.29 cpg for a trophy match, that’s less than they made in-between league games.

The top half of the table, with sides chasing a coveted spot in the Football League, made as many as 3.35 changes for an FA Trophy game however, enough for us to infer that these clubs concentrate the majority of their efforts and resources on achieving promotion than they do on the FA Trophy.


Can’t we have both?

So we’ve seen occasions where clubs, certainly in the top half of the National League, do appear to look at the FA Trophy as less important than league games, but where has this idea that come from?
We’ve taken a look at how uncommon it is to do well in both the league and the FA Trophy?
Since the current incarnation of the National League, or Conference Premier as it was known, was created in 2004 there have been 12 FA Trophy finals, with this year’s showpiece between Macclesfield Town and York City yet to be played.
Of the 26 finalists, only four of those sides have achieved promotion to the Football League (15%).The 2010 Stevenage Borough side are the only ones to do so by winning the fifth tier.
York City (2012) and Cambridge United (2014) are the only teams to gain promotion to League Two as well as winning the trophy although an honourable mention should go to Grays Athletic who in 2005 managed to win the Conference South as well as the FA Trophy.

FA Trophy finalists league finish (same season)
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FC Halifax Town

The current holders of the trophy FC Halifax Town were relegated from the National League the same season they claimed the silverware.
We surveyed over 130 of their supporters to ask if they felt their impressive trophy run had a detrimental run on their league form.
Although just over half (52%) said that they felt the FA Trophy run had no clear effect on their league form, only 11% said it had helped, but of course there are several factors to blame for a team’s relegation.

Did your FA Trophy run affect your league form? (Several Teams)

Fans of the West Yorkshire club were also asked if they would swap their triumph at Wembley to be back in the National League and the Shaymen were split almost down the middle.

46% said no, that watching their side win at the National Stadium was too sacred to be traded, however 49% said they would, although most of whom admitted that the FA Trophy win would stay with them forever.

The remaining 5% said it was too close to call.

Perhaps the most telling piece of information gained from speaking to the Halifax fans was how it felt to win the FA Trophy.

96% of fans said it was one of the top five days they’d ever had supporting Halifax.

60% said it was their number one and 97% acknowledged it was a tournament worth doing well in, a vast majority.

FC Halifax Town: How did winning the FA Trophy feel?

Players and Managers:

Having spoken to supporters, we thought it was best to ask players and managers how they view the FA Trophy.

Current Torquay United manager and former FA Trophy finalist Kevin Nicholson gave us his honest assessment.

“The trophy is a great competition” he began, “but doesn’t seem to be taken seriously until you find yourself in the quarter-finals.

“The league is always the priority, whether it’s trying to get out of it or trying to stay in it but when you’re a couple of games from Wembley I think it takes on a whole different feel.

The Trophy is a great competition, but doesn’t seem to be taken seriously until you find yourself in the quarter-finals”

Kevin Nicholson, Torquay United manager

“I’ve been lucky enough to play at Wembley in the final, unfortunately we lost (to Ebbsfleet in 2008) but it was an amazing experience and I’ve always wanted my teams to push on in the competition”, he said.

In short Nicholson backed-up a lot of what we’d already inferred, it isn’t as important as the league but if you start doing well it really gains significance.

Current Macclesfield Town captain Andy Halls told us that “leading the lads out at Wembley will definitely be the highlight of my career”.

His teammate Danny Whitaker looks set to feature in this year’s trophy final for a club he’s represented in nine seasons but he also told us he felt his side’s successful run had impacted negatively on their National League play-off push.

“Firstly it’s a fantastic achievement for the football club to even get to a cup final with having one of the lowest playing budgets in the league and coming up against the so called bigger teams in our league”, he told us.

Danny Whitaker and Bill Gorton celebrate Macclesfield reaching the FA Trophy final. (Credit to Macclesfield Town Facebook page)
Danny Whitaker and Bill Gorton celebrate Macclesfield reaching the FA Trophy final. (Credit to Macclesfield Town Facebook page)

“Playing in any cup final is the pinnacle of a player’s career but to do it for your local club where I started my career is unbelievable and something you will never forget providing you win of course.

“I’d definitely say the backlog of fixtures hindered our league form for sure” he admitted, “mainly because other teams were playing on a Saturday and sometimes winning which means we’re going into our games in hand knowing we’d have to win.

“It creates a completely different kind of pressure, if we were just playing on a Saturday as normal you’re going into the game without knowing any results and playing your normal game”.

By Whitaker’s own admission, the trophy run came at a cost, but maybe he’ll think it was a price worth paying when he’s played at the National Stadium, we took a look at what those who’ve scored at the home of football said about the occasion?

North Ferriby United’s trophy-winner Ryan Kendall said he’d “never forget his Wembley moments” after scoring twice in their win over Wrexham, he went on to say it was the “biggest day of his career”.

Halifax full-back Scott McManus said his decisive goal in last years’ final was “one of the best moments of my life”.

A moment afforded to him by the FA Trophy.

To conclude the FA Trophy gave FC Halifax Town fans the best day of their football supporting lives and the man who scored the winning goal felt the same.

It’s got its faults, sure.

Maybe the tournament should be fully regionalised, maybe replays should be scrapped, maybe the winner should enter the first round of the following years FA Cup as an incentive, we’ve all got our own ideas, but when all’s said and done who doesn’t want to be a winner?

Non-league fans rarely get to watch their side play on a ground remotely comparable to Wembley.

All footballers treasure the experience, even if they end up on the losing side.

And those fortunate enough to win, well you never know quite how it feels until it happens, just ask FC Halifax Town.

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