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.
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.
I’m glad though that Cheltenham haven’t been allowed to show the blatent disregard and disrespect to the FA Trophy that they were trying to
— Charlotte Paddock (@chop_emms11) January 18, 2016
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.
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?
FA Trophy finalists league finish (same season)
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FC Halifax Town
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.
“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.