COMMENT: 84 days after last season’s final, a new FA Cup campaign begins – and it starts in Portsmouth earlier than almost anywhere else

And Portsmouth is one of four places where the extra preliminary round kicks off on Friday night.

Baffins Milton Rovers brought forward their home game against Alton the next afternoon to avoid a clash with Pompey’s League One game against Lincoln at Fratton Park.

So they can attract a few more viewers, sell a few more burgers, a few more pints, a few more programs (and the Baffins program is very good); on the ninth floor of the pyramid, every penny counts.

Liverpool’s Kostas Tsimikas celebrates after the FA Cup final victory over Chelsea last season. Eighty-four days later, the 2022/23 tournament begins. Photo by Adam Davy/PA Wire.

A total of 732 clubs took part in the 2022/23 competition (down from just 15 in the first season, 1871/72 – and three of them pulled out before playing). Of these 732, 416 begin their journey this weekend. The Baffins are one of eight to start it earlier than most.

Financially, victory is worth £1,125 – £1,998,875 less than what the winners will pocket at Wembley next May.

Thirteen wins will see Baffins – or their Wessex League rivals AFC Portchester, Moneyfields, Fareham, Horndean and US Portsmouth, all of whom begin their bid for glory on Saturday afternoon – with a chance to claim that £2m jackpot.

Of course that’s not going to happen – no Wessex League club has ever reached the first round proper before, no Portsmouth area club has ever progressed past the third qualifying round whilst a member from Wessex – but our local Stage 5 players can dream. Four hundred and sixteen different clubs allow you to dream on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Among them is Chichester City, which reached the second round proper three years ago. You see, it’s the Football Association Challenge Cup. Dreams can come true.

This weekend’s FA Cup matches celebrate the diverse nation we have become.

From Bradford, Albion Sports – founded in the mid 1990s as a Sunday League side, they have already won the British Asia Championship title.

From Gravesend, Punjab United – another club with a Sunday League history, and so named because the majority of players were of Asian descent.

From Cheshunt, FC Romania. And from the capital, New Salamis (a club founded for the Cypriot community), St. Panteleimon (Greek Orthodox community), Hilltop (Somali community) and the Maccabi London Lions (Jewish community).

The fixture list also reminds us of the nation we once were. A nation of coal mines (Pontefract Collieries, Kimberley Miners Welfare, Sherwood Colliery – Atherton Collieries enter preliminary round stage) and factories (Vauxhall Motors, Avro, Prescot Cables, Stocksbridge Park Steels). People who worked underground, who worked on production lines.

Other clubs evoke images of a different England, a landscape more bucolic than marked by mine shafts, mills and chimneys – Walsham Le Willows, Mousehole, Peaceheaven & Telscombe, Virginia Water, Chalfont St Peter, Barnoldswick, Bugbrooke St Michaels.

There are town clubs you’ve probably never heard of (unless you’re a land lover or have a very good knowledge of English geography) – Golcar (Huddersfield), Buckhurst Hill ( Essex), Takeley (Essex), Pinchbeck (Lincolnshire), Brantham (Suffolk), Long Melford (Suffolk) and Little Common (Bexhill-on-Sea, Suffolk).

There are clubs whose name gives no indication of where they are based – White Ensign (Southend), K Sports (Aylesford, Kent), Romulus (Birmingham). Money fields are another.

There are clubs that have seen far greater days than the FA Cup extra preliminary round: Walton & Hersham, who beat Brian Clough’s Brighton at the Goldstone Ground in 1974; Whitley Bay, who knocked out Preston North End in 1989; Burscough, a town of less than 10,000 that somehow won the FA Trophy – non-league football’s FA Cup – in 2003; and Bishop Auckland, who in 1955 won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley against Hendon in front of a barely believable (in today’s world) crowd of 100,000.

And then there’s Bury AFC, the club’s phoenix offspring who still hold the (joint) record for highest FA Cup final victory.

Bury AFC, founded in 2020, a year after Bury was expelled from the EFL for financial reasons, is taking part in the FA Cup for the first time.

They were drawn to Sheffield-based Hallam, believed to be the second-oldest football club in the world, having been founded in 1860 – 38 years before Portsmouth FC were founded.

Old and new came together for an afternoon – 119 years after Bury beat Derby County 6-0 in the final. They must have thought, unsurprisingly, that was a record they would hold forever – until Manchester City beat Watford by the same scoreline in 2019.

AFC Wimbledon, Newport and Aldershot have shown it is possible to start over in the lower leagues and move up to the promised land of the Football League (and EFL Trophy games against Premier League youth).

Bury AFC’s first full season since formation saw them play in Division One North of the North West Counties League – the 10th tier of the pyramid. They won it at a gallop, losing only one match. But still, with a fixture list including Daisy Hill, Cleator Moor Celtic and Garstang, a far cry from the six-goal FA Cup final; indeed, for a more modern comparison, a far cry from May 1998 when Bury finished 17th in the second tier – above Manchester City (who were relegated). Imagine that now!

So good luck to all our local clubs in Wessex, good luck to Bury AFC. And remember, Chichester City progressed from the extra preliminary round to the first round proper in 2019. Ok, they were the first club in 70 years to achieve such a feat, but it can be done.

Anyone for Baffins v Pompey in the FA Cup first round in November? Or Moneyfields versus Pompey? United States Portsmouth versus Pompey? Well, if you can’t dream, you shouldn’t get involved in football…

About Marco C. Nichols

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