The FA Cup magic of legend and cliché has fallen down the bill of English football's variety show of late. Wembley glory is all very well, but it does not pay the bills like UEFA Champions League qualification or avoiding relegation. But while it can still throw up fixtures like Liverpool FC v Havant & Waterlooville FC, there is life in the 136-year-old competition yet.
Road to Wembley
While the top two divisions of English football enter the FA Cup in the third round in January, and the rest of the league in the first round two months earlier, by that stage two preliminary rounds and four qualifying rounds have whittled down 639 'non-league' clubs. The process began on 17 August, when the likes of Darwen FC, Hullbridge Sports FC and Maltby Main FC saw their cup dreams die for another year. By late September the competition had reached the second qualifying round, and Bognor Regis Town FC had their campaign ended 2-1 by Havant & Waterlooville. Four more wins later, the team from the sixth-level Conference South were meeting Swansea City FC, and having earned a home replay, the Hawks prevailed 4-2 on Wednesday night to set up a fourth-round trip to Anfield.
Dreams into reality
Havant & Waterlooville have existed for a decade since the merger of the two south coast clubs that make up their name, neither of who had made much impact at the top of the non-league game. After swiftly winning a promotion they have remained pretty much at the same level ever since, but at least for the next week and a half they have a nationwide profile. And while their home crowds average around 600, they expect to take 5,000 to Anfield, well above their record attendance. Manager Shaun Gale said: "We have turned the dream into reality. I would not have believed this would have ever happened a couple of months ago but that's football."
A heavy defeat is of course the most likely outcome, but FA Cup folklore is filled with tales of teams from outside the top four divisions who have humbled top-flight clubs. Highlights of Hereford United FC's 2-1 defeat of Newcastle United FC in 1972 are replayed on television annually, and the BBC's commentator that day, John Motson, believes that the match's unexpected profile was a crucial factor in his own rise to become the station's main voice of football. And two years after winning the FA Cup in 1987, Coventry City FC were eliminated by Sutton United FC.
Unlikely individuals are also turned into stars by these matches. The man who scored Hereford's spectacular equaliser against Newcastle, carpenter and joiner Ronnie Radford, is now more remembered than many of the top players of his day, while most English football scholars would be able to pinpoint Gibraltar international cricketer Tim Buzaglo as the Woking FC forward whose hat-trick gave his team an unlikely 4-2 win at second division West Bromwich Albion FC in 1991, earning a trip to Everton FC. Buzaglo now says: "I was always pessimistic in advance of matches against teams who were better than us. But once I got out on the pitch, I was totally different and I didn't care who the opposition were."
Buzaglo went on to end his non-league career at Wealdstone FC, and that club provides the link to the man who could put his own stamp on FA Cup folklore next Saturday. Rocky Baptiste was a former Chelsea FC and Brentford FC trainee playing county league football at the age of 26 when Wealdstone took him back into the semi-professional game in 1999. Later that year he scored hat-tricks in consecutive FA Cup games and then had a brief spell at Luton Town FC. He has since become a hero to the Havant & Waterlooville fans, not least after his stunning equaliser at Swansea earned this week's replay, and he repeated the trick on Wednesday scoring his team's third and ultimately decisive goal.
Baptiste has already made his mark against one of England's most famous clubs when he scored in Farnborough Town FC's 5-1 defeat by Arsenal FC in 2003, but the trip to Anfield will be extra-special for the 35-year-old Liverpool fan. "
It's going to be an amazing feeling going to Liverpool and seeing Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and playing on the Anfield pitch," said Baptiste. Before that, there is a vital trip to Newport County AFC to focus on as the Hawks seek to keep their play-off hopes alive. But should they miss out, setting up a tie that – regardless of the result – will be entered into the ledger of FA Cup history may just be a consolation.
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