The FA Cup: One prize, different perspectives

As the ball hit the back of the net in the 85thminute at the Silverlake Stadium in Hampshire it shattered the hearts of fans, coaches, players, and perhaps most of all the club accountant.

National League side Eastleigh had just lost at home to Hampton and Richmond Borough of the National League south in the final qualifying round of the FA Cup.

The result meant the home side missed out on a prize of £25,000, alongside a journey into unknown provided by the competition.

The interim manager at the time, Ben Strevens, responded to the gathering media’s questions with direct, short and sharp responses before walking back into the tunnel with a shake of the head.

It became clear that this defeat meant a whole lot more than the setback in the league the week previously, and at a far deeper level. Victory in this competition would have not only brought a new lease a life to the team, but also to the club.

“For a club like Eastleigh it’s about getting your name out there,” said Director Tom Coffey – former goalkeeper at the Spitfires, now integral in the day-to-day running at the Silverlake.

With his position at the club his main concern will have been financially focused, but a defeat such as this is not all about the money.

“It means a lot more for someone to go through, or even a player to go through and get their name out there,” the former professional truly coming into light as he describes the magic of the competition.

“You never know if you put a performance in against a league club you might get that move that you’re after.”

The commonly referred to ‘magic’ of the FA Cup comes through strongly here with Coffey, being an ex-player he will have sense of the opportunity this sort of competition can hold for lower league players.

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Michael Green takes a throw in during Eastleigh’s FA Cup defeat to Hampton & Richmond Borough (Pic: Tom Mulholland)

Now appointed as permanent manager, Strevens concurs with Coffey’s sentiment: “It’s a fantastic competition. I had some good memories where I did well in it. In terms of the FA Cup I think everyone loves it.”

Strevens will have been fully aware of the struggles financially the club has faced since their early exit from the competition, but it fails to dampen his view on England’s oldest cup competition.

“It’s a worldwide competition that everyone talks about and it was a special competition to play in and obviously now to manage in.

“It’s also a chance to play against a massive, massive club. A lot of lower league players with the greatest respect are not going to support the team they’re actually playing for. I support Arsenal so it’s always been for me that I wanted to play at the Emirates or Highbury.”

Strevens, the former Barnet, Dagenham and Gillingham player, picks out an aspect of the competition here which would have been one of the main draws for a club like Eastleigh.

But times have changed these days.

“In the past that sort of money really hasn’t been an issue for a club like us,” confesses Coffey.

Crewe Alexandra v EastleighEmirates FA Cup Round One. 07/11/15

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Eastleigh have previously enjoyed trips to Bolton and Crewe Alexandra in the competition (Pic: Daily Echo)

The club lost their millionaire owner Stewart Donald in the summer to Sunderland, meaning a defeat like this runs deeper than ever this year.

Formerly with a comparatively healthy National League budget of just over £1m, efforts at Eastleigh are now going into making sure they reach their target of having £750,000 remaining in the bank at the end of this campaign.

“Since losing that financial backing a [extra] 25 grand would be massive for us. It’s things like overnight games for the players, now we’re going to have to look at cutting a few of those back.”

This season’s early exit from the FA Cup mean that away trips for the club to places such as Wrexham (four hour trip), Maidstone (three hour trip) and Solihull (three hour trip) are being done on the day, causing players to travel up on a gameday as opposed to getting an extra night’s rest.

Each trip can amount to a total spend of just under ten grand, with an overnight coach costing £3,000 and a hotel hitting the £6,000 price range.

Away from the financial setbacks, this means that the players – who once had the luxury of an overnight stay for a game such as Wrexham away – now will be leaving Eastleigh at 8am in the morning ahead of a 3pm kick-off.

Coffey details how the financial benefits from a competition such as the FA Cup stretch even further than just the prize money for making it through the round.

“The further you progress the more ticket sales you’ve got and then the long run of that is more season tickets being sold. So the financial implications of getting through and getting on a bit of a run are massive.”

Getting through the rounds is one thing, but the financial rewards can be great when these games are televised.

The 2014/15 FA Cup season saw eighth tier Warrington Town pocket a more than respectable £140,000 from television revenue alone, amounting from their first and second round games being broadcast live.

The true worth of this wealth can be seen in how it’s used, something Coffey underlined.

“The 25 grand injected into the club would mean we could have more employees, equipment, everything can be looking at of the course of the season.”

Eastleigh currently have eight daily volunteers, with that number of unpaid individuals rising to 30 in total. A clear indication of how important money is to a club of that level.

The benefits are not just behind-the-scenes when it comes to that added input of wealth: “You can put money into what’s happening on the pitch if you needed a bit more”.

“It’s just unfortunately this season that won’t be happening,” Coffey said with a smile that failed to mask the underlining pain this early exit has cleared had on himself and the club.

Up four divisions or one train stop back to Southampton Central and the value of the competition financially is not quite as high.

An hour away from Eastleigh two of Hampshire’s biggest sides clashed in the Premier League, as Southampton and Bournemouth saw out a far from thrilling 0-0 draw.

For clubs such as this the FA Cup doesn’t touch their matchday preparation whiteboards for another three rounds, meaning the minimum amount they can pocket is a handsome £135 grand.

Southampton have won the trophy before back in 1976, but much like many of the so-called ‘elite sides’ the worth of the tournament can sometimes revolve more around team development than the trophy itself.

Club legend Matt Le Tissier cast a frustrated figure as he explained this approach to the competition: “It’s been sadly devalued with the whole squad rotation policy. Which frustrates the hell out of me.”

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Southampton legend Matt le Tissier is increasingly frustrated with his club’s approach to the competition (Pic: Louis Pollock)

Le Tiss looks out at St Mary’s Stadium from the fifth floor Solent University window: “Especially when my own club do it. We’ve won one major trophy in our entire history.” He laughs ironically with a shake of the head, “Why wouldn’t we try and win another one?”

The man known to the Saints faithful as ‘Le God’ refers here to how the FA Cup can remain a valuable competition to the bigger clubs, but for more of a sentimental motive.

Back in 1976 the city as a whole, Southampton follower or not, experienced the rewards of  their shock cup final win over Manchester United. Renowned as the greatest day for the people of the city.

Lawrie McMenemy, the manager in question who lifted Southampton’s only major trophy to date, recalls: “I get grandmothers stopping me on the street telling me where they were for the parade on the Sunday. They didn’t have to be football supporters, they all came out – more than 250,000 of them.”

McMenemy here encapsulates the heavily referred to ‘magic’ of the FA Cup, and its effects on not only a club but a community.

Le Tiss concurs that such a feeling was there during his playing days in the competition, despite the personal success not necessarily coming alongside.

“I loved the FA Cup,” said Southampton’s record goalscorer. “Sadly I didn’t get to any semi-finals or finals. One of the two red cards of my career was in this competition against Norwich in the quarter finals.”

He laughs off the event but the pain is still evident due to the love he has for the competition.

“I had better memories, I scored in a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane in 1990. Spurs were a pretty good team then and we went there and dismantled them so it was pretty special.”

Then comes the debate that shrouds the FA Cup today. Is it special because of the prize and the honour, or do other incentives play their part? Le Tiss hints at the latter.

“My abiding memories as a kid,” reflects the Sky Sports pundit, “was that it was one of the few games in the whole season that was live on television, there wasn’t wall-to-wall live football available as there is to this generation”

He begins acknowledging the feeling of the event, as a result of its coverage on screens up and down the country.

“The whole country stopped and watched the whole day’s build-up. The FA Cup was always a very special competition in my eyes growing up.”

It’s not always that a cup can hold so many memories to a player that never made it to its semi-final stages, let alone a final.

The one clear opinion Le Tissier remarked was whether the competition still meant as much to players today: “No,” he said, without a thought, “I don’t think it means as much.”

Why is this the case? To answer this we need to go back to the finances involved.

Questions here have to be raised on the structuring of the competition in terms of funding and how a switch in financial distribution could regain the excitement of England’s elite.

To visualise the differing values of importance when it comes to the FA Cup, Manchester United’s £135,000 prize-money awarded for an inevitable third-round victory this year would not even be enough to pay half of Alexis Sanchez’s weekly wage of £350,000.

This alone means some managers of the top five can look at the competition as a development opportunity, or even worse, a distraction to their domestic and European ambitions.

From a monetary view it’s hard to blame them. The 2018/19 FA Cup winners will pocket £3,600,000; a mere £1,200,000 more than three points at the group stage of the Champions League rewards you with.

With the financial side of the cup being so important to those in the lower leagues, is it possible for the ‘magic’ associated to be as strong an appeal as it for the clubs at the top?

“Yes definitely it’s a famous competition and to be a part of that it’s huge,” interestingly when talking as a player he draws upon the competition’s worth as a competition, rather than picking out the financial benefits as he did with his director’s hat on.

“Even for the clubs lower than us,” continues Coffey. “To play against even an Eastleigh or a conference team it’s massive.

“Everyone wants to progress as far as they can do and, I suppose,” a hint of jealously here from a man who has had to struggle with a limited budget since the summer, “the higher up the football pyramid you go the financial implications for a Premier League team aren’t as much as they are for a non-league side.”

Maybe this is part of the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup, a competition where one game could add a zero or two onto your weekly wage bill.

Clearly the money draw is huge for a Non-League club, but the feeling associated with the competition carries on throughout the leagues.

Players like Ben Strevens, having felt success as a player in this trophy, continue to be hurt by a defeat in the FA Cup at any level even to this day.

When a competition is as deep rooting as this to a professional, it’s value to the modern game can’t be underappreciated.

 

 

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