The FA Trophy is the premier non-league competition, with just shy of two-hundred-and-eighty teams entering in the 2017-18 campaign. However, is the competition in need of a huge overhaul as the times and ways of football change between Steps 1-4 of Non-League football? (Writes Ryan Batty @RyanBatty13)
While the Trophy does ooccasionally witness the odd team from Step 3/4 progressing through the rounds, surprising some of the so-called ‘big boys’ and taking the competition by storm, it feels like tales such as are few and far between. No team below the National League system progressed to the Quarter-Final Stages of the Trophy, and only Dulwich Hamlet getting to the same stage the year previous. The 2015-16 competition feels like the last real romantic tale, with two Step Three clubs reaching the Semi-Final, as Nantwich Town bowed out in a superb two-legged semi-final tie with FC Halifax Town, while Bognor Regis were narrowly defeated by National League outfit Grimsby Town.
That year, Halifax defeated overwhelming favourites Grimsby, that day also being the inaugural ‘Non-League Finals Day’, as the Trophy final couples with the Vase final, a tradition which has lasted since.
However, is it now too difficult for clubs below the National League system to fight to reach the final? Or even the semi-final?
As most National League clubs are now run as professional outfits, does that give them an extra advantage in the competition? Does the amount of resources at higher-level clubs, such as sports scientists and data analysis allow an unfair advantage over lower-ranked sides? While you may say that higher-level clubs are well within their rights to have such an advantage, would it not be better for the Non-League game if National League clubs were excluded from the competition? Surely with the late stage that National League clubs enter the FA Cup, it would be more beneficial for them if they were to focus more on the Cup? For a lot of supporters, it wouldn’t be far outside of the realms of possibility for a Salford City, Leyton Orient or Dagenham and Redbridge to pull of a ‘Cupset’.
In addition, to further prove the lack of true lower-ranked excitement and idyllic route to the final, the last team from outside the Conference system that won the FA Trophy was then-Southern League Premier Divison club Hednesford Town back in 2003-04, as they upset Conference National side Canvey Island. For fans of lower-league sides, will this continue to become tiresome as recent history is against them in terms of Trophy success? Or do those same fans prefer the route as it continues, and are they proud of their success for their respective level once eliminated?
From a personal point of view, I sat in on much of Nantwich Town’s route to the semi-final back in 2015-16, and I was extremely proud, as well as disappointed, when the Dabbers came up ever so short in the Semi-Final against Halifax.
In my personal opinion, I feel it would be a more exciting competition if the highest-ranked outfits were National League North/South, due to the fact that a lot of them are still semi-professional clubs and therefore have a fairly level-playing field with clubs at Steps Three and Four. If you wanted more teams to enter, then Step Five, the highest level of County League football would give Step Four clubs a run for their money if they were to be allowed to join the tournament. As a result, when it comes to Non-League Finals day in May, it would be a more exciting afternoon of football due to the genuine lack of expectation that each set of supporters would have. However, would it provide a huge sense of excitement if a Step 3-4 side were to progress through to Wembley after the long period without a winner from below those levels of football?
While Halifax pulled off that upset at Wembley against Grimsby three years ago, the Seaside club were focusing on promotion back to the Football League, though the Shaymen were desperately searching for a silver lining to their season as relegation to the National League North loomed.
The Trophy is a competition that gives Non-League clubs a chance for some nationally-recognised silverware, a chance for upsetting the apple cart, a chance to bring in some much-needed funds. A worry that surrounds us all though, is whether teams at National League level may be taking those much-needed funds for themselves. Should a Salford City or Dagenham and Redbridge lift the Trophy, is the money that comes along with it necessary for club survival?
The question is yet to be answered as this season’s tournament gets into the swing of things, but does the Trophy need a shake-up, from personal experience at your club?