Friday, 24 October 2008

The FA Challenge Vase

Time seems to be dragging. The Second Round Proper of this season's FA Vase is still three weeks away and for all clubs still in the competition there is much football yet to be played before thoughts can turn to the next step on the road to Wembley.

The FA Vase has not always provided a route to Wembley. The competition began its life in 1974 when the FA Amateur Cup was scrapped in favour of the FA Vase. The FA Amateur Cup had existed to compliment the FA Cup at a time when there was a clear distinction between professional and amateur footballers. In 1974 the FA abandoned the distinction as many top amateurs were receiving payment. So born was the Football Association Challenge Vase which is fought for by teams from Steps 5, 6 and 7 on the non League ladder (Step 1 is the Blue Square Premier League, the pinnacle of non League football).

That first season, 1974-75, the FA Vase attracted in excess of 200 entries and Hoddesdon Town beat Epsom & Ewell 2-1 in a Wembley Final. Out of the 34 Finals since the inauguration of the competition, 6 have been played away from the famous venue in the period after October 2000 when the old stadium was closed and the new Wembley was being built. From 2001 to 2006 the FA Vase Final was held at Villa Park (twice), Boleyn Ground, St. Andrews (twice) and most bizarrely at White Hart Lane. The 'Road to White Hart Lane' doesn't sound right, does it? That was in 2005 when Didcot Town beat AFC Sudbury 3-2 and it must have been a huge disappointment for both teams to have navigated all the way through the rounds to end up at such an underwhelming venue.

AFC Sudbury's defeat in 2005 was a heartbreaking third Final defeat in a row for the Suffolk club. Only four teams have won the FA Vase more than once; Halesowen Town, Billericay Town, Brigg Town and Tiverton Town. Maybe being a 'Town' club helps; out of the 34 winners to date, 20 of the trophy lifters carried the 'Town' label. A nice little fact for your next chat-up line. Or maybe not.

The record attendance for an FA Vase tie is 36,232 who all turned up for the 2007 Final at Wembley when Truro City came from behind to beat AFC Totton 3-1. However, the crowd figure initially announced for this game was 27,754 before the FA realised they had "cocked up" and had not accounted for over 8,500 fans who had simply showed up on the day. The FA blamed a faulty turnstile in a feeble attempt to hide their embarrassment.

This season saw 513 teams accepted into the competition and there has been a welcome increase in prize money, particularly in the early rounds. The winners will still receive £20,000 (the same as last season), plus another £20,700 accumulated from the money dished out to round winners (assuming the eventual winners started in the First Round Qualifying). No winner of the FA Vase has ever reached the Football League. Clubs at this level are many rungs away from the summit of the ladder, and it obviously takes much more than winning the FA Vase and scooping the associated prize money to propel them to the dizzy heights. For clubs at this level, the prize money (plus the gate money from the larger attendances that the later rounds generate) can stave off extinction. That is the real incentive.

Plus, of course, a day out at Wembley.

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