LET me at once declare an interest – I am a Lincoln City supporter.
Yes, I know it takes a brave man to admit such things publicly, but we are presently having a rare old time.
Why, for the first time in more than 100 years, my home-town club are in the last 16 of the FA Cup.
Even Halley’s Comet comes round faster than our appearances at this stage of the tournament, so we have to make the most of them.
Along with our National League rivals Sutton United, who host Arsenal next Monday after we travel to Burnley on Saturday, we have already created a slice of history.
For it is the first time that two non-league clubs have reached this stage of the tournament in the same season.
Indeed, both Lincoln and Sutton are bidding to become the first non-league representatives in the FA Cup quarter-finals since the competition’s current format was put in place in 1925.
Exciting times, for sure, and an opportune moment to reflect on some famous cup runs by non-league sides.
Since the Second World War, there have been nine instances, in fact, of non-league clubs reaching the last 16, including Lincoln and Sutton this year.
Sutton, by the by, were the last non-league side for more than two decades to beat top-flight opposition in the FA Cup prior to Luton Town’s win at Norwich City in 2013.
Sutton famously beat Coventry City at Gander Green Lane in 1989, some 18 months after Coventry won the Cup by beating Tottenham Hotspur.
Interestingly, and perhaps suggestively, four of the last nine instances of non-league clubs reaching the fifth round since the war have occurred since 2010.
Crawley Town achieved the feat in 2010-11 before a narrow defeat at Manchester United; Luton Town followed suit in the aforementioned 2012-13 season before being knocked out by Millwall, and now Lincoln and Sutton this year.
One says “suggestively”, for the trend coincides with increasing instances of leading clubs fielding weakened sides against so-called inferior opposition.
We live in an era of rest and rotation, and of ever-changing priorities, both footballing and financial, which means that the FA Cup can be as much of a burden for big clubs as it is a boost for smaller ones.
Without wishing to decry for one moment Lincoln’s fourth round win at Sincil Bank, for example, Brighton made nine changes from their previous league match with one eye on the much greater prize, in their eyes, of promotion to the Premier League.
Fellow Championship promotion rivals Newcastle United also made nine changes to the side knocked out by Oxford United, while Leeds United, Sutton’s conquerors, made 10 changes to their line-up for the same reason.
As football has become increasingly awash with cash, it makes no sense for such clubs to prioritise the FA Cup over reaching the Premier League (the difference has been estimated at anything from £2m compared with £200m), although one could still argue about the extent of team changes made by managers.
However, for all the talk of “the magic of the FA Cup”, the irony is that as those bigger clubs distance themselves from that magic before the competition’s business end, we appear to be witnessing more giant-killings which, in turn, fuels the magic – a delicious twist.
It is similarly suggestive, of course, that non-league clubs field their strongest line-ups against higher league opposition.
Lincoln, for example, the National League leaders, could just as easily argue that the FA Cup is a distraction for them as they seek the much greater prize of promotion back to the Football League.
Indeed, barring the biggest shock in sporting history, the Imps will not win the FA Cup this year, but they could win the prize that they crave most of all and claw themselves back out of non-league oblivion.
Such is the footballing and financial kudos, however, that it is a no-brainer for smaller clubs to treat FA Cup games with the utmost importance; Lincoln’s rest and rotation, in contrast, has been on display in the comparatively unimportant FA Trophy.
There was certainly little rest and rotation on display at Colchester United during the 1947-48 campaign, when they became the first non-league club after the war to reach the FA Cup fifth round.
The Southern League side, who only had a 17-man squad, knocked out three football league clubs – Wrexham, Huddersfield Town (then of the old First Division) and Bradford Park Avenue.
It took Stanley Matthews’s Blackpool to finally send them packing courtesy of a 5-0 win at Bloomfield Road.
The following season, 1948-49, Yeovil Town, then also of the Southern League, knocked out Bury en route to a fourth round meeting with Sunderland, who were then known as the Bank of England club due to their wealth.
The First Division side – including the great Len Shackleton – were beaten 2-1 after extra-time in one of the tournament’s greatest upsets.
Yeovil were unable to repeat their heroics in round five, however, when they lost 8-0 to Manchester United.
The match was played in front of 80,000 at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground, with Old Trafford having suffered bomb damage during the war.
Perhaps the most remarkable non-league cup run was by Blyth Spartans in 1977-78, with Blyth getting themselves into the hat for the sixth round after a 1-1 draw at Wrexham.
Like Sutton this year, Blyth’s reward would have been a home tie with Arsenal, but the Northern League giant-killers lost their replay 2-1 after earlier knocking out Chesterfield and Stoke City.
In 1984-85, Telford, then of the Alliance Premier League, saw off Lincoln City in the first round (we will quickly pass over that result) and then beat Preston North End, Bradford City and Darlington before losing their fifth round tie at Everton.
In the last instance of a non-league club reaching round five before the turn of the millennium, Kidderminster Harriers’ class of 1993-94 saw off Birmingham City and Preston North End before a 1-0 defeat at home to West Ham.
The fifth round, therefore, has proved a bridge too far for non-league teams over the years.
Certainly it would be a seismic shock if Lincoln and/or Sutton ended up in the last eight, regardless of whether Burnley’s Sean Dyche or Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger field a weakened team. But the enduring magic of the FA Cup – systematically dimmed and yet still going strong – will ensure that many football fans of various allegiances will be rooting for Lincoln and Sutton next week.
Could history be made and the non-league represented in the FA Cup quarter-finals?
We will soon find out.
Come on you Imps!