Football: Is the Cup dead? Just ask the small clubs

Aldershot and Hednesford's 1-1 draw shows the world's oldest tournament is alive and well
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THERE HAVE been times, in the past few seasons, when it has looked as if the Football Association should have approached a funeral director rather than an insurance company when it decided to flog off the FA Cup.

Sponsorship is just one of a series of measures which have devalued the world's oldest knock-out competition, starting with the introduction of penalty shoot-outs and the ruination of the sixth round by television spreading it across three days.

This season, further kow-towing to the big clubs means there will be no replays at all at the semi-final stage; the third round, the game's traditional New Year pick-me-up, is in December; and, most damaging of all, Manchester United, the biggest club in the country, are off to play South Melbourne in Brazil instead of defending their trophy in England. Like the House of Lords, the FA Cup is beginning to look vulnerable rather than venerable.

So, does the FA Cup still matter? To judge from events at the Recreation Ground, Aldershot, on Saturday, very much so. A crowd of 3,269 - bigger than at 13 League grounds this weekend - saw two goals, a stack of missed chances, two brawls, one dismissal, 11 bookings and some fearsome 50-50 challenges. Oh yes, the Cup matters to Aldershot, and to their opponents, Hednesford Town.

"The FA Cup has put us on the map," said one Hednesford official. In recent years the Nationwide Conference club have knocked out four League clubs as well as giving Middlesbrough a fright at the Riverside before going down 3-2.

Aldershot used to be on the map but seven years ago they went bust and were expelled from the Football League. They reformed but had to re-start in the Third Division of the Ryman (Isthmian) League. Three promotions later they are within two steps of a return to the professional game. That remains the priority but, said their chairman Karl Prentice, the FA Cup provided a chance to remind people the club survived.

"People in places like Manchester think we've gone," he said. "I've spoken to them, they don't think we exist."

More than that, they have a flourishing youth system, plenty of sponsorship and average crowds of more than 2,000, better than most Conference clubs. The presence at centre-half of Andy Pearce, a pounds 700,000 signing for Wimbledon less than four years ago, underlined their ambition and the match programme, pre-match entertainment and smooth handling of the day emphasised their readiness to progress.

As ever at this level a lot of this relies on voluntary work but relations with the community are far better than in the final days of the old regime. Then Aldershot became notorious for putting up prices for a 1987 FA Cup tie with Oxford United, then of the top flight. Graeme Brookland, then chairman of the supporters' club, now club secretary, recalled: "It was pounds 11 to get in, which was crazy. The crowd was less than 2,000 and the affair summed up the way the club was going. It destroyed the relationship with supporters."

The players did little better; there were long periods without pay and Steve Claridge remembers being given a rotten turkey for his Christmas bonus.

On Saturday it was pounds 7 to get in and worth every penny. Despite a prolonged downpour and a gale, both sides played good passing football with Aldershot dominating. However, when Ian Robinson beat the offside trap to head Hednesford in front it seemed the Staffordshire club would win, but Gary Abbott steered in Mark Bentley's cross-shot five minutes later to level.

Aldershot, well-marshalled by their captain Colin Fielder, the only playing link with the old club, then made and missed a string of chances before having their momentum halted by Bentley's dismissal after a flare-up with Scott Goodwin. Both were on a yellow and it was hard to see why referee Hegley, who applied inappropriate Premiership standards to part-time players in slippery conditions, did not dismiss Goodwin as well.

This prompted a change in mood and, had Hegley been consistent, he would have sent off several more. So hectic was it most newspapers, and Teletext, erroneously reported he had sent off another Aldershot player.

George Borg, the Aldershot manager, described Hegley, who will referee next Monday's replay, as "scandalous", adding: "He killed the game. My little girl could have done a better job."

When tempers cooled both sides adjourned to the bar to watch the second- round draw. Ball No 35 evaded Rodney Marsh's hands until there were only six left in the bowl then, with the tension almost as great as during the game, Exeter were pulled out to the accompaniment of: "We'll have that." Seconds later, as Frank McLintock granted that wish, a roar went up. A league club, but not an unbeatable one, and a trip to a league ground.

Borg, thinking of the pounds 75,000 fee, a huge sum at this level, said he hoped Sky would cover the match. But he was not thinking of the replay yet. "Boreham Wood in the league on Saturday is a bigger game for me," he said. "I am judged on league results - my job is to get the club back into the League. The FA Cup is good publicity and good finance but it is a bonus."

Maybe, but it was clear on Saturday that Aldershot would not give up their place in the cup for all the coffee in Brazil, never mind a match there.

Goals: Robinson (51) 0-1; Abbott (56) 1-1.

Aldershot Town (4-3-3): Pape; Coll, Adedeji, Pearce, Chewins; Bentley, Fielder, Gell; Sugrue (Bassey, 76), Abbott, Hathaway (Nartey, 76). Substitutes not used: Baker, Robson, Bell.

Hednesford Town (4-4-2): Morgan; Evans, Brindley, Lake, Colkin; Kimmins, Rhodes (Mike, 76), Twynham, Goodwin; Davis, Robinson. Substitutes not used: Norman, Hunter, Comyn, Hayward (gk).

Referee: G Hegley (Bishop's Stortford).

Bookings: Aldershot Town: Sugrue, Bentley, Coll, Adedeji, Bassey, Gell. Hednesford Town: Goodwin, Rhodes, Culkin, Twynham. Sending-off: Aldershot Town: Bentley.

Man of the match: Abbott.

Attendance: 3,269.