FOOTBALL: NON-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK: Back to FA Cup basics for Stevenage

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Stevenage Borough played an FA Cup tie, the venue was St James' Park, Newcastle, where they lost 2-1 in a fourth-round replay in February this year in front of a crowd of 36,675. On Sunday, the Football Conference club make their return to the competition at the Marriott Stadium, Witney, in a third qualifying round tie.

Just 133 people watched Witney Town draw 1-1 with Wroxham in the second qualifying round earlier this month. The Dr Martens League Southern Division side battled to a 3-2 win in the replay in Norfolk to earn Sunday's enticing encounter with the non-League giants from Hertfordshire.

Dermot Gallagher, Witney's commercial manager, is hoping for a gate of around 2,000 against Stevenage. Sadly, however, he will not be there to help count the money. Better known as a Premiership referee, he will be on duty as the reserve official at Coventry City v Sheffield Wednesday.

Gallagher knows where his priorities lie, though. "The club is more important than I am," he said yesterday. "We ought to make more money by attracting a bigger gate on the Sunday. Stevenage are a major attraction, and it will be a romantic occasion because of their achievements last season."

The reasons for the switch from Saturday to Sunday are bizarre. The out- of-town Marriott Stadium is situated next to Hillside Cat Farm, which sends animals to research laboratories. A big demonstration is being planned for tomorrow by animal rights activists, and the Oxfordshire constabulary cannot cope with that and a well-attended football match.

If the Football Association had not rewritten part of the FA Cup rulebook in the summer, Stevenage would not have entered this season's tournament until the first-round proper, thanks to their exploits last term. However, all Conference clubs are now exempt until the third qualifying round. Prior to the rule changes, some had to start in the first qualifying round - a state of affairs which led to a successful campaign of protest from the Conference.

In contrast to their two tetchy games against Kenny Dalglish's side last season, Stevenage will be the overwhelming favourites on Sunday. Witney's FA Cup pedigree is poor - they have reached the first round only once, in 1971, when they lost 3-0 at home to Romford.

Elsewhere, some other Conference sides face unfamiliar opponents in tomorrow's ties. Cheltenham Town, who took Reading to a replay in the third round last term, begin this season's campaign in north Devon at Barnstaple Town. Two other Conference teams also travel to clubs from the Screwfix Direct Western League: Woking go to Minehead while Kettering visit Taunton.

Doncaster Rovers make their first appearance in the third qualifying round since 1922-23, the season of the first Wembley final. Then they were beaten 2-1 at home by Wath Athletic, tomorrow they entertain Flixton of the UniBond League First Division.

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