Craig Doyle, the presenter of ITV's FA Cup Saturday night highlights show, turned to guest Robbie Earle after the coverage of Kettering Town's brave defeat to Fulham, and repeated an after-match quote from Poppies' manager Mark Cooper. "It's what the FA Cup is all about. It's not about Man United-Tottenham, it is about non-League teams playing on their own patch against Premiership teams." Earle agreed. Funnily enough neither mentioned that Cooper had preceded his words with the comment: "I'm sure the television people will be wishing they had screened it [live] now."
Instead both ITV and Setanta, probably for commercial reasons, though there will always be a question mark given Kettering's shirts feature the word "Palestine", chose five other ties including, on ITV, "Man United-Tottenham", both clubs for whom the FA Cup is a very low priority this season. Live television viewers thus missed a gripping, thrilling, see-saw match in the most evocative of settings. It is 20 years since this correspondent had visited Rockingham Road – now known, for non-League clubs are as mindful of commercial imperatives as TV companies, as the A-Line Arena.
The only change was the replacement of wooden seats in the main stand by red bucket ones. The manager's benches were literally that, a plank in a hut; there were fans peering from the windows of overlooking houses; and a wooden owl, there to scare away pigeons, watched over the fray from the rafters.
In one respect things had changed, and the romance was not what it seemed. Gone are the days when non-League teams of Conference level consisted of teachers, farmers and bin-men topping up their wages with a few quid in their boots. Kettering are full-time, most of the team have League experience, many began at the academies of leading clubs. The goalscorer, Craig Westcarr, won an England under-21 cap at 17 and holds the record for the youngest player to represent Nottingham Forest. At 23 he harbours ambitions of returning to the League. The impressive Andre Boucaud, a year older, began at Spurs, has six caps for Trinidad and Tobago and 49 League appearances under his belt.
A decade ago these players would still have been in the Football League. The influx of foreign players (Boucaud was born in Enfield) has pushed them into non-League. Even at this level their academy schooling means most play the game the right way. Like Forest Green in the third round, and Torquay on Saturday, Kettering passed the ball around more often than they played it long. The ball was as likely to be played out of defence, even under pressure, as hoofed.
"Some of the players today could easily play in the Football League," said Cooper. "It is just consistency. If they could play like that every week they would be. There lies the problem." On Saturday they turned it on, Westcarr equalising twice, from a deflected free-kick and a penalty, both awarded for fouls on himself, before Fulham escaped embarrassment with two goals in the final three minutes.
Watching their struggles the thought occurred that Jimmy Bullard, a man who had played non-League himself, was being badly missed in the Fulham midfield. So too, was Danny Murphy, but while Bullard, having been sold to Hull for £5m, was out of reach Murphy was successfully despatched from the bench to bring composure to the midfield.
Afterwards Murphy made clear his disappointment at Bullard's £5m departure, albeit while stressing he understood both the player's reasons, and the club's. "It has been difficult because he has been a major part of the club but sometimes opportunities come along to secure your family's future and I can't criticise him for that."
But should Fulham, a Premier League club for eight seasons, be outbid by debutants Hull? "Like any club Fulham have a budget and work to that. The hierarchy makes decisions. Sometimes that is not what players want but the fans should not doubt the board. We'll all go eventually. It's about how we move forward. I think he has taken a bit of a risk going to Hull, but that is his decision."
Like ITV, Fulham and Bullard took a business decision. Romance feeds the soul, but it doesn't pay the bills.
Goals: Davies (12) 0-1; Westcarr (36) 1-1; Murphy (77) 1-2; Westcarr pen (83) 2-2; Johnson (88) 2-3; Zamora (89) 2-4.
Kettering Town (4-4-2): Harper; Bennett, Geohaghan, Dempster, Jaszczun (Potter, 70); Eaden, Boucaud, Solkhon, Graham (Marna, 88); Westcarr, Seddon (Beardsley, 72). Substitutes not used: Wrack, Galbraith.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Stoor, Hangeland, Hughes, Konchesky; Gera (Zamora, 68), Andreasen, Etuhu (Murphy, 68), Davies; Johnson, Dempsey. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Pantsil, Nevland, Kallio, Baird.
Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire).
Booked: Kettering Graham, Westcarr; Fulham Hangeland.
Man of the match: Westcarr.
Attendance: 5,406.Reuse content