So, National League side Eastleigh is the only representative of Non-League in the 2015/16 FA Cup Third Round. This is the first time since 1968/69 that just one non-league club has made it as far as the Third Round (then it was Kettering Town), and only the ninth time just one club has made it since the current structure of the competition was put in place. (No non-league clubs actually appeared in the Third Round on another occasion).
If you have even the basic knowledge of FA Cup facts you are likely to be aware that Tottenham Hotspur is the only non-league club ever to lift the FA Cup, winning the trophy in the 1900/01 season beating Football League Division One side Sheffield United 3-1 in a replay, whilst still a Southern League club. For those turn-of-the-20th Century FA Cup competitions, the Southern League standard was considered almost an equal to the Football League, if not better. In that season Spurs won the Cup for the first time, despite being a non-league club, they didn’t actually enter the competition until the First Round ‘Proper’. Their current north London rivals, still known then as Woolwich Arsenal, were plying their trade in Football League Division Two and actually had to partake in the short-lived Intermediate Round, having to beat Darwen 2-0 to progress to the ‘Proper’ rounds.
The structure of the competition as we know it today first came about for the 1925/26 season, although it wasn’t until the 1951/52 season that it finally adopted the format we now recognise with 80 clubs in Round One and 40 in Round Two, with the 20 winners of that round joining the top 44 clubs in the country in the Third Round. Back in 1925 the Amateur Cup finalists were exempt until the First Round of the FA Cup, and Corinthians were exempt until the Third Round. The Corinthians exemption ceased seven years later, but up to four non-league clubs were still exempt until the First Round right up to the 1987-88 season.
Since that 1925/26 season there has been only one occasion when no non-league sides appeared in the Third Round (1950/51) although the exempted Corinthians were the only representatives in the 1929/30 season. The most clubs to make it through to Round Three is eight in 2008/09 season with Kidderminster Harriers, Blyth Spartans, Torquay United, Forest Green Rovers, Eastwood Town, Kettering Town, Barrow and Histon all making it through. They would have been joined by Droylsden if they hadn’t been adjudged to have played an ineligible player in their replay win over Chesterfield. It could be argued that the 1945/46 season had the highest number of non-league clubs in the Third Round given that League football hadn’t re-started following the Second World War. The only ‘true’ non-league side in that Third Round was Welsh club Lovell’s Athletic. Bizarrely, the Welsh League did re-convene for the 1945/46 season so in one sense they were the only League club in the Third Round that year. (See below chart for year-by-year details of all non-league clubs appearing in the Third Round).
So, it will be down to the Spitfires to fly the flag for non-league football in 2015-16. A home tie against bottom of the Championship and financially struggling Bolton Wanderers is eminently winnable and so Eastleigh could become the 44th non-league side to make the Fourth Round. To go all the way to becoming the second non-league winners of the FA Cup, though, is probably a stretch too far.
Nb. 1946/47 should read ‘1 Gillingham’