In the 35 years since the Northern Counties East League was formed it has been represented in the FA Cup 937 times by its member clubs.
The inaugural 1982-83 season saw 26 clubs enter the famous competition, and whilst the majority of the clubs had departed the FA Cup by the middle of October that season, two were still going strong by the end of it.
The now defunct Eastwood Town reached the 3rd Qualifying Round that season where they held Alliance Premier League (now National League) side Telford United to a 2-2 draw at Coronation Park before bowing out of the competition 4-0 in the replay.
However, another now defunct side, Shepshed Charterhouse, also made the 3rd Qualifying Round in the NCEL’s debut season, and they won their tie 3-0 at home against Northern Premier League side Gainsborough Trinity. Another victory at the Shepshed Stadium in the 4th Qualifying Round, 2-1 against another NPL side King’s Lynn, saw Charterhouse become the first NCEL club to make the 1st Round ‘Proper’ of the FA Cup.
The reward for winning through five rounds was a trip to Deepdale to take on Preston North End, twice FA Cup winners, but at the time competing in the third tier of the Football League. However, despite a goal from Jenas, the Leicestershire based non-league side were overcome 5-1 on the day thanks to a Steve Elliott brace and goals from Andy McAteer, Gordon Coleman and John Kelly for their hosts.
The following year saw two fewer NCEL clubs compete in the FA Cup and it was Eastwood Town this time that came closest to making the 1st Round ‘Proper’ losing 2-1 to Isthmian League Premier Division side Wycombe Wanderers at Loakes Park after they’d held them to a 2-2 draw at home.
Alfreton Town were the best performing NCEL club in the FA Cup over the next couple of seasons making the 3rd Qualifying Round in both years, losing 3-2 after extra time at home to North West Counties league Division One side Burscough (after a 2-2 draw) in 1984-85 season, and losing 1-0 at home to West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division club Gresley Rovers the following season.
The Reds weren’t the only NCEL representatives in the 3rd Qualifying Round those two seasons, being joined by Denaby United in 84/85 (lost 1-0 at home to NPL side Marine), and by Bridlington Trinity in 85/86 (lost 3-2 at Northern League Division One side Bishop Auckland).
Changes by the FA in terms of qualifying criteria for the FA Cup came into play from the 1986/87 season and this seriously depleted the number of NCEL clubs who would be able to compete in it. Just 19 were involved with three making it as far as the 3rd Qualifying Round (Armthorpe Welfare, Eastwood Town (again) and Emley).
The number of NCEL entrants in the FA Cup were diminished still further for the 1987/88 season, down to just 13 clubs, but Brigg Town came ever so close to making the 1st Round ‘Proper’ losing 4-1 at Sincil Bank to Lincoln City who had become the first Football League club to suffer automatic relegation to the Football Conference and would return to League football at the end of the season.
1988/89 season saw an all-time low number of NCEL clubs compete in the FA Cup, just a dozen, with the original Bridlington Town and Emley both making the 3rd Qualifying Round to be named joint best NCEL clubs in the Cup that year. The following season saw a return to 13 clubs and new NCEL members North shields reached the 4th Qualifying Round just missing out on ‘Proper’ Round action by losing 2-1 at Northern League Division One opponents Billingham Synthonia.
The number of NCEL entries in the FA Cup was beginning to rise again, as was the standard of the clubs’ performances. For the first time in 1990/91 there were two NCEL clubs one round away from potentially facing a Football League club. New League members Harrogate Railway Athletic were stopped in their tracks when going down 3-1 at Northern Premier League Premier Division side Chorley (greater things were to come for The Rail whilst members of the NCEL).
Fellow new League members Spennymoor United had also won through to the 4th Qualifying Round where they were drawn to visit Drill Field, home of Football Conference side Northwich Victoria. A tight 1-1 draw took the sides to the Brewery Field where the Moors won another tight encounter 2-1 after extra time to become only the second NCEL club to make the 1st Round ‘Proper’ of the FA Cup.
The Moors made a better fist of their opportunity than Shepshed had done eight years earlier, albeit against Fourth tier opposition, going down by the odd goal in five at Chesterfield with goals from Peattie and Boagey.
Whilst the number of NCEL FA Cup entrants increased back to and beyond the levels in the first four seasons of the League’s history, the success of member clubs in the FA Cup diminished culminating in an all-time low when only one of 29 clubs who entered in the 1995/96 season even made it as far as the 2nd Qualifying Round. (There was no Extra Preliminary Round that season). The last NCEL team standing that year was Denaby United and they lost 2-1 at home to NPL Premier Division side Hyde United.
Following that nadir came a period of strong growth in performances in FA Cup by NCEL clubs culminating in the best ever season just seven years after this low point. The FA changed the rules of entry again at the turn of the 21st Century, opening up the door to lower level clubs that had not been the case for nearly 50 years, and the NCEL saw an associated rise, too.
North Ferriby United in 1997/98 (losing 2-0 to Football Conference side Southport at Haig Avenue) and the World’s oldest club, Sheffield, in 2000/01 (losing 5-1 to another Conference side Northwich Victoria in a match played at Bramall Lane) both returned NCEL to the 4th Qualifying Round, but the next couple of years would see the NCEL heyday in the competition.
The 2001/02 season saw two NCEL clubs make the 4th Qualifying Round for only the second time in the League’s history. As with the previous occasion Harrogate Railway Athletic were the club who failed to progress, going down 3-2 to Conference side Morecambe at Station View. However, Brigg Town put their 87/88 disappointment behind them by winning 1-0 at Conference side Boston United who would go on to win that League that season. Simon Roach scored the goal that took Brigg into the 1st Round ‘Proper’ for the first and only time, the win being the sixth the club had in the FA Cup that year.
The Zebras’ reward was a trip to Prenton Park to face third tier Tranmere Rovers who had made the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup in each of the previous two seasons. In the end it was a comfortable 4-1 for Tranmere, but James Leech scored a ‘worldy’ to add to the memories of a terrific Cup run.
It was to be third time lucky for Harrogate Railway Athletic the following year as records for NCEL clubs in the FA Cup tumbled. The 2002/03 season saw three NCEL clubs in the 4th Qualifying Round for the first, and so far, only time. Arnold Town (2-0 losers at home to Conference side Scarborough) and the current Bridlington Town (4-1 losers to fellow Conference side Southport) were the two unlucky clubs not to make it through.
The Rail faced NPL Premier Division opposition Marine and triumphed 4-2 to join local rivals, and former NCEL members, Harrogate Town in the 1st Round ‘Proper’, both clubs making it there for the first time ever. Unfortunately for The Rail they were drawn to face League opposition. Fortunately for The Rail it was an eminently winnable match having to travel to Slough Town from Isthmian League Division One North. And so it proved to be.
The Rail ran out 2-1 winners that day at Wexham Park thanks to goals from Smith and Steve Davey, to become the first and so far only NCEL club to make the 2nd Round of the FA Cup. And they were given the best tie possible, hosting third tier Bristol City, at the time the highest ranked team of the 2nd Round. Steve Davey scored again, but it was a step too far and City won the match 3-1.
The Rail would go on to make the 2nd Round again five years later, but by then they were members of the Northern Premier League. NCEL clubs are yet to experience ‘Proper’ Round football again since those exploits. They’ve come close a couple of times but only in the years immediately following The Rail’s terrific run.
The 2003/04 season would see a record number of NCEL clubs partake in the FA Cup (36) and for the fourth time at least two clubs made the 4th Qualifying Round. Buxton went down 6-0 at Conference side Burton Albion whilst Ossett Albion lost 0-1 at home NPL Premier club Stalybridge Celtic.
The following season saw the appearance of an NCEL club in the 4th Qualifying Round for the last time so far. Liversedge were drawn at home to Midland Football Alliance side Coalville Town and may have felt confident of progressing, but the clubs produced a stalemate at The Clayborn Ground and Coalville went on to win the replay 2-0.
The past 12 years have seen just seven NCEL clubs reach the 3rd Qualifying Round and on several occasions the League’s members have equalled the lowest performing year with just one representative in the 2nd Qualifying Round, but the beauty of the FA Cup is that history is no predictor of the future and NCEL clubs could once again soon be gracing the ‘Proper’ Rounds of the competition again.
And who knows, there may very well be a first ever Football League scalp on the horizon, too.