History Beckons for Two Level Eight Clubs in FA Cup

For the first time since a national Non-League division was introduced ahead of the 1979-80 season, there will be two clubs from Level Eight of the English football pyramid in the Second Round of the FA Cup.

(There were two Northern League clubs in the 2nd Round in the 1981-82 season, Bishop Auckland and Penrith, but as there was only one National League and one division of the Northern Premier League at the time, technically they would have been Level Seven.)

Essex based club Maldon and Tiptree, of Isthmian League Division One North, and West Sussex side Chichester City, of the Isthmian League Division One South East, have both fought their way through six FA Cup ties to be part of the last 84 clubs standing in this year’s competition.

Maldon and Tiptree Chichester City

Chichester City have actually come through seven rounds, having started with a 3-1 victory over Erith Town in the Extra Preliminary Round way back on the 10th August, but were the beneficiaries of a ‘bye’ in the 1st Round ‘Proper’, following the disqualification of Bury FC.

Maldon and Tiptree secured their Second Round appearance courtesy of a terrific FA Cup giant-killing away at former Semi-Finalists, Leyton Orient, and have scored 20 goals already en route to this round with Jorome Slew the joint top scorer in the competition with eight goals himself.

There have actually only been five Level Eight clubs who’ve made it to the 2nd Round in the forty years since the National League was established. Harrogate Railway Athletic of the Northern Counties East League Premier Division were the first to do so in 2002-03, then Chasetown in 2007-08, Redbridge in 2011-12, Warrington Town in 2014-15 and Northwich Victoria in 2015-16.

Both clubs will be looking to become the first Level Eight side in the FA Cup 3rd Round since Staffordshire based Chasetown achieved the feat in the 2007-08 season, when as a Southern League Division One Midlands outfit, they progressed to face Cardiff City in the last 64, but succumbed to a 3-1 reverse.

Chasetown are also the only Level Eight club to make it as far as the FA Cup 3rd Round since the Alliance Premier League (now National League) was created in 1979, which established the concept of the football pyramid (that is still evolving to this day), but which didn’t become fully integrated with the Football League until eight years later when automatic promotion and relegation was introduced.

The definition of what is a Level Eight division in the pyramid has changed over the 40 years since the national Non-League division was established. For the first 25 years of its existence, Level Eight was defined by Isthmian League Division Two (for a while Two North and Two South).

Additionally, from 1982-83 onwards, the top divisions of the Wessex League, the Western League, the Kent League and the Sussex County League were also considered as Level Eight as they fed into the second level of either the Southern League or the Isthmian League.

The top divisions of the Northern League, the Northern Counties East League (formerly Yorkshire League and Midland Counties League), the North West Counties League (formerly Cheshire County League and Lancashire Combination), and the West Midlands Regional League, typically fed into the Northern Premier League which initially only had one division, so technically they did not become Level Eight until the 1987-88 season.

A second tier of the National League was introduced for the 2004-05 season, North and South, thereby adding an extra layer to the pyramid resulting in Level Eight being defined as the lower tier 1st Divisions of the Northern Premier League, the Southern League and the Isthmian League (in all their regional guises). The top divisions of all the more concentrated regional leagues became either Level Nine or Level Ten in the pyramid alongside those that had been feeding into the old Isthmian League Division Two.

Before the Alliance Premier existed, the structure of non-league was even less easy to define, and so defining levels of clubs competing in the FA Cup was also more difficult to determine. From the 1968-69 season there were three Level Five leagues when the Northern Premier League was created to sit alongside the more established Southern League and Isthmian League. The top divisions of all these leagues were shunted down to Level Six in 1979, and to Level Seven in 2004.

Prior to the development of the Northern Premier League, other regional leagues were considered to be on a par with the Southern League and Isthmian League at Level Five, including the Cheshire County League, the Lancashire Combination, the Midlands Counties League, the Northern Regional League, and the West Midlands (Regional) League (formerly the Birmingham and District League).

Below this Level Five in the ‘pyramid’ at the time were a whole plethora of regional leagues across which it was very difficult to compare and contrast the standards and therefore make an assessment as to exactly at what level clubs were competing.

And just a decade before the Northern Premier League was founded came the introduction of a fourth tier in the Football League and so the top divisions of the Southern League, the Isthmian League and all the other aforementioned leagues could retrospectively be classed as Level Four.

And, of course, if you go back to just after the end of World War I, there were only two divisions in the Football League and so the top non-league divisions could be referred to as Level Three prior to then, at least as far back as 1892 which saw the introduction of a second tier in the Football League.

Suffice to say that over time the level the top divisions in Non-League occupy in the Football Pyramid have diminished, from Level Two in the early days of the Football League to Level Five in the current structure. This change in level classification and the lack of a formally recognised pyramid prior to 1979 means that it is nigh on impossible to say whether or not equivalent Level Eight clubs have appeared in the FA Cup 3rd Round.

They definitely did not do so prior to the 1925-26 season when the structure of the competition was changed to reflect its current format, as the 3rd Round prior to then would be regarded as the 5th Round nowadays. However, there has been a smattering of clubs who have reached the 3rd Round since the 1925-26 season who might be regarded as equivalent to the modern day Level Eight clubs.

In that very first season of the adopted current format of the FA Cup, two clubs appeared in the 3rd Round from below the major Non-League divisions. The first, Corinthians FC, were unique in that the club didn’t have to qualify for its 3rd Round berth, being exempted until the last 64 for the first eight years of the current structure format. They were actually not members of any League at the time, but were an amateur side who regularly competed with and defeated top flight professional Football League clubs. They twice made the 4th Round in those eight years, but eventually merged with Casuals in 1939 to form the current Corinthian-Casuals club.

The other lower level non-league club to reach the 3rd Round in that 1925-26 season was Chilton Colliery Recreation from the Northern Alliance. However, the club only began its campaign that season in the 4th Qualifying Round which suggests that their League status may be regarded as slightly higher than the currently defined Level Eight divisions.

Exemptions based on league status were not as clearly defined in the 1920s as they are today, so there was a lack of consistency between perceived standard of a league and the round in which clubs from that league were exempt in the FA Cup. In fact, prior to World War II, clubs from the same league division might find themselves starting their FA Cup campaigns in much different rounds.

Carlisle United reached Round Three of the FA Cup in the 1926-27 season whilst members of the North Eastern League Division One, but they also began their campaign in the 4th Qualifying Round. However, in the 1931-32 season, another member of the North Eastern League Division One appeared in the FA Cup 3rd Round, but they began their campaign that season in the Preliminary Round.

Crook Town defeated Durham City 3-0 in that Preliminary Round, then saw off Blackhall Colliery Welfare, Horden Colliery Welfare, Murton Colliery Welfare, Bishop Auckland, Stockport County and Aldershot before finally succumbing 7-0 at Leicester City in their seventh tie of the campaign. I would argue, though, that even though Crook Town started their campaign so early, their League status was still not equivalent to a modern day Level Eight club.

Two years later, in the 1933-34 season, a club went from the Extra Preliminary Round all the way to the 3rd Round for the first time ever. Cheltenham Town were members of the Birmingham Combination that season and they began their FA Cup campaign with a 2-0 victory over Mount Hill Enterprise of the lower level Bristol and District League Division One. The Birmingham Combination was below the Birmingham and District League, but their opponents in that Extra Preliminary Round suggest that Cheltenham Town were playing at an equivalent higher level than today’s Level Eight.

Two further years later still, Southall of the Athenian League replicated the feat of starting in the Extra Preliminary Round and going on a run all the way to the 3rd Round. In 1935-36, the Athenian League fed directly into the Isthmian League which was regarded as Level Four at the time, so it is difficult to say that Southall then were the equivalent of a Level Eight club nowadays. This is not to diminish their achievement (they are after all the last club to make the 3rd Round having started in the EP Round), but there were clubs in the competition that year from lower standing leagues.

Nuneaton Borough reached the 3rd Round as a Birmingham Combination side in the 1949-50 season having started in the Preliminary Round that year. Finchley made a similar journey as an Athenian League side in 1952-53 having started in the 1st Qualifying Round, but neither side could be regarded as being at a level any lower than one below the Southern League and the Isthmian League, that being Level Five.

The last Athenian League side to reach the FA Cup 3rd Rd was Barnet in the 1964-65 season. The club started in the earliest round possible that year, the 1st Qualifying Round, and won through six ties before a narrow 2-3 defeat at home to Preston North End brought the run to an end. During the 1960s and 1970s the FA limited entry to the FA Cup to certain standard of clubs, so whilst the Athenian League may have been the lowest level league in the competition it was regarded as a feeder into the Isthmian League and therefore would now be classed as Level Six.

Following the foundation of the Northern Premier League in 1968, the first club from below the top level of Non-League to reach the 3rd Round was Cheshire County League side Rhyl. The North Wales club reached the 3rd Round in the 1970-71 season having started their campaign in the 1st Qualifying Round, but like Barnet before them, would now be classed as Level Six.

Then in the 1973-74 season, Alvechurch made the same journey from the 1st Qualifying Round to the 3rd Round as members of the West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division. The Church were already famous for being the victors in the longest FA Cup tie with Oxford City just two seasons earlier, and now arguably were the first Level Seven club to reach the 3rd Round. It’s debatable as many West Midlands (Regional) League clubs could be promoted to either the Northern Premier League (which had one division) or the Southern League (which had two divisions), but as Alvechurch eventually joined the latter it’s fair to say they were Level Seven.

The most famous Level Seven club to reach the 3rd Round (and beyond) was Blyth Spartans in the 1978-79 season whilst members of the Northern League. Having started in the 1st Qualifying Round that season they actually competed in a record equalling nine FA Cup rounds in total, finally exiting to Wrexham in a 5th Round replay.

After the Alliance Premier League was established in 1979, Chesham United became the first Level Seven club of the formal pyramid to reach the 3rd Round, during its inaugural season. They were members of Isthmian League Division One at the time and began their campaign in the 1st Qualifying Round before going on to lose 2-0 at home to Cambridge United seven rounds later.

Whitley Bay were the next Level Seven club to reach the 3rd Round in the 1989-90 season, but they started one round earlier in the Preliminary Round whilst members of the Northern Premier League Division One. After seven FA Cup victories that season they eventually were knocked out 1-0 by Rochdale.

Other Level Seven clubs to reach the 3rd Round since then are Eastwood Town in 2008-09 and Blyth Spartans in 2014-15, both as members of Northern Premier League Premier Division. Both started their campaigns in the 1st Qualifying Round.

So history beckons for both Maldon and Tiptree and Chichester City. A 3rd Round appearance for either club would be monumental, but if both clubs achieved it then it would be record breaking. And Chichester City also have the chance to become the first club since Southall 84 years ago, to go from the Extra Preliminary Round all the way through to the 3rd Round.

 

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