In the summer of 2017 the Berks & Bucks County FA overhauled it’s cup competitions, namely combining its premier competition, the Senior Cup with its second tier Senior Trophy competition.
For as long as I’d been watching non league football, the County Cup was the bottom rung of all the cup competitions (and there are many – but more on that later) with the vast majority of teams and certainly supporters paying little attention to it.
It seems strange that a competition which offered a very real opportunity of a final place after only two or three matches could be passed by so easily, but that was almost precisely the problem. There was very little time to get enthusiastic about a competition as a supporter that was over so quickly and often shoe horned in to a fixture list.
As a young Bracknell Town fan the major issue was familiarity – by that I mean being knocked out in the opening round by Marlow pretty much every season in the 2000s. It really didn’t get you excited about the competition – as decent a ground as Marlow’s is.
Grounds for change
That started to change a little last season, the County FA wisely chose to host the Senior Trophy Final between Binfield and Bracknell Town at Windsor rather than a half empty Adams Park (Wycombe Wanderers home ground as I believe was mooted).
The relatively short distance to travel for both clubs supporters meant their were 100s in attendance and little space around the perimeter of Stag Meadow.
Compare that with the Reading Senior Cup Final between the same two sides a few weeks later and marvel at the non-atmosphere and 1000s and 1000s of empty blue seats at Reading’s Madejski Stadium.
Undoubtedly, and I can’t stress this enough, for the players it was a great opportunity to play at a professional ground on a professional grade pitch, but the contrast for anyone in the stands was there for all to see and hear.
What’s changed and why?
For me, an interest in the competition was peaked in the summer when Chris Cole, the County FA’s competitions co-ordinator suggested that they might combine the Senior Cup and Senior Trophy – the latter lifted by Bracknell a few months before.
That would mean the step 5 Hellenic clubs like Bracknell, Binfield, Ascot United and Woodley United (themselves recently crowned Intermediate Cup champions) potentially coming up against Football League side MK Dons, National League sides Maidenhead United and Hungerford Town as well as Southern League sides Slough Town and Chesham United.
Real proper tests against bigger teams, different teams and as it’s the County Cup, relatively local teams.
It came to pass that Bracknell came up against Hungerford and won (2-1), and Slough and lost (3-2) – albeit a tight game with many of the Rebels FA Cup heroes in action, oh and 436 spectators.
I spoke to Bracknell player manager Carl Davies about whether the changes had been positive from the point of view of playing in the competition.
“Yeah definitely, you always want to play against better teams and see how you fare and overall I think we did very well having beaten Aylesbury comfortably and of course Hungerford away” he said.
“The only downside being it’s a lot harder to go all the way of course!
“Overall I think it’s great for ‘smaller clubs’ to come up against the bigger sides who they would perhaps otherwise never meet.”
Ascot United had a 2-0 home defeat to MK Dons and the EFL League One side also travelled to Windsor where they won 5-0. They now face Slough in a semi final while Woodley will host Chesham United in the other last four tie after being reinstated following a quarter final defeat to Thatcham Town.
Why the change has been important
Put simply, there are so many cup competitions it’s easy to see why it’s important a competition remains relevant and worth challenging for.
Here’s the list of competitions the majority of senior Hellenic League clubs first teams will enter in a season.
- FA Cup
- FA Vase
- County Cup
- Hellenic League Challenge Cup
- Hellenic League Supplementary Challenge Cup (entered if a club exits the above competition in the early rounds)
- Hellenic League Floodlit Cup
- Reading/Aldershot Senior Cup – admittedly a number of senior sides didn’t enter this season
While winning a league cup competition is no less prestigious, you are just as likely to be drawn against the team over the road as you are a midweek trip to Gloucestershire.
The new expanded County competition will at worst send you to Buckinghamshire or West Berkshire and at best a decent local derby.
How do the ‘bigger clubs’ feel?
Of course, so far all I’ve said is how good the competition has been for the Hellenic League clubs. What about those sides higher up the non league pyramid? I asked them.
MK Dons Under-23s Head Coach Eduardo Rubio said: “MK Dons is proud to have, once again, taken part in this season’s competition. It has been enjoyable and has provided us with an opportunity to visit new teams and venues.
“We have been made to feel extremely welcome by all the clubs we have visited and the matches have always proven to be very competitive.”
I also asked Slough joint boss Neil Baker how he felt, particularly after the well attended reunion with his and Jon Underwood’s former club Bracknell.
The Rebels boss said: “To be honest from our point of view it has been fine! We have had two good games against Wantage and Bracknell with MK Dons to come! I think it is right that the Senior Cup goes down to step 5 in all honesty!”
What about the future though? Ultimately if the Senior Cup stays as it is – and for the avoidance of doubt I hope it does, for the Hellenic League Premier sides in my opinion it will quickly become the third cup competition in terms of importance after the FA Cup and Vase. Outranking the Hellenic competitions.
James Anderson, manager of semi finalists Woodley thinks there are too many cup competitions. He said: “To be honest I don’t really know which cup is which. If I had one complaint this season it would be that there have been way to many cups. Feels like every other week is a cup game!
“Having said that, cups are great for the squad because you get the opportunity to rotate the squad and give fringe players opportunities without pressure. Also, be it a manager or a player you might remember the odd league you win but you always remember cup finals!
“Our County Cup win though against [step 4] Beaconsfield Town was one of our best performances of the season and whatever happens this season, if we stay in the Hellenic Premier or not, it will be something we’ll remember.”
It’s a good point really, with the games again mounting up toward the end of the season in both the league and cups, the County Cup needs to ensure it’s relevance and importance to all clubs – and if this seasons competition is anything to go by it’s going the right way about it.
Now if both Reading and Wycombe could just be persuaded to put a side in..
Agree with Tom or not on the County Cup? Let us know in the comments below.