FA Cup qualifying: NHS tributes, training in manager’s garden and Zoom weddings

FA Cup qualifying: NHS tributes, training in manager's garden and Zoom weddings
Players from Northwich Victoria, who play in the ninth tier, have been preparing for the FA Cup extra preliminary round by training in their manager’s garden
Dates: 31 August-3 September Coverage: Burton Park Wanderers v AFC Sudbury on 2 September (19:45 BST) live on the BBC Sport website and BBC iPlayer

One month after Arsenal beat Chelsea in the final, the FA Cup is back, with hundreds of non-league clubs banking on a good run after going months without any matchday income.

Some 183 extra preliminary round ties, the first of 13 hurdles before the final at Wembley on 15 May 2021, are due to take place between Monday and Thursday in front of spectators.

Until a few days ago, revenue streams at many part-time clubs dried up because fans had not been allowed in grounds since March.

Clubs lost tens of thousands of pounds in gate money, programme sales, as well as food and bar takings.

Despite prize money being slashed by 50%, the early rounds of this season’s FA Cup could make or break clubs like Gresley Rovers, whose players volunteered to play Tuesday’s home tie with Wellington for free.external-link

“We’re only surviving because of the generosity of our supporters and players,” Mark Alflat, chairman of ninth-tier Gresley, told BBC Sport before it was announced fans would be allowed to attend football in the seventh tier and below.

The extra preliminary round tie between Surrey part-timers Redhill and Egham Town is off after Redhill announced one of their players had tested positive for coronavirus.external-link Egham advance to the preliminary round.

Round Date Winners receive Losers receive
Extra preliminary round 1 September £1,125 £375
Preliminary round 12 September £1,444 £481
First qualifying 22 September £2,250 £750
Second qualifying 3 October £3,375 £1,125
Third qualifying 13 October £5,625 £1,875
Fourth qualifying 24 October £9,375 £3,125

Parking the bus

Clubs entering the early qualifying rounds of the FA Cup have come up with novel ways to raise income to keep going since March.

When Daventry Town’s plan to host drive-in movies at their Elderstubbs ground collapsed, club officials turned the pitch into a socially-distanced beer garden – complete with giant screen on the side of a double-decker bus showing live sport.

Around 180 people turned up for the first live football screening on 4 July – way above the Southern League Division One Central club’s average league gate of 117 for 2019-20.

“The bus and the screen were loaned to us for free,” Brian Porter, secretary of eighth-tier Daventryexternal-link explained.

Daventry Town turned their pitch into a beer garden to help raise funds during the summer of 2020
The double-decker bus parked in front of the dugouts at Daventry Town’s ground

“We showed live Premier League matches and Formula 1.

“The double-decker has gone back but we hope to loan it next summer to show European Championship matches.”

Daventry Town, who enter at the preliminary round on 12 September, stage several annual fundraisers, including a music festival and boxing event.

With the club’s function room forced to shut for several months, Porter is predicting a “tremendously difficult” time for the club.

Club renames ground after NHS

Despite facing uncertain futures, several non-league teams have donated money collected through club fines in 2019-20 to the National Health Service for its work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sussex part-timers Haywards Heath Town have gone the extra mile and renamed their 2,000-capacity Hanbury Park home ‘The Thank You NHS Stadium’external-link for 2020-21.

Hanbury Park, home to Haywards Heath Town, has been renamed 'The Thank You NHS Stadium' for the 2020-21 season
Haywards Heath Town, founded in 1888, have played at Hanbury Park since 1952

“This reflects the gratitude of everyone associated with the club for the hard work by all NHS staff during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Mark Russ, first-team coach at the Isthmian League South East Division club, said.

The idea to rename the ground came from Roy Staughton, groundsman at eighth-tier Haywards Heath,external-link who enter the FA Cup at the preliminary round stage.

“There’s no doubt about it, the last few months have hit us hard financially but it doesn’t cost anything to show some appreciation,” chairman Mick Cottingham said.

Training in manager’s garden

Northwich Victoria’s players have been getting ready for the FA Cup by training in their manager’s back garden.

Vics boss Steve Wilkes lives in the Lancashire village of Bleasdale – around 60 miles from the North West Counties League Premier Division club’s Wincham Park base.

“We brought the players back to training in small groups after lockdown,” explained Wilkes, whose side entertain his former club Padiham on Tuesday.

Northwich Victoria players training in the garden of manager Steve Wilkes' house
Northwich Victoria’s players training at the home of manager Steve Wilkes

“We’ve got players scattered across the North West. A couple from Lancaster, a couple from Preston and another from Blackburn came to my house and we did two sessions in my back garden.

“It’s a big garden and the nearest house is about half a mile away so we didn’t have to ask for our ball back!

“Afterwards my wife brought out sandwiches and beers. I said ‘hold on a minute, they’re trying to lose weight and you’re bringing out sandwiches and beers’.”

Love conquers lockdown

When Barnoldswick Town boss Endrit Shehu and his partner Holly Lynch had their wedding plans disrupted by the pandemic, they decided to have a virtual Zoom ceremony for all their family and friends from around the world.

The couple met on the Greek island of Zante 11 years ago, with Albania-born Shehu following his girlfriend to England to start a life together.

A part-time coach with Preston North End’s academy and Liverpool’s international academy, he has been manager of North West Counties League Premier Division Barnoldswickexternal-link since October 2019.

Barnoldwick Town boss Endrit Shehu and his partner Holly Lynch
Barnoldswick boss Endrit Shehu and his partner Holly Lynch had a Zoom wedding watched by 80 guests

“The plan was to have a big wedding with 250 guests in Albania,” explained Shehu.

“Unfortunately with Covid-19 it was postponed so we decided we would do something on the day we were due to get married in April.

“We had 80 people and 80 little squares on the laptop. It started at 7pm and I didn’t get to bed until about 5 the following morning. It’s exactly what we needed.”

Ninth-tier Barnoldswick are away at AFC Darwen on Tuesday.

How Whitby got fans into ground

Whitby's ground is based close to the North Sea
Whitby’s ground is close to the North Sea

The last time Whitby Town played a competitive home game was 10 March, but fans have kept the club going by buying life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves to be displayed inside the Towbar Express Stadium.

With approximately 100 sold and each cut-out costing £25external-link – £9 of which goes directly to the club and a percentage to the NHS – the initiative has helped the Yorkshire part-timers pay the bills.

“There’s no way we could have started the season without fans being allowed into grounds,” said Graeme Hinchcliffe, managing director of the Northern Premier League Premier Division club, who enter at the first qualifying round stage on 22 September.

Whitby have donated £1,000 to the NHS and £1,000 to a food bank since they last played a league match.

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