Far removed from the FA Cup's glittering showpiece in May, its opening matches tour some of the more dilapidated venues in England. But, despite there being a whopping 737 teams in the competition, the draw can also upset the odds to offer some unique and virulent rivalries.
In leafy Cheshire, a real-life soap opera of drug convictions, insolvency, evictions, and rule-breaking gave a chance-meeting in Saturday's extra-preliminary round a tetchiness that Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will never fabricate 45 minutes away in Manchester.
1874 Northwich, bearing a name which features the year its opponent, Northwich Victoria, was established, began the fifth season of its existence with a trip to Townfield. It's not really a ground, but rather a field barely fit for Sunday league kickabouts around two-and-a-half miles outside of Northwich's centre in Barnton. For Vics, it's the club's eighth different home since being permanently ejected from the Victoria Stadium in early 2012.
Ten years ago, the Trickies were one level below the professional pyramid and resided in the Victoria Stadium, which had only been in usage for two years after the iconic Drill Field was sold for housing developments. From the outsiders' perspective, the non-league mainstay looked in fine fettle, but in reality Northwich Victoria was run with greater concern to supplementing chairman and Manchester nightclub owner Mike Connett's finances than the club's competitiveness. Bills went unpaid, to the extent that the electricity was once cut off, leaving the fate of the Victoria Stadium to the whims of a generator that spluttered and wheezed when powering the floodlights.
Connett ostracised fans further by handing out stadium bans to at least three lifelong supporters who dared to criticise his methods.
When a consortium fronted by Jim Rushe took over Vics in late 2007, the ground was no longer the property of the club. It remained in Connett's hands as what he described as a "pension fund." The Victoria Stadium was repossessed in October 2008, as Clydesdale Bank looked to recoup money it had lent to Connett, and by January 2009 the outfit was left temporarily homeless when the former chairman removed mandatory safety equipment from the ground.
(Photo courtesy: Action Images)
A second administration in five years soon followed, coinciding with relegation from the Conference National. A return to its home of four years was granted for the start of the 2009-10 season, but it was merely on a short-term licence from receiver Deloitte, which was looking to sell the plot. Rushe's promises to purchase the Victoria Stadium never materialised, and, when Thor Specialities decided to use the land to distribute products ranging from wet wipes to flame retardants, the club was evicted for good in January 2012. Northwich Victoria's home matches were staged at the abodes of Kidsgrove Athletic, Nantwich Town, Leek Town, and Macclesfield Town for the remainder of that season.
As the Guardian's David Conn noted at the time, Northwich Victoria was effectively sleeping on neighbours' floors.
After seeing the club ruin relationships with local businesses by not covering bills, and not being consulted in decisions throughout the reigns of Connett and Rushe, the patience of many fans was tested. The Supporters' Trust, anticipating a final collapse of the club after 15 years of mismanagement, already had a business plan drawn up for a phoenix version of Northwich. News that Vics would be then playing 35 miles away near Urmston in Greater Manchester - a ground that was promptly and somewhat fortuitously vacated by the defunct Flixton FC - accelerated plans for what would become 1874 Northwich.
Retired British Army sergeant Tony Rogers' rallying cry to form a new club to the Supporters' Trust was backed with a huge 141-4 majority in favour of forming a breakaway team. The Trust registered as a company and began to assemble an outfit from November 2012.
1874 is one of 32 U.K. supporter-owned football clubs recognised by Supporters Direct. The aim is to reaffirm Northwich's foothold in the local community - something fellow phoenix club Runcorn Linnets has successfully done nearby - and to eventually return to town. It currently plays six-and-a-half miles south of Northwich, sharing digs with proprietor Winsford United.
Crises and Vics continue to be synonymous. The club risked expulsion from the FA Cup in 2015-16, when it fielded loanee goalkeeper Mason Springthorpe, neglecting the need to register him. Point deductions and an enforced FA Cup replay were imposed, extending the club's increasingly chequered relationship with the football authorities.
By this time, Rushe was out of the picture at Victoria. He failed the FA's fit-and-proper-persons test after being declared bankrupt for the second time in 2014. There's evidence that he was still unlawfully involved at the club, but that was sensationally ended when he was arrested in 2015 for plotting to import a quarter of a kilogram of cocaine.
(Photo courtesy: Liverpool Echo)
"The drugs themselves in this case were a very high purity and a very high weight, at 83 percent pure," said Judge Simon Medland.
Medland described Rushe as a "senior player" in a sophisticated venture, despite its seedy meeting points of a go-kart track and a Preston pub. He wasn't recognised as a drug-user himself, using the scheme solely for profitable means, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
A few Northwich Victoria fans stood firm, professing loyalty and collecting £16,000 to pay off creditors and keep the club in existence. Vics' new website claims that it's "saved by fans, owned by the fans." Without supporter involvement, the club would be dead, but lacking proof of a democratic fan body possessing more than half of the shares means it isn't officially owned by fans at all. The outfit is notably excluded from Supporters Direct's list, and with this false claim only supplements its shady reputation.
The group Vics supporters sometimes describe as "deserters" aren't necessarily in consensus. A significant portion of 1874 fans see their new club as a continuation of the traditions and identity of Northwich Victoria, rather than the shell that was left behind after unpaid bids, constant upheaval, and links to the northwest drug underworld severed many community ties. Conversely, others wanted to ditch the colour green completely to disassociate the club with Vics, but that initiative failed to corral enough votes from co-owners. The 1874 tag - with the year preceding the locale - was pushed forward by prominent club member Alan Marshall, who was inspired by numerous German teams' names and wanted to set the new venture apart.
(Photo courtesy: Ross Knight / William Knight)
In Saturday's meeting, much was at stake due to the financial windfall that the FA Cup's later rounds promise. The host seemed most in need of investment: Vics players were a ragtag bunch, warming up on the sloped pitch in Puma kits, Macron jumpers, and Umbro bibs.
The number of away supporters was anticipated to trump those rooting for the older club, but the loudest cheers of the day greeted Vics' two second-half efforts. "Both their goals were crackers," key 1874 founder Rogers confessed to theScore after an official attendance of 510 filed out.
Just like the teams' recent histories, they were inseparable with a 2-2 scoreline, meaning that the sides will reconvene at Barton Stadium for a replay on Tuesday evening. They will play each other at least four times in the 2017-18 season, after Northwich Victoria was relegated into the ninth tier with the assistance of a point deduction for entering administration.
And, to complicate the conflict further, the Northwich clubs' landlords, Barnton and Winsford United, are also competing in the North West Counties League Premier Division.
It's not the ideal situation to be playing at another club's ground, but the fact that Vics and 1874 are managing to cultivate such a healthy local rivalry after being threatened by self-serving owners - rather than being consigned to the annals of defunct teams - is an achievement that no FA Cup run can match.
(Photo courtesy: Ross Knight / William Knight)