Father versus son highlights magic of FA Cup

LONDON -- Martin Ling, Leyton Orient's newly installed director of football, found a quiet gap between the filling stands at Victoria Road. His O's had made the short bus trip to visit Dagenham & Redbridge on Saturday, two National League sides drawn to begin their pivotal FA Cup campaigns against each other. For Ling, the prospects were twice nervy. His son, Sam, was starting for the Daggers.

Sam, only 20, still lives at home, and it had been a little quiet around the house before the East London and Ling family derby. "One of us is going to be miserable tonight, out of the FA Cup," the elder Ling said. "I'm not looking forward to it, to be honest with you."

Martin Ling's anxiety was one of countless crackles across the country, a kind of lightning storm of scrappy concerns. There were 31 matches scheduled between 62 of the 64 non-league teams left in the FA Cup. (The remaining match, Shaw Lane at home to Barrow, was slated for Sunday.)

At football's highest levels, the FA Cup can be seen increasingly as an afterthought, a once-consuming tournament made lesser by Premier League and continental rewards, reduced to Arsenal's annual consolation prize. But in the desperate non-league struggles to make November's first round proper, the FA Cup still matters like blood.

John Still, the Dag & Red manager, was lit up by the prospect of facing rival Orient. "I wanted this game," he said. "I was brought up in a house among lots of working-class families, and the day of the FA Cup, you was all watching the telly at nine o'clock in the morning. I just think it has a bit of aura, a bit of magic about it."

Much of that magic comes from the FA Cup's illusion of equality: Any football team can get lucky against any other. That easy line doesn't really stand up to the modern game's harder facts. The idea that Macclesfield Town might take the trophy this year is a dream that even other dreams would wave away as unrealistic.

This is the 137th FA Cup campaign, and there have been exactly eight winners from outside the top flight, West Ham the last in 1980. Hereford United's muddy replay win over Newcastle, when spectators sat in trees to watch the non-league side triumph over their top-tier visitors, is often cited as evidence for the Cup's fainter possibilities. That was in 1972.

But last season's sometimes strange competition has breathed new life into the fantasy business. The Imps of Lincoln City became the first non-league club to reach the quarterfinals in more than a century, beating Premier League side Burnley in the fifth round.

Non-league Sutton also hosted Arsenal in the fifth round. Although they lost to their guests, Sutton's run earned the club more than £700,000 in prize money and revenue. The club has since invested much of that windfall into their ground, which now features a new scoreboard and much-improved floodlights. On TV, their match against Arsenal looked as though it were being played in gloaming.

"The romance of the Cup ain't dead here," Martin Ling said. "If we get a big draw, it could pay for our season near enough. So for a club our size, it's massively important."

It was especially so for Orient, an ancient side that has suffered through a calamitous recent history. They risked folding after being twice relegated under the chaotic ownership of Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti, and last season they fell out of the Football League for the first time in 112 years. With new ownership, the O's could see their resurrection accelerated by a good trophy run.

"This is the magic of the FA Cup," the stadium announcer bellowed before the opening whistle. "Let's make some noise for our boys!" There were 2,529 supporters in Victoria Road's tight stands and terraces, 911 of them from Orient, singing and chanting away. If they had been told the FA Cup doesn't matter anymore, the news had fallen on deaf ears.

The Daggers dominated the early going, earning corner after corner but unable to finish their attack. In the 24th minute, Orient countered, twice heading the ball off the bar in the same sequence. Charlie Grainger played well in the Orient goal, making a couple of smart diving saves. A late-game lull yielded to end-to-end action during five minutes of added time. The match somehow finished scoreless.

They will try again Tuesday night at Brisbane Road in the replay.

Dozens of similarly fraught matches unfolded at Harrogate Town and Kidderminster and Woking, sometimes before a few hundred fans. While millions watched Chelsea's shock loss to Crystal Palace, Shildon, the last ninth-tier side in the FA Cup running, were trounced by Guiseley in front of 772.

Sutton kept their hopes of another miracle run alive with a narrow win over eighth-tier Paulton Rovers. Another eighth-tier side, Ossett Town, stayed alive with a surprise draw against the National League's Solihull Moors. Two other eighth-tier sides advanced straight to the first round, where they will face relative giants -- Hyde United will host MK Dons of League One, while Heybridge Swifts will travel to League Two high-flyers Exeter.

Martin and Sam Ling's next match will again be against each other. They met on the pitch after their opening battle, sharing a handshake and hug but not saying much. Their house was doomed to more quiet agony.

"A few more days of not talking to him," Sam Ling said. "Gutted not to get the win today, but we get another chance." Being drawn against his father had shocked him at first, he said. "But in the end I was buzzing. I was buzzing for the game. That's the story of your season, how far you get in the FA Cup."

The look on his young face, equal parts disappointment and relief, was a reminder that the best of those stories aren't always found under football's brightest lights.