The FA’s recent announcement that the 2019-2020 FA Sunday Cup tournament is likely to be completed is welcome news. The competition was at its semi-final stage when Covid struck and prematurely ended the season. For the first time in four years a team from London (Portland FC) is in the semi-final. London has strangely under-achieved in the FA Sunday Cup. Only two teams from London have won the FA Sunday Cup in the last 26 years. Despite being Britain’s capital and having a massive footballing population – boasting more teams and players than any other city or county, London lags far behind the teams from northern England (especially Liverpool) who have almost turned the cup into their personal possession. 11 of the last 15 FA Sunday Cup winners were from either Liverpool or Durham County areas.
In this year’s tournament, the London champions Lambeth All Stars were knocked out after losing 0-3 to St Joseph’s from Luton, and highly heralded “YouTube Team” Baiteze Squad lost in round 2 after losing 1-2 to Shire United from the Thames Valley Sunday League.
So why do London teams under-perform in this competition?
1) Lack of Motivation. Northern teams (especially those from Liverpool) treat the FA Sunday Cup as their top priority every season. For Sunday footballers from that region, this cup is their Champions League and is the most glamorous competition they can play in. It is common to see virtually every team from the top two divisions of the Liverpool Business Houses League enter this cup.
Yet, London teams do not seem to bother with this competition! For example, only 4 of the 127 entrants in the 2019-2020 competition were from London. Yet about 25-30 teams from the Liverpool area enter this cup every year. However, London, with its nine million citizens, entered only 4 teams. Even Portland who are “flying the flag for London” are technically from Surrey since the club has its roots in Croydon (on the south London-Surrey border). New Salamis (who won this cup in 2016) were the last London team to make this cup a priority and entered it every season until they left Sunday football to become a Saturday team in 2018. Since then, London has relapsed to the usual under-achievement in this cup. Despite having hundreds of teams and thousands of eligible players, over 98% of London teams never enter the cup. Why are London teams so apathetic about this cup?
2) Ground Grading Requirements. The competition’s rules require games to be played on a separate roped off pitch, and for the home team to provide hospitality facilities for both sets of players and spectators. Those are pipe dreams for most London Sunday teams. In busy and congested London, many teams play on council parks with several pitches/games going on side by side.
Facilities and stadia improve as one moves further away from London (because in a built up city like London there are few spaces to have even a basic football pitch). Most matches in the London Sunday Challenge Cup (London’s premier Sunday cup competition) are played on pitches that would not be accepted even at a step 7 Saturday league! (the lowest level in Saturday football) Some Sunday teams play on pitches that are not fit to walk a dog on, let alone play football. For example, games on Sunday mornings at Hackney Marshes in east London resemble gigantic scrums with hundreds of players playing on pitches only a few feet away from adjacent games and pitches. This geographic imbalance in facilities gives northern teams an advantage as they can more easily hire grounds that meet the FA’s ground grading rules.
For a London team, good quality facilities mean that they have to travel far to play even their home games. Hence a “home” game for a London team in the FA Sunday Cup may involve travelling to another county like Essex or Middlesex. For example, when New Salamis FC (from north London) were a Sunday team they usually played their home games at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire or Enfield in Middlesex. The fact they had to travel to other counties to play “home” games demonstrates the challenge of good football facilities in London.
The Orpington & Bromley District Sunday League (OBDSFL) is a notable exception. Many OBDSFL teams are based in south London or Kent. Unusually for a Sunday league, the OBDSFL has ground grading requirements for teams in its top 2 divisions (which are probably stricter than step 7 pitch requirements). As a result, several OBDSFL clubs play at some of the best grounds one can find in amateur football. For example SE Dons play at Cray Wanderers’ Flamingo Park in Kent, and Kenningwell United play their home games at King’s College’s plush facilities. Yet neither team entered the FA Sunday Cup despite having the facilities to do so.
The reluctance of London teams to enter has led to some mockery and “banter” from northern teams who ridicule London teams for always boasting about how good they are, but never actually bother to prove it by competing in the premier Sunday football competition in the country. The advertising and sponsorship income that YouTube teams such as Baiteze Squad, SE Dons, and Rising Ballers generate mean that they can afford to enter this competition and the associated costs of travel and playing around the country.
Moreover, the competition would be enriched by having more London teams in it. In boxing it is often said that “styles make fights”. That is also true of football with its geography based variations in playing style. Northern teams tend to be very organised, physical, and defensively solid. Conversely, London teams have more flair, take greater risks, and play a more rapid passing game.
YouTube teams from London have done very well to raise the profile of Sunday football. Yet they will never earn the respect of northern teams (as New Salamis did) until they win this cup.