Who Will Win the FA Sunday Cup?


The FA Sunday Cup is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the FA’s competitions. A cup competition that has featured professional top flight footballers and that has a 57 year history, deserves more attention and respect. The final of this season’s competition will take place this Sunday at The Den (home of Millwall FC) in south London.

For those who mentally associated Sunday football with overweight, unfit, out of shape players – think again. The FA Sunday Cup is essentially semi-professional football – full of players who were on the books of Premier League clubs. A bystander who watched a game in this competition some years ago confessed: “I was very, very, very shocked just how good the football was”.

The FA Sunday Cup is like the Champions League of Sunday football, and features the best Sunday teams from across England. This year’s final is a historic one. This is only the second time in nearly 30 years that two teams from London have reached the final of this nationwide competition. The two teams playing in this year’s final are seriously good and both are champions of their respective leagues. Here is a preview of both teams and what to expect from them.

HIGHGATE ALBION

I will be immodest and give myself indirect credit for foreshadowing Highgate Albion’s run to the final (!). Four months ago, I sent a message to the club’s secretary (after they received a second successive bye in round 2 against Falcons FC of Cambridge) jokingly suggesting that they might “reach the final without having to play a game!”. Four months later, Highgate indeed reached the final (they did play a few games to get there though!). However, Highgate reached the last 16 of this competition without having to kick a ball; after receiving byes in the first two rounds due to the inability of their 1st and 2nd round opponents Skew Bridge and Falcons to fulfil their fixtures.

Their 1st round game against Skew Bridge was initially postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, and the FA awarded the tie to Highgate after Skew Bridge was unable to play in the re-arranged fixture. Falcons folded and withdrew from the cup. However, those byes should not detract from Highgate’s quality. When Highgate eventually faced an opponent willing to play in round 3, they beat Burghfield from Reading 2-0, followed by a statement victory in a 6-1 demolition of highly rated Club Lewsey of Luton in the quarter-final.

Highgate are the three time consecutive champions of the Barnet Sunday League. It is a mark of how good they are that the club reached the final in what is only its second entry in the competition (having reached the last 16 in the prior season’s competition). The north London team has serious quality – especially in attack. Highgate’s prolific striker Jake Cass (who averages more than a goal per game this season) also plays semi-professionally on Saturdays for Step 3 team Enfield FC in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League. This season Highgate also signed midfielder Jayden Clarke from their league rivals Rising Ballers. Clarke also plays semi-professionally on Saturdays at Step 3 for Hendon FC of the Southern League’s Premier Division. Some other Highgate players also play on Saturdays for Barnet based Hadley FC in the Premier Division of the Spartan South Midlands League (Step 5). These include the rapid forward Solomon Ofori; who is usually a handful for opposition defences, and left back Luke Alfano who is a very solid player both defensively and when supporting his team’s attacks. Forward Excellence Muhemba also plays on Saturdays for Windsor in the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League.

Captain Marvel

A special word for Highgate’s captain and veteran center-back Ian Maitland. The name Maitland is synonymous with Highgate Albion. Maitland made this debut for the club before this century! (and before some of his team-mates were born) 23 years and about 500 games later, Maitland still plays for Highgate Albion. He followed in the footsteps of his father Nigel who also played for Highgate, and even played for the club alongside his younger brother Frankie. Last year a third generation of the Maitland family played for Highgate as Ian’s son Charlie made his debut for Highgate.

“the most important goal in the club’s history”

I saw (Ian!) Maitland score a spectacular volley into the top left hand corner during Highgate’s victory against AFC Hammersmith in the Middlesex FA Sunday Premier Cup quarter-final earlier this season. At the time I thought a 39 year old defender blasting a “worldie” into the top corner was an outlier. It turns out that Maitland is the Steve Bruce of his era; a goalscoring defender. Not only has he scored 14 goals this season, but he also scored the dramatic 93rd minute winning goal in the semi-final against Liverpool team Mayfair, as Highgate overturned a 0-2 deficit to win 3-2. The club dubbed Maitland’s goal as “the most important goal in the club’s history”.

I also witnessed Maitland’s old school captaincy philosophy earlier this season when he responded to one of his team-mates complaining about a refereeing decision by screaming at him to: “Shut the fuc* up and get back!”. As far as on-field tactical advice goes: it was concise and to the point.

Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Highgate Albion’s formation. The club now operates four teams in the Barnet Sunday League. Its second team has already won the Middlesex FA Sunday Intermediate Cup this season. While the first team is riding high in the Premier Division, its second, third, and fourth teams are all well placed to gain promotion this season from Divisions 1, 4, and 6 respectively of the Barnet Sunday League. It would be a fitting “grand slam” pre-40th anniversary celebration for the club if its first team became champions of England and its other three teams all won promotion.

BAITEZE SQUAD

For the unitiated/those unfamiliar with these two teams, Baiteze is one of the most popular and successful of the so-called “YouTube teams” who film and upload footage of their games with commentary to YouTube. Baiteze are champions of the Essex Sunday Corinthian League (ESCL) which is based in east London and Essex. Before joining the ESCL Baiteze played as “Mile End Baiteze Squad” in the legendary Hackney & Leyton League, and won the league’s title three times in a row before an acrimonious split with their manager Justin Gardner (who also managed Barking FC on Saturdays in the Isthmian League (Step 4)) saw the club split into two. One group of players continued playing for Gardner in the Hackney & Leyton League under the Mile End Baiteze Squad name, while the younger players moved to the ESCL to play under the Baiteze Squad name. Mile End Baiteze Squad took the club’s football history and goodwill, while Baiteze Squad walked away with the cream of the club’s talented players and its social media following.

Baiteze has made many people eat humble pie this season. Many Liverpool teams (who consider themselves to be the guardians of amateur football’s traditions) were against the entry of what they considered to be an arrogant and brash “YouTube team” with no history. The Liverpool teams spent so much time on “the game has gone” complaints  that they forgot the positive attributes that Baiteze brought to this competition: huge publicity and on-pitch quality. Baiteze has essentially provided free publicity for the FA, this competition, and for every team they have faced. Since Baiteze films and uploads all of its games to YouTube (accompanied by the colourful commentary of Joel Mensah), it has showcased the FA Sunday Cup to its massive young, urban based, music conscious Gen Z fanbase that did not even know this cup existed 1 year ago. The 1000+ attendance at their huge round 2 clash against SE Dons was the most well attended FA Sunday Cup match in decades and drew a bigger crowd than most finals. Baiteze and SE Dons have almost half a million social media followers between them, and SE Dons has more YouTube followers than 70% of Premier League clubs. Baiteze’s mere presence in this competition drew attention to it, and may increase participation and fan attendance for years to come.

Despite Baiteze’s penchant for self-promotion and social media “banter”, on the pitch, the club has an excellent squad. It is also well coached as its manager Billy Hession has coached at professional level at clubs such as Gillingham. Baiteze’s playmaker Ade Cole is a showman. Some of his skills in their thrilling 2nd round victory over SE Dons delighted the crowd into chants of “Ade are you OK?” (to the tune of the “Annie are you ok?” lyrics in Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.

Ade Cole’s older brother is also called… Ade Cole (do not ask me – ask the family!). Ade Senior is also a fine footballer who used to play for former Hackney & Leyton League champions Clapton Rangers.

In the same game centre-back Alex Cruickshank put in the best defensive performance I have seen from any player at this level for years. He did not put a foot wrong and blocked, headed, and intercepted everything that came his way.

Baiteze had by far the toughest route to the final. Not only did Baiteze have to play more games than Highgate, but all of the five teams that Baiteze beat to reach the final are champions of their respective leagues. Beating league champions from Ipswich, Kent, south London, Doncaster, and Middlesbrough is no mean feat. In round 2 Baiteze faced their massive “YouTube team” rivals SE Dons in what was undoubtedly the tie of the round. Baiteze won a thrilling game 3-2 in front of a packed and vociferous crowd of over 1000 at Barking FC. In round 2, Baiteze had to face the formidable London Sunday Challenge Cup holders and Metropolitan Sunday League champions Grand Athletic. Going into that game Grand Athletic had not lost a game for 16 months in a match sequence spanning almost 40 consecutive games. Baiteze ended Grand’s long unbeaten record with a 3-1 victory away, and two weeks later, proved it was no fluke by also eliminating Grand from the London Sunday Challenge Cup on penalties after a 2-2 draw.

PUTTING LONDON BACK ON THE FOOTBALL MAP

This game also says a lot about the strength in depth of Sunday football in London. Neither team is the best team in its league and has been dethroned. Highgate is currently in 4th position in the Barnet Sunday League and Baiteze is in 3rd place in the Essex Sunday Corinthian League. Even if both teams win all of their remaining games, they cannot retain the league titles they won last season. Both teams have also been eliminated from the London FA Sunday Challenge Cup. If London teams that cannot finish top of their league can reach the final of the nationwide FA Sunday Cup, it says much about the quality of teams from London.

For many years the Liverpool teams have been sceptical about the quality of amateur football in the nation’s capital and kept reminding everyone of their region’s dominance of this competition. That dominance obscures an overlooked fact: London teams perform poorly in the FA Sunday Cup because they rarely enter it!

WHO WILL WIN?

Fittingly, the game will be played in south London which can be considered “neutral” territory for teams from north and east London. The FA Sunday Cup is notoriously difficult to predict. After round 2 there is very little difference in quality between the teams and all remaining teams are capable of beating each other. Highgate and Baiteze have played each other only once competitively; in the quarter-final of the London Sunday Challenge Cup in 2019. On that occasion, Highgate came from behind to win 3-1.

This final will definitely will not end 0-0. The quality of attackers in both teams will prevent that.

FA Sunday Cup Final
Sunday May 1, 2022 (Kick-off 2pm)

Millwall FC
The Den
New Cross, ‎London‎, ‎SE16
Buy tickets here

Highgate Albion’s route to the final:

ROUNDOPPONENTLEAGUESCOREDATEVENUE
1Skew BridgeHertfordshire Advertiser Sunday LeagueN/A (walkover – Skew unable to fulfil fixture)5 December 2021  Harpenden Town FC (Herts)  
2FalconsCambridge & District Sunday League  N/A (walkover – Falcons withdrew)16 January 2022Bottisham Sports Centre (Cambridge)  
3BurghfieldReading & District Sunday League  2-013 February 2022Sun Sports & Social Club (Watford)  
Quarter-FinalClub LewseyLeighton & District Sunday League6-16 March 2022  Hertford Town FC  
Semi-FinalMayfairLiverpool Business Houses League3-227 March 2022  Solihull Moors FC

Baiteze Squad’s route to the final:

ROUNDOPPONENTLEAGUESCOREDATEVENUE
1Borussia MartleshamIpswich Sunday League  0-0 (5-4 on penalties)5 December 2021  Redbridge FC
2South-East DonsOrpington & Bromley District Sunday League3-216 January 2022Barking FC
3Grand AthleticMetropolitan Sunday League3-113 February 2022Griffin Sports Ground (London)  
Quarter-FinalScawthorpe AthleticDoncaster Rovers Sunday League4-26 March 2022  Brodsworth Miners Welfare Ground (Doncaster)  
Semi-FinalMiddlesbrough DormansStockton Sunday League  1-1 (3-2 on penalties)27 March 2022  Boston United FC

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