|(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)|
The FA Cup starts this weekend and there are five Kent teams in the first round of this illustrious competition, the largest representation the county has had in the competition since the 1963/64 season. Once the most important competition in English football, the FA Cup has seen its stock decrease in recent years as Europe, promotion or survival has been the top priority for many clubs, but there is no danger of that happening this weekend.
The tie of the round from a Kent perspective is without a doubt the clash between League Two Gillingham and Blue Square South Dover Athletic. This Kent derby would be tasty enough but will be even more intriguing as Gills manager Andy Hessenthaler is facing the club he left in the summer along with coaching staff Ian Hendon and Nicky Southall. Dover will be bringing 2,000 fans to Priestfield who hope that their side can cause an upset and heap further pressure on the struggling Gills and their former manager.
Hythe Town are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition and the first Kent League side to reach this stage of the competition since the 1950s. Gills boss Hessenthaler had offered Hythe as many DVDs as they wanted in order to prepare for their clash with Hereford as they seek to cause a massive upset. With Hereford currently rock bottom of League Two, the Kent club feel that there is a genuine chance of an upset on Saturday.
Dartford also face League Two opposition in the form of Port Vale, but the team from Stoke are doing considerably better than Hythe’s opponents. Dartford haven’t been in the first round for twenty years and this will be the first time that they compete in the FA Cup at their new Princes Park.
Ebbsfleet Town won the FA Trophy in 2008 and will be hoping for similar success in the cup as they take on non-league darlings AFC Wimbledon away from home. Wimbledon pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the competitions illustrious history in 1988, defeating Liverpool 1-0 in the final but their main focus this season will be a return to the league. With Ebbsfleet relegated last season from the Blue Square Premier, they will be hoping that the cup will provide a welcome distraction.
Away from Kent, there are a number of First Round ties that capture the imagination, especially FC United v Rochdale. FC United was formed in 2005 by former Manchester United fans disillusioned with club following the Glazer’s takeover. Since then the club has been rising steadily up the non-league pyramid and qualifying for the First Round represents a real milestone in the fledgling club’s history. The contest will also be their first appearance on television as ESPN will be covering the game on Friday night. Other plum ties include Southport v Sheffield Wednesday, Corby v Luton Town and Cambridge United v Huddersfield Town.
To have this many clubs at this stage of the competition is great for Kent football and a real good news story following the problems that have affected many clubs in the last few years. For Gillingham, anything but a win would be a disaster but for the other four teams it would exceed all expectations. Hopefully the weekend will end with four teams in the Second Round and challenge the statisticians to find out the last time that happened.