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From Warrington to Blyth, nonleague clubs retain FA Cup dreams

Trafford FC, a semiprofessional football club that plays three miles from Manchester United Old Trafford in the Premier Divisions of the Northern Premier League, England's seventh tier, send a monthly newsletter out to 34 people.

The latest one contained a message from one of their directors: "The success of Warrington Town in the FA Cup and the 200,000 pounds plus they have made so far makes me tremendously envious," wrote David Law, "particularly as they defeated us in an earlier round when the refereeing was extremely iffy."

Warrington, who play league football at a level below Trafford and have average crowds of 216, are one of the success stories of this season's FA Cup after they knocked out Exeter City, who were 100 places and four leagues above them in the English pyramid, in the first round.

That they did it on live terrestrial television saw them earn enough money to cover their entire budget for the next three seasons. For clubs who pay their players 100-150 pounds per week, the tournament, whose second round proper is this weekend, is not only lucrative, it's a life saver.

Trafford made 15,000 pounds in prize money from their run to the third qualifying round last season, which was enough to pay for transport to and from games around England's north and midlands for an entire season and which allowed them to avoid a financial deficit. But, this term, their defeat to Warrington has left them short.

Warrington is a town situated between Manchester and Liverpool that has a population of approximately 200,000. Its football team is the lowest of the 84 teams left in the FA Cup and play at Gateshead on Sunday.

At this stage of the competition, lower and nonleague sides dream of playing at Wembley to compete for the FA Cup.

The winner will receive prize money of 27,000 pounds and that's before a share of the television revenues and gate money is handed out. Warrington have played five games to reach this stage, knocking out four clubs from higher leagues along the way.

This weekend's ties offer every club involved the tantalising chance of going through to the third round, which is where Premier League clubs enter the competition. A draw against one of those is the dream.

In 2005, Exeter, then a nonleague team, drew Manchester United at Old Trafford and received 653,511 pounds from 50 percent of the gate receipts of a 67,551 crowd. Even better, they held 0-0 a United side featuring Gerard Pique, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes on the pitch to earn a replay at home.

Back then, the money helped Exeter clear their debts. As they found this season, however, they can play against giants or be considered giants to be toppled themselves.

Thirteen nonleague teams remain in the competition. Among them are Worcester City, who knocked out League One outfit Coventry in the first round and play at Scunthorpe United of the same division.

Meanwhile, Chester, who reformed as a club in 2010 and played their first game at Warrington before working their way up the leagues to level five, travel to Barnsley, also of League One.

There are also two all nonleague ties between Southport and Eastleigh, as well as Warrington's match at Gateshead, who usually play their football three leagues above in the Conference Premier.

It's not only about the money for clubs which scrape an existence outside the Premier League bubble. The prestige can be immense and the excitement of a cup run can raise the profile of the team.

Warrington, which is full of football fans who travel to watch clubs in Manchester and Liverpool, hope to attract some locals to their future matches, as well as rugby league fans -- Warrington Wolves pull in average crowds of 10,000.

Ten thousand Exeter fans travelled to that game at Old Trafford nine years ago, twice their usual average home attendance. Players become heroes in the FA Cup and milestones are marked in the club's history.

Blyth Spartans' 1977-78 run made the town famous after they knocked out Chesterfield and Stoke City before taking Wrexham to a fifth round replay at a game switched to a packed St. James Park in Newcastle. The Spartans, also a level seven team who play in the Evo-Stik Premier Division, are still in this season's competition and play a north east derby at Hartlepool United on Friday night.

Hartlepool are currently bottom of League Two -- the 92nd- ranked club in England -- and the broadcasters who will park their trucks by the Victoria Ground sense a potential giant-killing.

Blyth, the green-shirted team with a glorious name from a port town of 35,000 some 13 miles north of Newcastle, will be fancied against their stumbling neighbours from 42 miles down England's coastline.

Hartlepool manager Paul Murray, a 38-year-old former QPR and Oldham midfielder who has been in the job six weeks and is charged with keeping the club in the Football League, doesn't buy it, however.

"We had the perfect preparation with a first round tie against a team from the same level as Blyth," he told me. "For us, a home tie against a nonleague team gives us the perfect chance to reach the third round and get drawn against one of the biggest teams."

Murray is no nonleague novice either.

"I'm watching games in the Northern League most weeks to try and find new players," he says. "Everyone wants a shock, but it's our job to make sure it doesn't happen. Blyth have done well to get this far, but we won't be under-prepared. I know all about Blyth and their players."

Blyth's average home attendance is 458 but they'll take 1200 fans to Hartlepool, whose own fans are upset about their chairman and the current state of the struggling club.

The media interest will highlight the daytime occupations of the Blyth players and several players will be working up until 4 p.m. today before the match. Many were released by professional clubs earlier in their careers. They wanted what the Hartlepool players, who earn around 1000 pounds a week, have got: A professional contract.

Even if they don't win the prize money, Blyth can't lose. Both clubs will receive 72,000 pounds for the television coverage and if they don't go through and into an even more profitable third round draw, they can always share mutual condolences with others who missed out.

They're playing a league game against Trafford on Tuesday.

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.


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