I enjoyed researching this article on English football's over-achieving Village based teams for the latest issue of the View From The Allotment End fanzine. You can find out how to buy the fanzine on twitter @VFTAE
The achievements of our own North Ferriby United have been well-celebrated in the last few years. In spite of their setting, a village with a population of less than 4,000 people, North Ferriby have been Wembley winners and gained promotion to within one step of the football league. But the green and whites weren’t the first village outfit to win the FA Trophy nor to reach the national League/Conference. They’ve also missed out on reaching the FA Cup proper along the way – a feat several other “Villagers” have achieved. This is a look at some of the smallest teams in the country and how they’ve punched above their weight.
Forest Green Rovers from little Nailsworth in Gloucestershire (Population: 5,800) reached the football league for the first time in their history winning the 2017 National League play-off final. It’s not quite the fairy story it might appear given it’s been achieved with the backing of Dale Vince and the mint he’s made from renewable energy. Vince wants Rovers to be literally “green”. The club is “Vegan” and plans are afoot for a new wooden stadium. The only thing that is unsustainable is their balance sheet.
Prior to Vince and his money arriving in 2010 though, Forest Green were already punching well above their weight. They won the FA Vase in 1982, reached the Conference in 1998, lost FA Trophy finals in 1999 and 2001 and in 2009 they made it to the FA Cup 3rd round where they lost to Derby County – setting their record attendance of 4,836 in the process.
Bridge Road in Histon and Impington (Pop: 10,600) is the 3,800 capacity home of Histon FC. In the late-2000s, Histon were seen as the prototype for how to run a non-league club but soon became an adjective for “non-league boom and bust”. Extraordinary manager Steve Fallon took over at Histon in 1999 and took them from the Eastern Counties League Premier Division to the Conference where they finished third in 2008/09 and lost out to Torquay United in the play-offs.
They also reached the FA Cup 3rd round that season, famously beating Leeds United 1-0 in a match televised on ITV before Swansea knocked them out. The cost of challenging for promotion to the football league was too much for such a small club to bare and their fall has been as spectacular as their rise. They’ll start the 2017/18 season at step 5 of the non-league pyramid - back in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division.
Twelve years before North Ferriby United’s famous win, another “Green army” won the FA Trophy. West Lancastrians Burscough (Pop: 9,493) were under the management of former Aston Villa defender Shaun Teale when the won the Trophy at Villa Park with a 2-1 win over Tamworth in 2003 – in spite of the fact the finished 18th in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. They went on to reach the second round of the FA Cup in 2005/06 causing the giant killing of League One Gillingham in the first round. Like Histon, they were relegated to step 5 last season and will play in the North West Counties League Premier Division.
The Essex village of Heybridge (Pop: 8,175) has been home to a football club since 1880 – the club who are now the wonderfully named Heybridge Swifts. The Swifts reached the FA Cup first round proper 3 times in 1994/95 (Gillingham H 0-2), 1997/98 (Bournemouth A 3-0) and 2002/03 (Bristol City H 0-7) despite being an Isthmian League outfit. They also made it to the Quarter Finals of the FA Trophy in 1997 where they lost to Woking but set an attendance record of 2,477.
Perhaps more than their FA Cup antics, Heybridge is known for being a place footballers go to die. An endless number of former Football League and Premier League players such as Tony Adcock, Andy Ansah, Karl Duguid, Dean Holdsworth, Alan Kimble, Glen Little, Stuart Nethercott, Paul Parker, Akpo Sodje and Micky Stockwell have turned out for the Swifts at the last knockings of their career. The exception is former top flight goalkeeper Simon Royce who started his career with the Swifts and whose sale to Southend United for £35,000 in 1991 still represents their record sale.
Not to be confused with the club who currently reside in the Northern Counties East League, West Yorkshire’s Emley (Pop: 1,867) were originally formed in 1903 but had their fifteen minutes of fame in the late-1990s. In 1997/98 they knocked Morecambe and Lincoln out of the FA Cup proper and faced West Ham United of the Premier League in a game Match of the Day chose to feature (in the days before they showed every game, kids).
Emley lost 2-1 to goals by Frank Lampard and John Hartson but made the first round again the following season, losing a replay to Rotherham United. They were also FA Trophy quarter finalists for the second time that season. Sadly the club no longer exists. It was renamed Wakefield & Emley, Wakefield-Emley and latterly Wakefield FC in a bid to grow into the nearby town that hosts Super League rugby but finally died in 2014.
13-times Welsh league Champions Ton Pentre (Pop: 1,028) reached the FA Cup first round for the first and only time in 1986/87 but lost 4-1 to Cardiff City in front of the Match of the Day cameras. Fellow villagers Alvechurch (73/74) and Chasetown (07/08) made it to the third round of the FA Cup while Rossendale (71/72) and Bamber Bridge (99/00) made the second round.
Last mention goes to Stansted FC (Pop: 6,011) who flew though to the FA Vase final in 1983/84, made a sound landing at Wembley and ‘runway’ with the trophy after a 3-2 win over Stamford.