‘It could be once in a lifetime’ – non-league fans who may miss FA Cup history

Marske United fans
Had eighth-tier Marske United been drawn at home against Brackley they would have been able to let in up to 400 fans

While fans of sides in England’s top six divisions have been kept away during the coronavirus pandemic, supporters of grassroots clubs have been able to continue going to games.

The FA Cup’s early rounds have seen these football worlds collide, with different rules on crowds depending on the level of the teams involved.

Three clubs hoping to make the first round proper for the very first time are having to play without fans on Saturday – and BBC Sport spoke to some about missing possibly the biggest game in their team’s history.

‘I was tempted to drive seven hours anyway’

Yorkshire side Marske United are one of two teams from the extra preliminary round who are still left in the FA Cup, having won five games – all in front of spectators – to reach the fourth qualifying round.

However, being drawn away at Brackley means supporters such as Derek Whiley are unable to attend because their opponents play in National League North, which is deemed an ‘elite level’.

“To not be able to go, I’m actually gutted. It [reaching the FA Cup first round] could be once in a lifetime for some of us,” Whiley told BBC Sport.

“Brackley is in Covid tier one and they have a ground capacity of 3,500 – you’d think there’d be chance to socially distance in there. Even if you had a few hundred you could space them out.”

Marske United fans
Derek Whiley (centre, giving thumbs up) with fellow Marske United fans

Whiley has lived in the fishing village of Marske-by-the-Sea for 26 years and rarely misses a game, so was tempted to travel despite not being able to see the action.

“I was thinking, do I drive the seven-hour round trip just to support the team, stand outside the ground and show them some visible support?

“For someone to say you can’t attend that for everybody is the hardest thing but we live in hope that we beat Brackley and get a home tie in the first round.”

Fans of Southern League Premier Division South side Hartley Wintney are in the same predicament.

The only previous time the club reached this stage in 2013, they had more than 1,000 supporters to cheer them on, but Covid-19 dictates they must play behind closed doors at National League Dagenham & Redbridge.

Volunteer Pete Auchterlonie helps run the club bar and is also matchday announcer for the village side.

“The words are frustration and disappointment. This club has been around for 123 years and these things don’t come around often,” he said.

“People are scratching their heads a little bit. At step one, and given Dagenham’s heritage, you would assume they’d have the ability to host two, five or 10% of capacity and have the resource to do it. But they aren’t being given the opportunity to.”

Hartley Wintney hair shaves
Auchterlonie (right) shaved his lockdown curls along with Hartley Wintney chairman Luke Mullen (left) and treasurer Colin Charlton to raise money for the club and two local charities

Auchterlonie is, however, philosophical about the situation…

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