Hillingdon Borough used to be one of the many clubs who’d regularly feature in the FA Cup’s early rounds, even if they didn’t make it especially far very often. When Boro faced Wembley in 2015, they hadn’t been absent from the FA Cup since 1993, though they haven’t been in it since losing their extra preliminary qualifying round tie against the side who hail from the place of the competition’s grand culmination. Any club will feel disappointment and frustration when they’re knocked out of the FA Cup. However, the uneasiness grows when it’s unknown when your next adventure in England’s biggest domestic cup will come.
Having been relegated from the Spartan South Midlands League Premiership to Division One (Step 10), they are just within the league threshold of being able to apply for an FA Cup place. However, there are a certain set of criteria which they need to hit in order to compete in the competition, something they haven’t managed for the last three years. However, with the club on an upward trajectory since the arrival of new manager Kurt Herbert they are hoping to get back into the cup.
Herbert took over the reigns in December 2017 with the team bottom of the league on just five points. By the end of the season, they were 16th out of 20 teams with 37 points and most importantly were out of the relegation zone. This form has been carried on into the current season with Boro sitting third in the table, having won five and lost just once at the time of writing. This is Herbert’s first ever managerial appointment and, on a personal note, making it into the FA Cup is a big thing for him: “It would mean a lot to me to be honest. To be able to say I’ve managed in the FA Cup would look good on my football CV. It would be an achievement.”
He also sees it as something which must be achieved for the benefit of the club: “A million per cent it’s important. There’s any other cup, but it’s more major and it’s always exciting. It gives the team an incentive to say that they’ve played in the FA Cup.”
Unlike Herbert, Hillingdon Borough’s chairwoman Dee Dhand has been around long enough to see the last time the club were in the FA Cup. She doesn’t have any standout memories regarding the competition, but feels the ties were special: “I just remember being very excited and always hoping to go through to the next round.” She continued: “It’s different because it’s who you’re going to be drawn against. If you get far enough it could be teams like Chelsea you get drawn against, so it’s very exciting as you go further and further into it.”
The club have got far enough in the competition to meet that calibre of opponent just once in their history. Having entered in the first qualifying round during the 1969/70 season, Boro beat the likes of Wimbledon and Luton Town on their way to the third round, but were beaten by Sutton United after forcing a replay.
Their best run in recent years came in the 2007/08 season, when they overcame Barking, Northampton Spencer and Enfield Town before succumbing to Folkestone Invicta in the third qualifying round. This is something Herbert is hoping he can eventually emulate: “I think it’s trying to achieve, to reach the first round if anything, because then you can get a decent team to play against.”
This season teams received £6,000 for progressing past the first qualifying round alone, with the reward increasing each round. While Premier League clubs can spend well over ten times that on one player’s weekly wage, it is a sum of money which Dhand says makes a big difference for non-League clubs: “It’s very beneficial because non-league clubs often don’t get much sponsorship or any sort of finance. Every penny helps when you get through each round.”
The FA Cup truly does offer everything that a non-league club could hope for. There is the sense of occasion for the players as they aim to progress through each round, the anticipation of a big name draw for the supporters and a chance for managers to pit themselves against a higher level of opposition. Just as importantly though, there are financial rewards which help clubs to continue running once they have inevitably been knocked out. It is factors such as these which ensure so many teams, including Hillingdon Borough, are dreaming of a return to the FA Cup and will strive to ensure they get there.
By Danny Lewis
Part of our Magic of the Cup series