Chorley’s magical FA Cup journey a reminder of what’s at stake amid non-league football crisis

Mark Critchley
·7 min read
<p>Chorley defeated Championship club Derby in the third round of the FA Cup</p> (Getty Images)

Chorley defeated Championship club Derby in the third round of the FA Cup

(Getty Images)

When a non-league club meets a Premier League heavyweight in the FA Cup, the usual cliches are sure to come up.

You’ll hear how David is currently a hundred or so places beneath Goliath in the pyramid; fans will watch from their bathroom window on an adjacent housing estate; the centre-forward will be a postman and you’ll be told, yes, he always delivers.

There will be variations on those same themes at Victory Park on Friday night, when sixth-tier Chorley of the National League North welcome Wolves and attempt to bridge a gap of 109 league places.

The goalmouth at the Pilling Lane end backs onto a housing estate, the other can be viewed from the top of a recreation ground’s climbing frame. Two supporters watched the third-round win over Covid-depleted Derby County from a cherry picker.

Wolves, meanwhile, will be coming up against a lift engineer, a personal trainer and one of Blackpool’s youth goalkeeping coaches among others. Injuries mean that one of the students on Chorley’s BTEC scholarship programme may appear from the substitutes bench.

READ MORE: Wolves boss Nuno on how his side can avoid FA Cup upset by Chorley

But then there is also the story of manager Jamie Vermiglio, a primary school headteacher in Warrington using the cup run in the classroom.

“I'm saying to the teachers, do as much as you can on Chorley,” he said earlier this week.

“They’re all writing newspaper reports, practising interview technique, they’re talking about Scotty Leather, the captain of Chorley. They’re not drawing any pictures of him, I told them to stay away from drawing pictures of Scotty, but they’re writing about him.”

Around 30 per cent of the children at Locking Stumps Community Primary School are on free school meals – nearly twice the national average – and their engagement in lessons since the start of the run has gone “through the roof”, according to their headteacher.

“I walk into school and all the kids are inspired by it,” Vermiglio added. “You don’t often see your headteacher on television and the last three weeks, I’ve been on TV more than Ant and Dec.”

Put the cliches to one side and stories like Vermiglio’s – of how a cup run can have a small but tangible, positive effect on a local community – are why English football’s oldest and most egalitarian competition remains vital.

This year, however, it is necessary to place the usual cup romance in a wider, bleaker context and recognise that for many clubs at Chorley’s level, the pandemic has made the future more uncertain than ever before.

Below the sixth tier, football has been suspended since 4 January and there is a sense that voiding the season is fast becoming inevitable. This week, the same anxiety and uncertainty has crept up to the non-league’s two highest tiers – the National League system.

This means that, like Marine in the last round, Chorley embark on the next leg of their cup adventure with doubts over whether their 2020/21 campaign will be played to completion. It may not even last beyond next weekend.

Back in October, National League clubs were given the green light to start the 2020/21 season after receiving a grant of £11million as part of the government’s survival package to protect spectator sports played behind closed doors through the winter.

Staff clear water off the pitch covers at Victory Park, where Chorley host WolvesAFP via Getty Images
Staff clear water off the pitch covers at Victory Park, where Chorley host WolvesAFP via Getty Images

The league split this money in four ways: Clubs at Step 1 – the nationwide top tier – received a monthly sum between £84,000 and £95,000 each. Those at Step 2 – the regional North and South leagues, including Chorley – received between £30,000 and £36,000.

The belief among clubs was that further rounds of funding would also be paid as grants. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), that belief was mistaken.

Three months into the most difficult season in memory for many non-league clubs, which has seen disputes over the method of funding distribution and the league’s chief executive resignation, some clarification finally arrived on Wednesday evening.

Clubs were each given a vote and a choice of three options: either take on 10-year, 2 per cent interest loans themselves, let the league take on the loans with the league’s payments to clubs subsequently reduced, or suspend the season.

A meeting on Friday will reveal the clubs’ preferences, while the league insist this weekend’s and the following midweek’s fixtures will be played.

But clubs are already uncertain whether they can go on without guaranteed support. Concord Rangers, playing in the South, informed the league yesterday that they do not intend to fulfill any further fixtures until further assurances are received.

The National League’s statement confirming the choices that clubs face was published while Vermiglio was still doing his media rounds, catching him slightly on the hop, but the perilous situation is not too far from any manager’s mind at this level.

“Clubs don't know whether they're going to be in here in March or April,” he said. “It’s tough. We were given some assurances at the start of the season and to my knowledge, without knowing all of the facts, it appears those assurances haven't been followed through fully.”

Vermiglio estimates that Chorley have lost up to £400,000 in revenue during the pandemic. Luckily, rough estimates of the revenue generated by their cup run cover the vast majority of those losses.

“Without this run, I don’t think we would be as positive as we are now,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be able to pay wages after January.

“Now, we’re going to be able to sustain paying wages but there's still a massive void for all clubs. We’re fortunate we're able to fill that hole a little bit.”

The crisis threatening to engulf National League clubs can be traced back to the decision by DCMS to classify the two highest non-league tiers as elite – one that, it should be said, many National League clubs supported.

More generally, it is a consequence of the grey area that clubs at this level occupy.

Though you can expect some to paint Chorley as the equivalent of the Dog and Duck on Friday night, that is far from the case.

Jamie Vermiglio, manager of Chorley, also works as a primary school headteacherGetty Images
Jamie Vermiglio, manager of Chorley, also works as a primary school headteacherGetty Images

Ollie Shenton, a technically-gifted midfielder, was a prospect at Stoke City during their time in the Premier League, making a top-flight appearance against Manchester City in 2015 and taking Frank Lampard’s shirt home as a memento.

Left-back Adam Henley signed in November and is a two-cap Wales international who was included in the provisional squad for Euro 2016. He may have played a part in Wales’ historic journey to the semi-finals if not for suffering an injury before the tournament.

The vast majority of Vermiglio’s squad started their careers at Football League clubs and were considered among the most talented young players in their respective development set-ups.

All dedicated themselves to becoming professionals and ended up with the next best thing. Crucially, all also meet the government’s definition of an ‘elite athlete’ as an individual who “derives a living from competing in a sport”.

At the same time, non-league football does not generate the interest to command a substantial television deal or lucrative sponsorship. Clubs exist on the money taken through the turnstiles and when those turnstiles are closed, playing becomes impossible.

That is the bind that non-league clubs up and down the country may be stuck in for an indefinite period unless a solution can be found.

Thanks to their cup run’s windfall, Chorley have more leeway than most. “It will help us,” Vermiglio said. “I don’t know if it will totally fill the gap left by it but it has gone a long way to doing so.”

But elsewhere in the pyramid, the dream of a similar run to the latter rounds of the FA Cup, the opportunity to galvanise a local community and the chance to hear those old cliches about their own team will feel a little more distant.

Read More

Sixth-tier Chorley beat Derby as Everton survive Rotherham scare

Nuno details how Wolves can avoid Chorley upset in FA Cup

The ‘magic’ of the FA Cup might be a cliche – but it still has pull

Saints beat Shrewsbury to set up FA Cup fourth round tie with Arsenal