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I have an office job but after work I compete in the FA Cup… it’s a far cry from Premier League glitz & glam

THE FA Cup holds a special place in the heart of all non-league footballers.

It’s the first game you look out for when the fixture list is released ahead of the new season, with the potential to make history and play against your heroes.

Don't be fooled, the magic of the FA Cup is alive and kicking - literally

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Don’t be fooled, the magic of the FA Cup is alive and kicking – literallyCredit: Kevin Dunnett
Life in the office and on the football pitch is vastly different

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Life in the office and on the football pitch is vastly differentCredit: Kevin Dunnett
Barking orders on the pitch is a norm on a Saturday afternoon

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Barking orders on the pitch is a norm on a Saturday afternoon
I've had the honour of captaining my team in the FA Cup

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I’ve had the honour of captaining my team in the FA Cup

Premier League and Championship clubs begin their tournament at the Third Round stage in January.

That is when the competition becomes relevant for the majority of football fans.

But the FA Cup actually begins months earlier – eight rounds earlier, to be precise – at the beginning of August.

More than 700 clubs compete to win the iconic trophy, but realistically only a handful have a genuine chance of a day out at Wembley.

So it’s not bumper crowds and the glamour of the national stadium that makes the FA Cup special.

Rather the dream starts on Saturday afternoon on a shockingly bad pitch and a handful of spectators – no fancy coach, no sprinkler system and no egos – just hope of what could be.

Away from the glitz of the Premier League, there are thousands of non-league players with office jobs like me who train just a couple of evenings a week.

I work by day as a journalist – writing stories about the UK’s latest news, attending murder scenes and covering trials in our crown courts.

By night and weekend, though, my attention turns to playing for Alton FC in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid.

There are no hydrotherapy pools, saunas and steam rooms to help you recover on a Tuesday night.

Instead, it’s a less friendly walk back through the door of my home – often in the early hours – and minimal sleep before the morning commute begins.

I’ll get in around midnight after most midweek games, before the stark realisation of having to set a pre-6am alarm hits me.

It’s this harsh reality that irks non-league footballers whenever a Premier League manager complains about fixture congestion.

And then there’s the FA Cup, with the extra preliminary round beginning in early August. If successful, the preliminary round follows.

And yes, you have to win two preliminary games just to get into the First Qualifying Round.

You’re playing at that early stage of the tournament knowing there is next to zero chance you will come up against a professional side, let alone win it.

Yet it remains the highlight of the year, for you could be part of that one club which goes on an historic run and enjoys a day out playing in front of thousands – just as you dreamt of doing as a child.

But you have to earn the right to get there, which normally involves playing in front of 200 people – most of whom are club officials, parents or people who would rather be elsewhere.

Look at this season for example, with Cray Valley (PM) FC earning a 1-1 draw at Charlton Athletic in front of thousands of fans before losing out in a replay shown live on BT Sport.

AFC Stoneham, who play at the same level as me, earned a lucrative away tie with at former Championship side Yeovil Town in the Third Qualifying Round.

Stretching back beyond this season, eighth tier Chasetown hosted Cardiff City in 2008 and Farnborough went up against the giants of Arsenal in 2003.

I play in the Combined Counties Premier Division South – the ninth tier of the English Football League pyramid.

You arrive at 1.15pm for a 3pm kick-off, listen to music on an average speaker and catch-up with the plumbers, builders, teachers and salesmen that make up your team – many of whom have come straight from work.

You’re cramped in a tight changing room, fighting over the last few sweets and drinks, debating who can get some treatment from the one physio before the other and jostling for space as you put your socks on.

The manager comes in at 1.45pm to give you the pre-match brief, before heading out for a warm-up and come to the deflating realisation you have to spend 90 minutes on a bobbly pitch where the ball is as likely to come off your shin as it is your foot.

But the location of any FA Cup fixture has no bearing on the excitement of the occasion – and a victory is celebrated like no other.

My favourite footballing memory is blasting out 5, 6, 7, 8 by Steps after winning an FA Cup extra preliminary round replay in front of 600 people on a Tuesday night.

With a win on a Saturday, the buzz continues into Sunday, then as you begin to come down on a Monday, it all reignites as you tune in to see who you’ve been drawn against in the next round.

Players and fans at the likes of Chesterfield, at the top of the National League, will dream of a tie away at to Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Meanwhile, there’s us us dreaming of a tie away at Chesterfield.

Don’t let Premier League managers, players or pundits have you believe the magic of the FA Cup has dwindled.

The spark is alive and kicking, literally, for the hundreds of us who have not quite made it.

Life at the desk and life on the pitch are vastly different

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Life at the desk and life on the pitch are vastly differentCredit: Kevin Dunnett
Non-league players often go to their games straight from work

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Non-league players often go to their games straight from workCredit: Kevin Dunnett
We beat National League Aldershot Town earlier this season

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We beat National League Aldershot Town earlier this season

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