The atmosphere doesn’t feel right for a cup final. There’s no raucous din in the stands, no ticker tape or fireworks to greet the players, and barely anybody in the ground.
Instead, row upon row of empty blue seats glare at the two teams as they line up minutes before kick-off. This is supposed to be the prestigious conclusion to the world’s third oldest cup competition, but it shares more similarities with a behind-closed-doors training session held the night before a big match.
St Andrew’s is all but empty with the exception of a handful of diehard fans, who desperately try to rile up some noise to cheer on their heroes. Unfortunately, the sound of nearly 29,000 vacant seats is far louder.
Tonight, Hednesford Town and Stourbridge are going head to head to win the Birmingham Senior Cup, the trophy that time forgot.
You wouldn’t know it due to the paucity of excitement around Birmingham City’s home stadium, but the showcase final is continuing a proud tradition of a tournament with more heritage than the Champions League or World Cup. The 2018 final is the 132nd time the Birmingham Senior Cup has been contested, making it the third oldest cup competition in global football – bettered only by the FA Cup and Scottish Cup.
Having started in 1876, the competition is steeped in history – if you’re willing to trawl far enough back through the record books, at least. The Birmingham Senior Cup used to be the FA’s premier regional knock-out competition and, although it never quite enjoyed the same prestige as its more illustrious predecessors, it was a tournament that held its own special attraction, providing an opportunity to renew local rivalries regardless of league position.
Entered by all member clubs within the Birmingham FA’s vast boundaries, the cup welcomed teams from the surrounding West Midlands counties including parts of Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. And due to its popularity further afield, the county FA’s borders were stretched to allow Sheffield United to compete in the 1896 final.
A regional cup competition was a popular idea, with more than 40 copycat senior cups subsequently popping up across the country – from Northumberland to London and even the Isle of Wight.
Over the decades, interest in regional competition has dipped dramatically. With greater demand for league success and dwindling numbers of first-team outfits turning up, the long-standing Manchester Senior Cup went on a 20-year hiatus in 1979, before returning in the 1990s as a reserve competition for the area’s top six professional clubs.
In fact, the Birmingham Senior Cup’s most successful club, Aston Villa, doesn’t even enter a junior side anymore. That apathy has spread to many of the non-league entrants too, with most naming second-string sides to avoid the extra matches impacting on more important business.
Unsurprisingly, this indifference soon spread to the stands. While thousands used to line the edge of pitches to watch the region’s best players back in the competition’s heyday, it’s increasingly difficult to find four-figure attendances nowadays.
But while a similar fate spelled the death knell for other formerly popular trophies – such as the FA Amateur Cup, which drew in vast crowds back as recently as the early 1960s before reforming to become the FA Vase in 1974 – regional competition stoically remains.
It’s surprising considering the annual headlines decrying the FA Cup’s demise, which appear as regularly as footage of Ronnie Radford’s thunderous strike for Hereford United is trotted out to celebrate one of the tournament’s most famous giant-killings. Perhaps it’s stubbornness on the part of county FAs or a hope that, one day, this form of knockout football will become relevant again.
Back at St Andrews, Hednesford and Stourbridge show no lack of desire to get their hands on the prize. The contest contains all the blood and thunder expected of a match between two teams from the seventh tier, and appears to be heading for penalties before Luke Benbow produces a stoppage-time winner for Stourbridge.
The empty blue seats stay stationery, but those precious few adorned by supporters of the Glassboys swing upwards to unleash a pocket of unbridled glee. It’s a scene that’s repeated on the pitch as Benbow skids on his knees and is mobbed by his jubilant team-mates.
Many of the stands, burger vans and bars around the ground may be left dormant, but the euphoria of a last-minute winner in a cup final is enough to fill the hearts of the travelling fans. Maybe there’s some romance left in the old trophy yet.
(Chris Evans of thesetpieces.com).
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