Let's start with the two remaining Step 7 sides, the real underdogs in the Third Round. They are Uttoxeter Town of the Staffordshire Senior League and Pinxton of the Central Midlands League (South). Both of these sides are in uncharted territory. Pinxton did reach Round 1 in 2010-11 but for Uttoxeter, this is their first foray into the Vase. Both sides have been fortunate enough to be drawn at home but both will have their work cut out. Pinxton it could be argued, have the easier draw, getting step 6 side Nuneaton Griff (see Six of the Best feature on this site). However, Griff have been flying this season and until a few weeks back were scoring for fun. Uttoxeter will play Step 5 outfit Coleshill Town, who are currently mid-table in the Midland League Premier. It will take a big effort from these sides to progress to the Fourth Round but this is cup football and anything can happen.
There are two former FA Vase winners left in the competition, including the current holders, both from the Northern League Division 1.
Interestingly, there are no teams below Step 4 in the pyramid who have won the competition more than once.
North Shields took the trophy last season with 2-1 win over Glossop North End. They have been handed a tough draw with North West Counties Premier team Runcorn Town. However, they will be hoping that home advantage will see them through for another shot at Wembley glory. The other past winners, Dunston UTS, also have a home draw against fellow Northern League side Seaham Red Star. Again, they will be hoping that home advantage will be the key.
If we take a look at the recent FA Vase history we can see that it is, in fact, teams from the North of the country (specifically the North East) that have dominated. Since the final moved back to Wembley in the 2006-07 season 7 of the 9 winners have come from North of the Midlands. Truro City in the 2006-07 and Sholing in 2013-14 being the excceptions. During this time teams from the North-East have taken the trophy 6 times albeit three of these being consecutive victories for Whitley Bay. This, incidentally, is a record for the most consecutive wins. Three teams, Billericay Town (76/77), Halesowen Town (85/86) and Tiverton Town (98/99) have all won the competition twice consecutively. AFC Sudbury are the most unlucky Vase side having been in the final three times and losing on each occasion. This figure is compounded by the fact that AFC were formed when Sudbury Town merged with Sudbury Wanderers in 1999. Sudbury Town also lost on their one apperance in the final albeit in a replay.
So, what do we ddeduce about the 2015-16 competition from these statistics? One thing is for sure, with AFC Sudbury now playing at Step 4 level, the runners-up spot is definitely up for grabs. Recent history seems to point towards a North-East based winner but the law of averages says that it is the turn of the South to rise again. This is starting to sound like a mid 19th Century American political debate. With 54 of the remaining 64 teams being in Step 5 you would also say that they odds are heavily-stacked on an all Step 5 final. So, who are the front-runners based upon this season's form?
As holders North Shields cannot be ruled out. However, this season, they are not performing as well in the league and are currently in mid-table. There are also three other teams remaining that made it to the Quarter-final stage last season, Highworth Town, Tadcaster Albion and Ascot United. All three are having decent seasons. Tadcaster lead the way in the Northern Counties East Premier League whilst Highworth and Ascot are very well placed in the Hellenic Premier League. The question is, does league form transfer to the Vase or will these teams be more focussed on progressing up the pyramid? They have all been drawn to play fellow Step 5ers. Tadcaster travel to Sunderland RCA, Ascot entertain Camberley Town and Highworth host Wessex Premier leaders Salisbury. So, no easy tasks there.
Some notable Step 5 sides that are currently flying-high in the respective leagues are Leicester Nirvana, 8 points clear in the United Counties Premier, Hartley Wintney, 7 points ahead in the Combined Counties Premier and Hereford, who have a 6 point lead in the Midland Premier (note: these leads were correct at time of writing). Of these three only Hereford have a home tie, against Brocton, a team they have already beaten 4-0 in the league this season. Nirvana have to make the short trip to fellow Leicester side St Andrews. The Saints are a step below Nirvana but approach the game on the back of a resounding 9-1 away win in the league. They have a very tight defence and will, no doubt, be up for a local derby like this. Hartley Wintney must travel to fellow Combined Counties Premier side Colliers Wood. Despite there being 22 points between the sides in the league I am sure that this will not be an easy game for The Row.
Of the remainaing Step 6 sides not yet mentioned, South Shields, Tadley Calleva and Edgware Town all have home ties and will fancy their chances against Morpeth Town, Knaphill and Ipswich Wanderers respectively. Bodmin Town and Hengrove AThletic both face tricky trips to Western Premier League oppostion in Welton Rovers and Bristol Manor Farm.
There are many, many other good ties in the round, the all Hellenic Premier game between Thame and Kidlington, the all United Counties Premier match-up of Yaxley and Sleaford to name but two. There are too many teams to mention all of them but I am sure that there will be some great games around the country this weekend.
So, at this point of an article like this, there really should be some predictions. However, I have only seen a handful of these teams first-hand this season, so it is hard to base any prediction on fact. History points to another North-East victory and, as such, you would have to look at teams that are currently doing well in the league, Morpeth Town, Dunston UTS and maybe stretching the North-East a bit South, Tadcaster Albion (please don't write in, I am fully aware that Tadcaster is not in the North East). If the law of averages was to be obeyed and a non-North-East team was to take the trophy this year than the fore-runners on form woudl have to be
Hereford, Leicester Nirvana and Hartley Wintney.
What is certain, though, is that there will be a lot of good football along the way.
Best of luck to all teams remaining in the competition and, whoever finally prevails, you will be worthy champions.