the real fa cup

Saturday’s Big Final

Now the 2010 FA Cup has been cruelly euthanized by the ‘mighty’ Chels, the Real FA Cup eagerly awaits the coming rebirth in the Extra Prelim Qualifiers, but in the mean time there are a few tasty morsels to tide over our interest, and some don’t involve antique sticker books.

This weekend sees the highest stakes football match in history worth a cool £1m a minute to the winner, not a bad hourly rate … but no, it’s not the Champions Bloody League final in Madrid (… which is already being engraved into the record books as ‘0-0 [aet] Inter win 4-3 on pens’).

On Saturday, the Real FA Cup will be frequenting the Football League Championship Play-off final, an unlikely contest between Cardiff City v Blackpool for a place in the Premier League. Deloitte recently crunched some numbers and came up with the jaw dropping £90m windfall figure, up some 50% on the haul last year’s winners Burnley are in the process of taking back to the caves of East Lancashire.

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‘That’s not the FA Cup’ I hear you say but it has been a combined total of only 140 years since either side actually won the FA Cup and the Play-offs always ends the season with moments of high tension and excitement (insert extra clichéd platitude ‘here’) … okay, I’m a Blackpool fan, I admit it, but as we are in the FA Cup close season, I feel justified in dragging the boys down Wembley way. The game will be an interesting contest between two footballing sides but the respective goings-on in boardroom is where it raises some wider questions and, quite possibly, a parable for teams trying to climber up the greasy poll of the football pyramid.

The media could be perhaps be forgiven for not being inspired by two clubs who are more well known, on the one side, for their profligate chairman and kamikaze financial strategy and, on the other, for an oddball manager and, well, not much else but for the fact that the town has a tower. But behind the banal set-piece media factoids, there are two dovetailing stories.

Both teams started their current quest for the summit back in 2001 in the days when there was something called a ‘Nationwide League Division Three’, whatever that was. The Bluebirds quickly followed up with another promotion in the 2003 Play-offs, incidentally, at the expense of one Ian Holloway, current Blackpool manager. They were followed four years later by Blackpool. Both sides are now established Championship teams, finishing fourth and seventh respectively. They both battled through dramatic Play-off semi-finals, Cardiff piping Leicester on penalties after Yann Kermorgant (penno here at 3:25) remembered too late that he wasn’t quite as good at chipping penalties as Zidane, and Blackpool emerging atop after cocking a snook at Billy ‘Im everyone’s favourite obnoxious Scottish manager’ Davies beating his Forest side for the fourth time this season.

Current form offers little to separate the two teams with the Bluebirds registering five wins and the Seasiders six in their last eight league games. Come 3pm on Saturday, it is more than likely to be a battle between Peter Whittingham and Charlie Adam, the two goal-scoring midfield maestros who have been central to their side’s fortunes this season. Cardiff have the fire power in Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd, but Blackpool’s loose attacking 4-3-3 with three interchanging strikers has proven its capacity to unlock even the tightest of defences, provided DJ Campbell doesn’t frequent anymore West London nightclubs before the weekend. And, especially for the thrill seeking neutral, both defences appear to suffer occasional bouts of goal-shipping incontinence.

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The thing which stands out though, even to the partial observer, is that both teams are quite similar, in their recent record, their style of play and their personnel. Cardiff are clearly the bigger club, both money and support-wise and their recent foray in the 2008 FA Cup stands out above Blackpool’s most recent cup run highlights, in the Sherpa Vans trophy. Yet on Saturday, they both stand as equals, one tension fuelled game away from untold riches and the prize of trips to top football clubs like Stoke, Fulham, Blackburn and Wigan, not to mention visits to leisure/entertainment businesses like Chelsea and Man U inc.

The real difference is the paths taken and the contrasting approaches over the past 9 seasons, specifically, the contrast between the Ridsdalean and Oystonian approaches to financial management.

‘Risa’ surely needs no introduction with his legendary efforts to destroy Leeds Utd still being appreciated by the likes of Danny Mills, who is probably still on the pay roll years after leaving. He really does put the ‘b’ in bankrupt, and his tenure at Cardiff has been no different. An ill-balanced wage bill topped by Chopra, allegedly on up to £20k a week, a Fowler + helicopter taxi combo, a stadium development hanging around the club’s neck like a millstone and a man from Her Majesty’s Customer and Excise dressed in a wolf costume and knocking on the club door, have all done little to endear the man to Cardiff faithful.

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Karl Oyston is probably less well known to football fans at large but he too has garnered his fair share of opprobrium among his club’s fans but not for his hair cut. His crime, however, has been one of miserliness; a two-sided ground, £90-a-week summer wages for players, steep hikes in ticket prices and a refusal to pay for a sign on the stadium until fans stumped up most of the cost. He has always followed a strict book-balancing policy keeping Blackpool surprisingly debt free. Money has come into the club, especially, in recent years from mysterious hermaphramonickered benefactor Valerie Belokon, but it has been spent sparingly and been channelled mainly into adding a third side to the ground.

Oyston’s most telling influence though has been in his management appointments. Ignoring the existence of the entity going by the name ‘Colin Hendry’, the run of Steve McMahon, Simon Grayson, Tony Parkes and Ian Holloway, has taken the club from the basement to just shy of the top table and all on a shoestring, in ten years the club has spent barely £2m on transfer fees and the wage bill is the second lowest in the championship.

So as the two narratives collide after nine years apart, are there lessons to be drawn, is there real meaning to the madness, the horror, the endless poetry!? You are expecting, no doubt, an attempt to portray the final as an epic battle between good and evil, ‘real football’ versus big-money for the soul of the game.

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Certainly, as Cardiff’s obscene debt leaves the £30m mark behind, those vast Premiership riches begin to look more like a sticking plaster to counter-balance the vast stakes, including quite probably the very existence of the club, wagered on achieving promotion. But Oyston (left), in his small-town, rolls of £10 notes under the bed-type of way has hardly been carrying through a master plan blue print of how smaller clubs can climb the pyramid on a shoe string. There are no black and whites, no reassuring simplifications but there is something.

The game, whatever the result, gives us hope that money isn’t everything. It surely helps, and shit loads-a-money surely helps a whole lot more. In the end though, there would appear to still be a place for success based on wise decisions about football, although I’m sure the Premier League Board will soon be legislating to close this outrageous loop hole. For teams from Darlington to Exeter, from Southend to Carlisle, from Whitley Bay to Margate, the possibility of advancement does not depend solely on the local oil sheik, mortgaging your club’s future or even the wholesaling of grandparents.

Prediction: 3-1 Cardiff :o(
ANDY TAYLOR

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