the real fa cup

Let’s Concentrate On The League

This is going to be one of those ‘football ain’t what it used to be’ type essays.  Whilst I have grown rather tired of supporters complaining that the game has lost its soul, I always feel slightly uneasy on third round day when considering my attitude to the Football Association Challenge Cup Competition.  Like many fans of Premier League teams, the beginning of January is the first time I think about the tournament.  I am mindful of the fact that the people who run this website have been hacking away at the cup for months.  I offer this article from an outsider’s point of view, not that I am happy to consider myself as an outsider.

When I was growing up (work still very much in progress, as Simon would probably have it), there was an absolute magic about the cup. I can remember without looking it up all the winners of the FA Cup going back to 1970.  I certainly can’t do this with the First Division as it used to be called. There are a number of reasons for this.  First, as a kid my attention span was much shorter and I had no conception of the sustained effort needed to win the league.  It certainly helped that Arsenal never came close to winning the first Division, which impacted on my interest in the league title.  We did have the good fortune to play in three consecutive cup finals in the late 70s which heightened my interest in the knockout format.

The most important factor in the affection I had for the FA Cup growing up was the fact that the final and the England V Scotland game were the only two live matches I got to see throughout the whole season. As I didn’t go to many games in the 1970s the idea of seeing the entire ninety minutes of a game was a big attraction.

In 1983 ITV screened the first live league game of our generation between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest. I remember Brian Clough expressing the view that he hoped the game would be a boring one, as he didn’t want this to be the future direction of football coverage. I recall it being a pretty good game, with Spurs prevailing 2-1. Perhaps the game would be better today had Clough been right and the whole idea of live league football scrapped. He was wrong and we are where we are.  In those days the television rights were carved up between BBC and ITV for £5.2m. The last television deal prior to the Sky deal in 1992 was for almost £50m. By the late 1980s it had become obvious that screening live football was the most valuable commodity in broadcasting. You don’t need me to tell you how the finances have spiralled since then.

Today the FA Cup Final is one of about 500 games you can watch live from start to finish if you have the time, the inclination and the technology. The loss of that rarity value has robbed the FA Cup, and particularly the final, of much of its lustre. Final day used to be such an occasion. There would be a big build up in the morning. I well remember the 1978 final between Ipswich Town and Arsenal. We had Cup Final Master Mind, It’s a Knockout and the sight of the team coaches arriving in Olympic Way. We get the same kind of build up now for the meanest of Premier League clashes, with Richard Keys trying to sell it to us as this week’s Game of the Century. (Not any more!! Hah! – Ed)

The saturation coverage of football in general has not helped the cup much either. In my day, young lad (brass band in the background playing the music from the Hovis advert) there was only about four or five hours of football programming every week. Football Focus and On The Ball at Saturday lunchtime, Match of the Day and The Big Match on weekend evenings and Sportsnight and Midweek Sports Special on a Wednesday. There is no Parkinson’s Law that decrees that the volume of information that can be intelligently broadcast on the game will expand to accommodate the hours and pages that need to be filled. There used to be an eight page pull out in the papers for the FA Cup Final. Now you get a sixteen page pull out for every week’s games.

As an Arsenal fan, I think of the FA Cup as very much third priority. If we were to win the cup and finish fifth in the Premier League I would rate this as a disaster. You may not be able to raise fourth place in the league above your head, and it may not glint in the May sunshine, but that position in the table is worth a fortune to us.

I really don’t like myself for expressing the thought in the above paragraph. I used to watch cup football for the simple joy of seeing two teams trying to beat each other in a one off game. The FA Cup was that one gap in the schedule where positions didn’t matter and all really were equal, at least for the first few minutes of the game. If Arsenal play Wrexham ten times, we will beat them on nine occasions. The last time we played them, they showed what the cup should be about, despite us having finished first the season before and Wrexham finishing ninety second. They would have been out of the league altogether if Kidderminster had had a ground up to scratch. I can look back on this as a wonderful moment for the game now, although you would have been most unwise to have put that point to me on the day it happened.

And so to motive. How have we come to think of a tournament’s value in terms of revenue rather than its potential to put something in our increasingly cavernous trophy cabinet??  The honest answer is that football at the highest level has become something of an arms race.  If our opposition have a weapon, we have to have it too.  The weapon?  Money.  I utterly deplore this trend, but I don’t see a way out of it.  Nobody will have more respect than me for the first team to do themselves out of a top four finish in order to win the FA Cup. I just hope it isn’t Arsenal that does it.

When Samuel Hill Wood assumed control of Arsenal in 1929 the board wanted to run the club as a means of providing inexpensive entertainment for the working class population of Islington.  This does sound quaint by today’s standards.  I have been very fortunate in the last few years to see some of the best players in the club’s history.  They would not have been at Arsenal under any other financial conditions than those that prevail at the highest level in the modern game.  Mr Wenger is doing what he can to build a team without paying top dollar.  His relative lack of success in the last five years has become a subject of much discussion among football fans and pundits at the lower end of the evolutionary scale.

Ironically we have done well in the FA Cup under the current management, winning the tournament four times.  It is symptomatic of the way I feel about the cup that the only two of these victories that gave me real joy were part of league and cup doubles.

My attitude to the cup in its modern state can best be summed up by an incident that occurred following the last occasion on which we won it in 2005. We were absolutely murdered by Manchester United, but managed to win on penalties. The victory was part glorious and part hilarious. Driving home with Simon the following day through West London we got caught up in heavy traffic. This was caused by Chelsea fans going to the celebrations of their recent Premier League triumph. I remember the sweetness of the previous day’s victory turning to ashes in my mouth. I wanted what they had won, but I doubt they wanted what we had just stolen.

I am totally in favour of the premise of this website, but I do have one point to make. I have to say that those waiting for the money to fall out of the Premier League and for the players to travel to the game on the same bus as the supporters are probably in for a bit of a wait. I don’t entirely accept the idea that grass roots football is any more real than the Premier League, but I whole heartedly agree that their motives for participating in the FA Cup are more genuine than that of their lofty opponents.

The problem with writing these words is that I can’t really think of any solution. There have been quite a few changes to the FA Cup since I started watching the game. I don’t believe there is any chance of going back to the way things were, and probably no appetite for it among the supporters that will follow us in time.

One of the really disrespectful practices in the FA Cup (for which my team must assume its share of guilt) is the habit of playing weakened teams in games we think of as easy. The penalty for not qualifying for the Champion’s League, being relegated or not promoted is just too high for most clubs to contemplate. The lack of respect for the cup is one of the factors that have led to its diminishment in the eyes of many. If the teams can’t be bothered with this game, why should we? Until this season the last time Tottenham beat us on our own ground was in 1993 when we put out a weakened side in the league as we were due to face Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Final. How times have changed.

The media habit of referring to cup ties featuring two big Premier League teams as the game of the round is another irritant for a lot of supporters. If you are a Tooting and Mitcham fan, then your tie against Dagenham and Redbridge is the tie of the round as far as you are concerned. If Tooting and Mitcham knock Cardiff out of the cup that is as much of a shock as Wrexham beating Arsenal. You will know that from your own experience if you are a Tooting fan, but you would never learn it from the media.

The main change over the last twenty years has been the abolition of what used to be known as the cup saga. In the late 70s we once took five games to get past Sheffield Wednesday.  In 1980 we beat Liverpool in the semi final after three replays. As late as 1991 we took four games to get past Leeds United. To younger readers this may seem as quaint as the cricket match between the Gentlemen and the Players, but I remember these sagas as being quite fun. Their abandonment may have been more economic in terms of player energy and policing costs, but it is one of those tell tale signs that football can no longer be played just for the sake of it. Settling every tie in one game as the semis and the final are now would be yet another step in this direction.

Giving a place in the Champion’s League to the winner of the FA Cup seems a bit generous. Heaven knows the tournament has enough teams in it who really shouldn’t be there, as I shall doubtless find when we visit Camp Nou. Exempting the big clubs who play weakened teams from the tournament would turn it into a glorified version of the Johnson’s paint Trophy.

In short, I don’t think any cosmetic change in the tournament will really help. Competitive ethos in any particular situation either exists or it doesn’t. It cannot be forced on anyone. The tournament we grew up with has become a victim of the increasing levels of professionalism since football became a billionaire’s plaything. I think that my club has done as much as it can to arrest the development. I am not entirely happy about this, as I would rather be competitive than noble in a results driven business (or sport, as it used to be called). I fear we may look back in twenty years time and equate Peter Hill Wood’s efforts to keep Arsenal in its current corporate state with King Canute’s attempt to command the tide.

None of this could have happened without the collusion of the supporters. I include myself in this. Football fans get the game they deserve, and we are all to blame for the current state of affairs. We pay the massive ticket prices, and subscribe to Sky for £50 every month. Despite the fact that I grew up without live football, I am part of a society that has been brainwashed into thinking that I can’t live without it. The game has no more power to dictate the abandonment of its traditions than we have given it. The cup will be won this year by the Premier League team that just couldn’t be bothered to lose it. Perhaps this could also be said for the Premier League itself this year.

If you listen to a football phone in on any given Saturday and listen to supporters’ total lack of patience or tolerance of anything less than winning, we see the penalty for failure has just become too high.  Teams will put out weakened sides to avoid relegation from the Premier League or to increase their chances of getting out of the Championship.

It is not easy to blame the big teams for their declining interest in the FA Cup when the Corinthian spirit appears to be dead on both sides of the touchline. Of course the sentiment in the previous sentence can be applied to the bye line if your ticket is for a seat behind the goal. I sit in a corner quadrant, so I have the best and worst of both worlds.

What this entire essay amounts to is a man lamenting the death of the traditions with which he grew up, whilst admitting a lack of inclination to do anything about it. I am jealous of those who still can feel that excitement. Perhaps it would take Arsenal suffering what Leeds did in 2004 before I could get that feeling for the FA Cup again. In the modern world Tradition has never been much of a flood barrier against the tidal wave of progress. We have a proud tradition of coal mining, ship building, steel making and manufacturing. We don’t seem to do much of this any more. This wasn’t twenty two men chasing a ball around a field, this was something that millions of men and women depended on for their livelihood. If tradition didn’t save them, how could it possibly save a cup tournament where you can get a piece of silverware for winning six games?

None of the above need bother any of the regular readers of this website. From the point of view of the teams that have to play their first qualifying games during the cricket season, the cup will always be just as exciting and meaningful as it ever was. Supporters of teams in the top flight who can’t see past the Premier League or the Champion’s League cannot totally blight the FA Cup. It will still produce its moments of magic, but this magic has perhaps declined in its ability to enchant fans who would rather be winning something else.

As a kid, I dreamt of scoring the winning goal in the last minute of the FA Cup Final. I can’t imagine kids today having this dream. It is far more likely that they imagine themselves being dissected in slow motion by Andy Gray (Not any more!! Hah! – Ed) on the Final Word while driving home in a car the purchase price of which would keep a League Two team solvent for half a season.

The only good thing about this state of affairs is that my goodish (ahem) friend Simon Barnett has built an excellent website out of the remnants of what the FA Cup used to be. In the 70s and 80s the FA Cup was the Real FA Cup. There would have been no need for such a website. Simon would probably have tried to build such a website anyway, even though there would have been no internet to post it on. He may be a stubborn bodger, but he is our stubborn bodger.

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