the real fa cup

In The Park

The F.A. Cup is the star attraction at the local kids’ football tournament. It has its own marquee, a status otherwise granted only to the tea  bar and doughnut stand, and is guarded by two burly blazered security men. The guy on the tannoy is trying desperately to drum up business, digital photos with you holding this icon, available in a variety of formats and ready in two minutes. Put him in front of a class of children with ADHD and high on e-numbers and his dispiriting drone could subdue them in 5 minutes flat, but that’s not the reason there are few takers. Although their dads hover excitedly around the entrance, the kids just aren’t interested.

When my team won the cup over 30 years ago after many barren seasons, I queued round the ground for over an hour for 5 precious seconds with the trophy in my hands, and I regarded that as a privilege to be so close to the object of my dreams. The photo is still on the mantelpiece, even though as time passed it became less a souvenir of an unforgettable final and more a sad relic of when I had hair. But these are changing times. The Premier League or Champions League trophies would draw a crowd but the FA Cup is strictly a second class irrelevance for the hordes of children and young people flooding our normally peaceful park. Next to the deserted tent, the queue for the burgers is twenty deep. It’s a shame.

25 pitches, 6 a side, 8 minutes each way, anticipation and excitement in the air. My grandson’s team take the field with determined faces and hopes high but even they find it hard to sustain this early eagerness after their third defeat in a row. They kick off for their final match two men down. A hastily convened search party finds the striker in the candy floss queue and a defender on the bouncy castle.

Their opponents have taken a different approach. Their entourage are gathered under two large gazebos, the players marshalled onto benches where they must remain between games, sheltering from the sun and their liquid intake constantly monitored. Their fathers snort with derision at the announcement that the under 7s are playing for fun and will all get a medal. Each match is preceded by a 5 minute tactics talk from the coach. These boys are 10 years old.

We urge our lads on, although frankly the search for something to praise becomes more desperate as time passes, even for an optimist like me. At one point they did get the ball in the opponents’ half. Increasingly the dreary moan of our coach intrudes on our efforts, a series of critical and over-complicated comments that leaves the team none the wiser about what exactly they are supposed to do. At a recent match my daughter was soundly admonished by another mother. Cheering them on, she was told in no uncertain terms to be quiet ‘because you can’t be positive all the time, life’s not like that.’ Reminds me of a friend who claimed to give his son a random clip round the ear every now and again. ‘That’s how it feels for grown-ups so get used to it now.

One team are racking up 7 and 8 a game. Word spreads that they are the Arsenal under 12s. I wander over to take a look. It’s the most entertaining 10 minutes of football I’ve seen for donkey’s years. Arsenal fans, your stars may be leaving but have no fear for the future, on this evidence at least. Wenger could do a lot worse than draft the number 11 into the first team this August. He may have to if the rumours are accurate.

It’s the last game and with no hope of the final, suddenly, to my surprise and pleasure, our boys start pinging it around. I whinge under my breath at the lack of movement of our lone striker, the coach’s son, then immediately remember where I am and despise myself for such a reaction so out of keeping with this day. I’m not in my usual seat now. Then, a neat one-two in the box, admittedly our own box but it comes off, a through-ball Gerrard could only dream about and the striker nonchalantly slots it home

The allegedly malign influence of the Premier League manifests itself in many guises. Certainly it’s a shame our team haven’t rehearsed their defending from dead balls as well as their repertoire of goal celebrations, although the finger to the lips loses meaning when the opposition fans consist of three mums, a spaniel and gran in a wheelchair. In particular one boy goes down and stays down at the slightest touch, clutching his leg. Someone I know looks after a youngster whose learning disability means he takes things literally. Playing in his Chelsea shirt decorated with the name of his hero, he repeatedly threw himself to the ground when no one was anywhere near him.  When asked why, he looked excited: ‘That’s what Drogba does!

We bemoan the modern game, the money, the lack of tradition, the concerted efforts to leave the fans distant and disaffected. Yet today hundreds of kids have filled this park with one aim: playing football. Performing with freedom and expression, their unending enthusiasm remains unaffected by victory or defeat and is irresistibly infectious. The final whistle blows and immediately the players reconfigure into practice sessions in the nearest available goal. Kids too young to take part have a kick-about with dads, portly and stiff-legged, who silently pray for a stray ball to come their way so they can bring it down and pass it back, just to show they haven’t lost it

A family group gathers round the Cup. The dad’s eyes gleam brightly, mum’s long-suffering, the kids turn on the smile on the photographer’s signal for the precious fraction of a second. The trophy may not mean as much as it once did but the passion for what matters, a ball and a goal, is undiminished, passed on down the generations. Pottering in the garden later that afternoon, the cheers of joy and anguish drift by in the wind. The afternoon session is in full swing. 25 pitches, 6 a side, another bunch of hundreds of excited girls and boys. It’s natural that kids follow their heroes. If only the Premier League would learn a thing or two about the game from the kids.

Alan Fisher is @spursblogger and writes for his own blog Tottenham On My Mind.

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