The FA Cup is little more than an enjoyable distraction from the serious business of League football.
Football’s traditions wax and wane. Gone are wooden rattles, Jimmy Hill and laced-up balls. Instead we have new institutions: giant foam hands, internet message boards and Richard Keys (though purists argue that body hair removal has robbed the Sky anchorman of his hirsute charm). Another emerging tradition is the annual debate over the magic of the Cup. Every January we have the same old handwringing. Has the FA Cup lost its magic? If so, who is to blame?
The cup is still magical according to the Beeb, largely because it has the rights to show live FA Cup games on TV and is consequently prone to hype up the competition something rotten. ‘Great drama from the BBC’, as the corporation’s FA Cup trailers promised us. The Match of the Day cameras usually pitch up at some non-league mudpit in the hope of capturing an act of giant killing. There’s the usual pre-match feature on the players’ day jobs, the obligatory sepia-tinted footage of Ronnie Radford’s iconic goal for Hereford and, in the event that the non-league side manages to bundle in a goal, the rather tedious spectacle of a wildfowl-themed choreographed goal celebration. That, as a breathless Motty will declare, is why the FA Cup is so magical.
The magic of the cup supposedly resides in its ‘sudden death’ format and, in particular, the possibility that a team from the bottom of football’s food chain can topple a Premiership giant. I’ve no doubt that a home tie against Chelsea or Manchester United – or even honorary titans like Norwich City, whose away tie at Tamworth was televised by the BBC last weekend – is a big thrill for the players and fans of a non-league club. Take, for example, Barnet manager Paul Fairclough’s thrill at his team’s cup victory over Championship side Colchester this week. ‘Those players have become immortal today’, he gushed. ‘They are the history boys and you can never take it away from them.’
Is the bar of immortality now so low that beating Colchester is all it takes? It was a memorable night for Barnet, but it’s stretching the definition to describe it as ‘magic’. I’m sure the Magic Circle might have something to say about our cavalier use of the term.
Some FA Cup ties are unquestionably entertaining – the highlights of Charlton being humiliated by Forest were hilarious – but most are far from magical. As the Guardian’s Barney Ronay put it: ‘Talk of its magic has assumed an increasingly funereal air, synonymous with that moment towards the end of Match Of The Day when Ray Stubbs stares into the camera and says, “and now here’s a round-up of the rest of the day’s FA Cup goals” and you know, no matter how hard you fight it, that within three minutes you’ll have fallen into a deep and concussive sleep midway through a six-goal Millmoor thriller.’ (1)
The Football Association and BBC still big up the FA Cup but it has become evident that fewer and fewer people are in thrall to its supposed magic. Cup attendances have slumped and Premiership clubs frequently field second-string teams for cup games. And it’s not just the top clubs who put League before Cup. Last Saturday, relegation-threatened Sheffield United rested most of their first team players for their cup match against Swansea. ‘If we can stay in the Premier League, that will be the finest achievement in my whole life – and that’s far more important, I’m afraid, at the moment’, explained Blades boss Neil Warnock.
When people complain, as they often do, that the cup has lost its lustre what they usually mean is that they don’t like modern football. It’s too commercialised, too expensive to watch, over-hyped and uncompetitive; the super-rich elite having squeezed out the little man. This week, after Birmingham’s cup tie against Newcastle attracted just 16,444 spectators, the lowest gate of the season (not counting the near valueless Carling Cup), manager Steve Bruce came over all Citizen Smith. ‘Lower the prices and let people back in who want to come and support football matches but simply can’t afford to’, wailed Red Stevie. ‘We are going to drive the average working man away from it and that’s the lifeblood.’
But cutting ticket prices won’t necessarily bring back the punters. I thought about going to see Crystal Palace’s third-round tie against Swindon Town of League Two. But although prices had been slashed, I decided to give it the swerve and visit the Tate Britain instead. I know, I know, opting for an art gallery over a football match doesn’t do much for my ‘Palace Till I Die’ credentials but I’m unrepentant. Maybe if we’d drawn a bigger team I might have been tempted, but given a choice between Swindon Town and early nineteenth-century English landscape painting, there was only ever going to be one winner. And I wasn’t alone (in missing the game, not poncing around an art gallery, I mean). An attendance of 10,238, at Selhurst Park, 6,000 down on this season’s average gate, speaks volumes about the esteem in which the cup is held.
I used to believe in the magic of the cup, but not any more. That’s not so much because football has been tainted by commerce but because I’ve grown up; Sky Super Sunday has cured me of my childlike wonder at seeing live football on television. The FA Cup can be an enjoyable distraction from the serious business of the league but believing in the ‘magic of the cup’ is like believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and guardian angels, one of those childish things we should put away.
(1) Is the FA Cup magic again?, Guardian, 6 January 2006
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