Sunday, January 3, 2010

The sad and slow death of the FA Cup

In the same week that we saw for the first time an all-English top flight match kick off with no English players or coaches involved (Portsmouth v Arsenal), the jewel in the crown of the mother of football's competitions performed its most traditionally exciting day with a whimper.

The Fratton Park clash surely dispels for good any arguments that England has a problem with youth development, while the decline of the FA Cup, alive and kicking since 1872, is equally depressing. The Cup's 3rd Round, which traditionally takes place soon after New Year, is the stage where the big boys enter, which can make for mouth-watering David v Goliath clashes.

There were no shocks this year, another sign of the financial chasm between the Premier League and the rest, but the sight of half-empty stadia was glaring enough for the presenters of the competition's biggest cheerleaders, ITV, to debate it on air just as they launched their station's coverage with expensive graphics and a slew of advertising. Only 12,474 paid to watch megabucks Man City's visit to Middlesbrough, while a thousand less attended Premier League Portsmouth's tie with Coventry City. Premier League Wigan's clash with Premier League Hull drew barely 5,000 paying spectators. This cup is half-empty.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s the FA Cup was as prestigious a trophy as the League Championship, a uniquely English prize which set it apart from the rest of UEFA's member nations' cup competitions.

Cup Final Day was the most exciting day of the football season, a Superbowl for England accompanied by ubiquitous fascination and a prize as glittering, if not more so, than winning the league itself in the eyes of fans. The minnows who raised the Cup or slew the giants, from Yeovil to Sutton United, Coventry and Wimbledon, passed into legend. Like all boys I would wake up excited on Cup Final Day and gleefully imbibe the long TV build-up with its reportages from the team hotels, coaches and rosette-bearing fans as they made their way to the shrine of the Twin Towers at Wembley.

Then along came the Premier League in 1993 with its inflated marketing and the Cup almost immediately began to lose its sheen. Add the bloated 'Champions' League to the equation and the writing was on the wall for the old favourite. Winning the Cup could no longer be as important as finishing in the top four and thereby guaranteeing your income for the following season. While older generations of fans were priced out, newer ones arrived with no comprehension of the Cup's special status. Foreign coaches arrived in England equally bemused why people should take it so seriously and began to field weakened teams, with the league their big focus.

What a shame. This was the oldest competition of the world's greatest sport we poisoned, a special affair whose magic lay not in two billionaire owners trying to outspend each other but in its unique ability to allow minnows a taste of greatness, a format which in theory could see a parks team of amateurs end up playing Manchester United. When my home town club Woking, a semi-professional outfit from the 7th national division won 4-2 at West Bromwich Albion in 1991 before losing 0-1 at Everton, our unmitigated ecstasy was not merely due to our humdrum home town being centre-stage, but because something impossible on paper had become reality on grass. And only the Cup could do that year after year.

David v Goliath can still be thrown up by the draw, but everyone these days shrugs and backs Goliath. There are no non-league teams left in this year's competition and I think I'll skip Chelsea and Man Utd's clashes with lower-league opposition tomorrow; despite their inevitably weakened lineups the giants will still prevail.

Perhaps the saddest confirmation of the Cup's toppling from its perch this week was the news that West Ham had emailed their fans, pleading with them to buy tickets for Arsenal's 3rd round visit. The Hammers beat the Gunners in one of the most memorable finals of all, the 'Cockney Cup Final' of 1980, when Trevor Brooking's header won the day for the second division team, the last time a club from outside the top flight had lifted the glittering prize.

Those, indeed, were the days.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile



1 comment:

Nicko said...

Totally agree and really sad.
Why is it that sides field weakened teams? Foriegn bosses don't have a clue.