‘The Cup of Dreams’ or a grand old lady on her last legs… it really all depends on your view:
“Winning the FA Cup in 1991 was undoubtedly the highlight of my playing career.”
Gary Lineker, Match of the Day anchor-man (2001)
“…sad though don’t you think how the grand old lady is undervalued and treated…”
Twitter – @GaryLineker (2013)
“But everybody knows the glamour and the glory of this fantastic competition – the oldest and still the best in the world – does not begin and end with the final. It is the romance of the early rounds that gives the FA Cup its unique flavour.”
John Motson, the BBC’s voice of football – ‘Motson’s FA Cup Odyssey’ (2005)
“When even Cardiff are putting out their 2nd team for the ‘romantic’ FA Cup the whole thing is reduced to little more than It’s A Knockout.”
Twitter – Danny Baker @prodnose – Radio 5 Live DJ (2013)
Just when it seemed that Swansea and Arsenal had taken the remnants of what we like to call the old glory of the FA Cup into some kind of safe-keeping, Luis Suarez popped up with a hand to play…a diabolical act that cast a shadow …”
James Lawton – Chief Sports Writer, ‘The Independent’ (7th Jan 2013)
“I have enjoyed the day but it feels like it was stolen from us, whether it was deliberate or not…It was not in our favour and we should have had at least a replay. Handballs are obviously de rigueur in this game we play.”
Caroline Radford, Mansfield Town Chief Executive
FA Cup 3rd Round weekend – well three days as it happens. I’m listening, as I type, to League 2 Cheltenham v Premiership Everton, one of the most romantic ties of the round, being played on a Monday evening! More moans of that sort later…
…But first the history bit. Fifty years ago, back in the good old days when all fixtures were scheduled for Saturday at 3.00pm, the fabled big freeze of ‘63 caused 29 ties to be called off. 66 days later and 261 postponements later the round was completed.
Tales abound of groundsmen ingenuity in trying to thaw out their frozen pitches. Flame throwers were used at Carrow Road (no hot air from,‘Let’s be ‘avin’ you!’, Delia in those days) while a toxic cocktail of fertilizer and weed-killer was sprayed on Leicester City’s old Filbert Street ground.
It apparently did the trick. The Foxes made it all the way to Wembley – only to lose 3-1 to Manchester United.
On the dust jacket (not the sheepskin jacket) of ‘Motson’s FA Cup Odyssey’ we’re told: ‘The FA Cup is greatest and most coveted football trophy in the world. Whether the teams are playing in Manchester or Cardiff, Newcastle or Wembley, come the final each year the competition has a worldwide television audience of billions and is rightly seen as the Holy Grail of the beautiful game.’
If that is the case, why, to paraphrase the Tweeting Gary Lineker, is ‘the old lady’ so undervalued and shabbily treated? And perhaps, more to the point, why are football supporters so short-changed?
Live TV coverage of the FA Cup has been relegated to ITV and the ESPN subscription channel, fronted by some-time karaoke singer Ray Stubbs, formerly of the Beeb.
The ITV has come in for a deal of criticism, from viewers, for last weekend’s lack-lustre studio analysis hosted by, lugubrious ‘Baggies’ supporter, Adrian Chiles. The highlights package, in particular, came in for a panning from disgruntled fans staying up late to watch their team – when some games were limited to as little as fifteen seconds of action!
The needs of travelling partisan supporters – the lifeblood of the game – were seemingly ignored, for the benefit of neutral armchair viewers, with cherry picked ties of the round being shown live as early as 12.30 on Saturday – Brighton v Newcastle – and as late as Monday at 19.45 – Cheltenham v Everton.
Coaches transporting away-day Geordies left Tyneside for the south coast at 01.30, while Toffees lovers from Liverpool would have needed the afternoon off work, to make the trip down to the Georgian Spa-town – more famous for its national hunt racecourse than its Robins’ nest on Whaddon Road (currently masquerading as the Abbey Business Stadium).
All credit to Everton for putting out a very strong side, taking nothing for granted against lower league opposition – and a 5-1 final score-line indicates that David Moyes and his Premiership team are clearly taking the competition seriously. But, unfortunately, there are others who are adopting a more laissez- faire attitude.
Increasingly, Premiership teams have other priorities – qualification for the Champions League, issues of survival, and avoiding getting sucked into the relegation battle, and use FA Cup weekends as a chance for a breather and an opportunity to let second string players stretch their legs. If things don’t go to plan, the big guns can always be summoned from the bench to conjure up a last gasp face-saving winner – or not!
Some teams seem quite happy to sacrifice their place in the competition, in order to ease fixture congestion and avoid injuries to key players who will be needed for ‘more important’ up-coming league fixtures.
In recent years, with the influx of top-tier managers and players from across Europe and around the globe, where their own domestic cup competitions are seen as small beer, we have seen this disdainful type of attitude proliferate.
It is probably the single most significant factor in the recent decline in standing of the FA Cup – a tournament with a gleaming past that , year on year, is becoming increasingly tarnished by neglect and disrespect from those who do not value its history and fail to see its worth.
Do we want a competition infused with so many golden memories to continue – but only as a shadow of its former self? Perhaps the time has come for ‘the grand old lady’ to retire – as a museum piece that no longer warrants inclusion in the modern game, but which can be gazed upon with a warm glow of pride, by all who remember her former glories.
There certainly was a ‘cup of dreams’, but no longer – not in the same way – it is now more a cup of memories.
The very essence of the FA Cup has always been bound up with the aspirational notion that the tiniest minnow in the football ocean might on its day submerge the largest whale. Around such giant killing acts the legend was born – Hereford 2 Newcastle 1 (1972), Colchester 3 Leeds 2 (1973,) Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 0 (1984,) Wrexham 2 Arsenal 1 (1992) …
On each of these memorable occasions the felled giant had taken to the field with its strongest eleven – and been embarrassed in the extreme to be out fought by inferior opposition who had risen to the occasion.
When non-league Macclesfield Town toppled high-flying, top of the Championship, Cardiff City, the Bluebirds manager, Malky McKay, had rested his entire first team – demonstrating apparent contempt for a competition, considered an unwanted distraction from his team’s promotion challenge, and also devaluing the giant-killing status of the opposition.
It is this kind of disreputable behaviour that is killing the FA Cup. Yet it’s only five seasons ago that the Welsh club made it all the way to Wembley, and despite losing 1-0 to Portsmouth, enjoyed one of the biggest days in its history! But, then again, we know that for their new owners, who insisted on swapping the team’s historical blue for red (for marketing reasons) tradition doesn’t stand for much!
Finally, a word or two about Mansfield Town…
I was born and bred but seven miles from the north Nottinghamshire mining town, yet on only one occasion have I passed through the turnstiles at Field Mill. It was back in 1964 and I was taken by a school mate’s Dad. Brighton were the opposition in the old 3rd Division which was the Stags’ habitual level at that time. The score-line
finished 0-0 – disappointing for a team audacious enough to play in Brazil’s colours. There the similarity ended.
Thereafter I was kept busy with 1st Division matches at Forest, and occasional forays to Meadow Lane to watch County, the world’s oldest professional club (150 years in 2012) playing in the 4th. Gate prices were such that it was not unusual, in those days, for fans to alternate between the two Nottingham clubs on a weekly basis.
I did maintain an interest in Mansfield, from a distance – through the Nottingham Football Post – and certainly remember their finest hour, the FA Cup 5th round 1969 – when West Ham came to town.
England World Cup winning heroes Moore, Peters and Hurst all lined up that night, alongside a couple of promising youngsters, Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking. Oh yes, there was also that chippy young winger, Harry Redknapp, so no not a bad side – but they were hammered!
Mansfield 3 West Ham 0; goals courtesy of Roberts, Keeley and Sharkey, in front of a record crowd of 21,117 – etched in local folklore. It was the pinnacle of success for a club that, in its 77 year football league history, never finished higher than 21st in the old 2nd Division.
In 2008 the Stags slipped into the Blue Square Premier League, and the only thing of note to have happened since, before last weekend, has been the arrival of Caroline Radford (nee Still) as chief executive, attractive, opinionated, a 29 year old, former Durham University graduate, with a masters in law – and, allegedly, a one-time high-class escort.
Her appointment prompted some supporters to suggest the STAGS should change their nickname by substituting an L for the T!
She is now married to millionaire owner and chairman, John Radford (47) a local man who made his money out of insurance. They have enjoyed a minor success in winning back the leasehold of Field Mill; complete with an abandoned, unfinished stand, but the club continues to haemorrhage £50,000 a week.
It all seemed worthwhile on Sunday when, five times champions of Europe, Liverpool rolled into town. Mansfield left 96 seats empty as a sign of respect of those who lost their lives at Hillsborough in the FA Cup semi-final of ’89.
It was nice gesture to the visitors that unfortunately went unreciprocated as they were handed an appalling injustice by a certain Uruguayan striker who is never far from controversy – Luis Suarez.
Liverpool were already one up, after a dominant first half, when the smiling assassin controlled the ball with his hand before smashing it into an unguarded net. The referee missed it, the cameras confirmed it, but Suarez, a player universally reviled (outside of Anfield that is) as a ‘cheat’, failed to mend his reputation by fessing up.
Mansfield refused to bow, Matt Green pulled a goal back that he’ll dine out on for years to come, and Liverpool wobbled under a final ten minute onslaught. But all to no avail – they had been dealt a bad hand and will miss out on a lucrative replay.
This cup-tie will no doubt sit in Mansfield folklore, alongside that famous night in ’69. I suppose, even if ‘the grand old lady’ is a pale imitation of her former glory days, she provided an occasion that those present will never forget, but, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons.
These are different times, it’s a different game and not always for the better.