Monday, December 04, 2006

FA Cup: The Turd Round

The FA Cup is dead. Well, it’s on its last legs at least. Sure, we can feign excitement about next month’s Third Round, but like the World Cup, ‘the best football competition in the world’ is the preserve of “old football” and, unless drastic action is taken, will soon have as much cachet as whatever the League Cup is called this week. And it’s been mortally wounded, not just by the greedy Premiership clubs who long ago started viewing the competition as an annoying irrelevance, but by the sport’s so-called loyal fans and of course, the FA itself.

So how did we get here? How did a competition which was seen as an equal to the League become such an irrelevance that the BBC feel the need tell us that the ‘FA Cup’s lost none of its magic’ as Hansen and co look out at another half-empty Premiership stadium.

Twenty years ago schools and workplaces would fall silent as the third round draw was played out live on Radio 2. It was ace: the hushed, official voices from the old FA HQ at Lancaster Gate, the clunking sounds of balls being shaken in the little velvet bag and then the pause that would come after a monster draw. ‘Number 46, Liverpool will play… Number 52… Manchester United’. Agggggghhhhhh!

Then the FA went and fucked it all up.

It started in the early 90s when the draw was taken off the Jimmy Young radio show and stuck on Sunday afternoon telly before Songs of Praise. Like Dorothy and co finding out that the Wizard of Oz was just some old bloke with a few levers and a big curtain, the moment we saw personality-free FA blazer Graham Kelly staring into the camera like a toddler entranced by Balamory, the Cup’s “magic” died. And it being the day of rest, the intense communal discussions of old were replaced with wondering whether Gran’s post-roast nap would be interrupted by David Davies’ day-glow skin. Depressing.

Then in a double blow, both the all-new Premiership and Champions League appeared on the horizon, all flashing lights, big wallets and pasty-faced cheerleaders. Suddenly, the relatively impoverished FA Cup was not such an attractive proposition – you can’t big wages on honour alone. When clubs like Man Utd and Arsenal started fielding weakened teams for what had previously been the biggest competition of the lot then you knew something was up. Sure, the big clubs still dominated, but more importantly when they were the victims of a giant-killing, you got the feeling that the likes of Wenger and Ferguson were secretly relieved. Attendances, in a complete reversal to the Premiership’s bumper crowds slumped as fans followed the clubs suit and stayed away.

Last year’s FA Cup final between West Ham and Liverpool proved that the competition can still provide moments of sheer, unadulterated, sudden-death drama, but it was a flash in the pan – a victory for fans nostalgia for the good old days rather than a new dawn. Yet, the very thing that dealt such a hammer blow to the competition’s prestige is now the thing that can save it: Award that final Champions League place, not to the team who comes fourth in the League, but to the club who wins the FA Cup. Do that, and maybe the glory days will one day return.