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No one does winter football quite like the English.
Whereas Europe’s top teams are currently enjoying beachside breaks, sipping piña coladas and getting ready to humiliate England at the world cup in the summer, our boys have been playing a full 90-minute game on average every 32 minutes.
For all of the criticism levelled at the Christmas period, there is something truly beautiful about its anarchic chaos. However, with the new year comes a return to normality. Instead of a game every two days, teams return to their once weekly outings, interspersed with European and Carabao cup commitments.
But before that happens, fans are blessed with one final plate of all you can eat football: the 3rd round of the FA Cup, where part-time plumbers take on sides worth more than some small nations, where Premier League players break into fits of anxiety at the uneven turf of the Conference North and where roughly every 2-4 minutes a commentator mentions ‘the magic of the FA Cup’.
I love the FA Cup, especially the 3rd round. I love watching Fleetwood Town take on Leicester City, seeing Jamie Vardy back at the club he helped take into the Football League. The cold chill of early January, mixed in with the small-town excitement of the few thousand fans that have turned up to see their team take on Premier League all-stars, it’s fantastic.
But what I don’t love, what, in fact, really grinds my gears, is the seeming inability of pundits, presenters and commentators to go a full 5 minutes without banging on about the magic of the FA Cup.
My problem is this: the perpetual affirmation of the magic/beauty/romance etc of the cup is a clear backlash against the idea that over the years, clubs, particularly Premier League clubs, have become less and less interested in cup competitions, with their focus set squarely on their League ambitions, namely because success in the Premier League guarantees LOTS AND LOTS OF MONEY.
It’s part of the idea that football as the sport of the common pie-eating, coal-mining man, is being gutted by rising ticket prices, prawn baguettes and foreign investors. Now I am not disputing that this is a worrying trend in modern football.
It seems incredible that with such absurd amounts of money being funnelled into clubs from Television deals, that the cost of match day or season tickets can’t subsidised, or at least not increased. But hey ho, that’s an argument for another time.
What winds me up about this whole situation is two-fold.
Teams will rest players in the FA Cup, get over it.
Returning to the Fleetwood v Leicester tie as an example, after the game, a drab encounter which finished 0-0, the BBC’s punditry team questioned why Leicester who look fairly safe in the League, but without a hope in hell of making the Champions League, didn’t stick out their very best team so that they can have a proper go at a cup run.
Now on the face of it, that seems like a reasonable argument, but when you recall that for the past few weeks those top players have been turning out almost every other day and that moreover, those same commentators and pundits have been moralising about the adverse effects of overworking players, the argument turns out to be an infuriating double standard.
The fact is that the magic of the FA Cup exists even if Riyad Mahrez gets the day off, but let’s not delude ourselves that the Cup has the same pull that it did 20 or 30 years ago. Times change and the manner in which some ‘experts’ will grab every opportunity to promote this idea that ‘the cup still has its romance’ is actually a clear indication that that very person is well aware that it doesn’t.
It’s a little like Donald Trump stating that he’s a very stable genius. If you are a very stable genius you don’t have to say it.
If the FA Cup is magical, you don’t have to tell us 4 times a half. Ultimately, commentators, pundits and presenters are too concerned with presenting this evidently false idea that when it comes to the FA Cup, nothing has changed. It has, but at the same time last year Sutton United made the semi-finals, don’t tell me that isn’t magical.
If only we can accept the FA Cup for what it is today, we can appreciate the true romance that still exists, rather than letting what it once was skew our perception of what remains a fantastic competition.
Don’t talk about the magic of the FA Cup if you’re talking about small clubs getting replays.
The second half (pardon the pun) of my FA Cup ire is encapsulated in what happened at the end of the Fleetwood-Leicester game.
Obviously, holding off the Premier League champions of two seasons ago (even though they were missing Riyad Mahrez), is a cause for celebration. But at the final whistle the BBC commentator for the game decided, for his very first comment, to explain just how happy the Fleetwood Chairman was going to be at the ticket receipts he was about to receive from the replay.
What kind of nonsense is it when on one hand we are told that the FA Cup is being sullied by the riches of the Premier League, but at the same time, the FA Cup is magical because every so often it gets a tiny team a replay that’ll earn them loads of money?
How can Premier League sides be lambasted for focussing their attention on the competition most likely to secure their financial futures, while FA Cup minnows are cast as sticking it to man when they do the exact same thing.
Now, I am perfectly happy to get caught up in the excitement of a semi-pro team earning a replay at Old Trafford and filling their allocation with the entirety of their village and the four surrounding towns, at the same time making enough money to buy a new stand and give the 76-year old tea lady a much-earned week in Lanzarote.
But let’s be consistent here. Either the magic of the FA Cup is all about glory, in which case, don’t mention money, talk about tackles, goals, underdogs and upsets.
Or we accept that pragmatism is the name of the game now, and we accept that football isn’t just played on the field, it is played in the boardroom, in which case, I am willing to cheer for Fleetwood’s replay just as much as their nullifying of a £29m striker. I’m just not willing to do both.
The FA Cup has magic, but like everything (except the Catholic Church), it evolves with the times. The FA Cup of today is different to its 1970s counterpart.
The simple fact is that it is not an absolute priority for top clubs, but that is not to say that they don’t care and that is not to say that even with top players being rested (and let’s not forget the schedule they’re under), there isn’t a full bounty of romance for us to wrap ourselves up in.
Can’t we all just 1: accept that the times have-a-changed and 2: drop the financial double standard? That way, we can enjoy the 4th round all more.
Written by Scott Pope
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