by Patrick Fletcher
So we are well in to 2011, and have weathered the annual storm that is the cliché ridden hype surrounding the 3rd round of the FA Cup. No doubt you have heard talk of the ‘magic’ or ‘romance’ of the competition, how anything can happen, and endless David & Goliath metaphors. The sad thing is that it used to be possible to say these things and be taken seriously. Today these sentiments seem half hearted and even desperate as we struggle to cling onto the nostalgia of a competition which is becoming increasingly insignificant. Yes, the magic of the FA Cup has all but disappeared.
Let me take you back a few years, to the 1990-91 season. To the fifth round where Everton met Liverpool in a mouth watering Merseyside clash. There was nothing to separate the sides and after a tense 0-0 draw, the replay produced a scintillating 4-4, which has been reproduced on our television screens countless times. The drama proved too much for Kenny Dalglish, who stood down as Liverpool manager with the tie still unsettled. Can you imagine a cup tie nowadays leading to the resignation of a top football manager? Penalty shootouts were not then used to decide ties, so on we went to a 2nd replay, where Everton finally prevailed by one goal to nil. It was a tie that simultaneously divided and united Merseyside, showcasing the passion, the purity of spirit and the magic that the FA Cup can rouse.
Gone however, are the days of purity and tradition, only to be replaced with cynicism, indifference, and penalties. For several years now, the FA Cup has been sliding down the priority lists of clubs all over the country, and is not showing signs of letting up. With so much money on offer in European and league football, the FA Cup has not only become less appealing to the businessmen in charge of football clubs, but has also come to be widely regarded as a nuisance that threatens to de-rail league ambitions, which are far more financially fruitful. It is no longer a case of the big teams thinking the competition is in some way beneath them, the problem is much more widespread. Relegation from the premier league could spell financial ruin, and for lower league clubs the prospect of promotion is increasingly valuable. Fewer and fewer teams can afford to prioritise the FA Cup, as its meagre monetary attraction would not make up for the damage of underachievement in the league.
Nowadays a minority of teams are taking the competition seriously. We have grown used to the likes of Fergie and Wenger fielding weakened sides, but it seems comical that we now have a situation where Ian Holloway happily and almost proudly announces his intentions to field a second-string side for Blackpool’s recent 3rd round clash against Southampton. The modern managerial sacking culture has produced cautious managers afraid to take risks, and this cynical approach shows a lack of respect not only to the FA Cup, but also to those who still take it seriously.
And many do still take it seriously. Something that doesn’t seem to have faded is the enthusiasm and innocence of amateur teams, for whom the FA Cup represents an opportunity to share a stage with some of the world’s best, and the possibility of becoming heroes. However this rare spark of pure excitement and spirit is often extinguished by the cynicism that dominates a large part of the professional game. The enthusiasm shown by amateur teams is devalued by the fact that those above them do not take the competition seriously. In fact it is a kick in the teeth for grass roots players and fans, and smacks of arrogance too.
I am certain that no amount of money could buy the strength of emotion and passion that swept across Merseyside 20 years ago. Can the FA restore the magic of the cup? Or, as Oscar Wilde nearly said, does football know the price of everything, but the value of nothing?