As I hurtle unstoppably towards my late thirties, I tend to find that there is less and less to look forward to. Birthdays long ago became a cause for reflection and with an ever increasing desire to be able to say, “Whoaah! No more of these! Can’t we just stop right where we are?”. Without children of my own, Christmas Day usually finds me slightly hungover and grumpy, wanting a little nap on the sofa rather than any presents. I have been largely stripped of my child-like wonder. I’m becoming as much of a grumpy old man as the anti-hero of the song “Gertcha”, by Chas & Dave, to whom every single thing that seems to happen seems to be an affront.
But. If there is one weekend of the year that brings out the gurgling eight year old in me, it’s this weekend. The weekend of the First Round Proper of the FA Cup. Better still, I have a ticket for the match of the round, as AFC Wimbledon take on Wycombe Wanderers on Monday night, before the ruthless gaze of Setanta Sports’ live cameras. I haven’t looked forward to a match this much in I don’t know how long. I’ve even booked a day and a half of work to buffer it properly. There is an element of living vicariously about this. St Albans City have made the FA Cup First Round just four times in the twenty-five years that I have been watching them, and they haven’t beaten a Football League side they knocked Brentford out in 1925. During my formative football years, however, giant-killing was taken for granted. At Enfield in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a parade of bigger clubs were sent packing with their tales between their legs. Monday night seems likely to have all the hallmarks of those great nights at Southbury Road over a quarter of a century ago. A small, packed ground, and a good team with several excellent players and a chance, just a chance, that they might turn up with something special against a very strong Wycombe team.
There are plenty of people at all levels of the game that don’t have any interest in the FA Cup competition. Crowds for cup matches tend to be lower across all levels. I understand the argument that the league is, overall, the most important thing. It’s the bread and butter of the average football fan’s existence. However, the cups provide something special. Nights like Monday don’t come along every season. You can’t merely buy experiences like this. These are the evenings that make those desperate, dreadful matches that you’ve sat through and put up with in the league. There is also a more pragmatic reason for wishing for success in the cup competitions. Wimbledon stand to make over £100,000 from their match on Monday night – that’s enough money earned to pay the wages of four or five players for the year, or to cover much of the cost of the recent extension put on their main stand.
In addition to this, the coverage in the national media raises the club’s profile in the media enormously. Wimbledon were featured on BBC1′s “Football Focus”, and have been featured in the national press to near unprecedented levels. The Independent takes an overall look at the club’s recent past and present. The Sun meets Marcus Gayle, who played for Wimbledon in the Premier League and the Ryman League, and is now their reserve team coach. Finally, The Guardian writes something that is, strangely, almost passive-aggressive. Still, a wise man once said that there is no such thing as publicity, and this, combined with a sell-out crowd at Kingsmeadow on Monday night and the live television coverage, may even add a couple of hundred or more to their weekly gates. More than that, should they win.
But can they win? Wycombe have had a good start to the season, and are the only unbeaten team in the top four divisions of English football, but they lost 7-0 at home to Shrewsbury in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and 4-0 at home to Birmingham City in the League Cup. These results would seem to indicate that they are beatable. On weekends like this, we have to cast off our cloaks of rationality and say, well, why not?