It’s the Third Round of the FA Cup this weekend and, while the lowest-ranked team left in the competition has a home draw against Championship opposition, they won’t be appearing live on the television this time around. Here’s Tom Snee with the lowdown on Blyth Spartans, of the Northern Premier League.
You can picture exactly how it would have gone; city slickers trudging off a swish coach in a makeshift car park, finding their way to a cramped Croft Park changing room and generally not looking at all up for the game. Cut to a shot of kids in the crowd wrapped up in big coats, green and white woolly hats and clutching a trophy made out of cardboard and leftover turkey foil and waving it gladly for the camera.
Then onto a dog – possibly a Yorkshire Terrier – in a home-knitted Blyth sweater jacket, its owner clutching a polystyrene cup of non-descript brown liquid, steaming under the floodlights of a bitter Tuesday night in the North East. Classic FA Cup. Classic sports television. Only it’s not happening. Once the balls are back in the velvet bag and teams who have been knocked out have worked out what they could have won, the public focus switches to the announcement of which games have been selected for television coverage.
The Third Round draw itself was actually a belter. We as consumers of football love a storyline, and there were plenty to choose from when it came to TV selections. Premier League against non-league – the stuff planners’ dreams are made of – in triplicate, a replay of last season’s final and the lowest ranked team left in the competition – little Blyth from the North East – at home to the big city boys from Birmingham.
In many respects, Blyth Spartans are your average everyman non-league club. This is a club with 4,000 capacity stadium which has 500 seats, climbed up through the leagues, had a bit of a blip but now getting back on track, all of which are statements which could apply to tens – if not hundreds – of semi-professional clubs up and down the country to varying extents.
They are exactly the kind of story that keeps people interested in the FA Cup. Like an ageing music hall singer, the old gal still manages to retain some allure, and can still hit the right notes once in a while, but the sparkle has gone from the eyes. The over-saturation of football on television hasn’t killed the FA Cup off just yet – nor will it any time soon – but it’s taken away a lot of the glamour and the fabled “magic.”
Neutrals (read: non-Premier League fans) are fed up of seeing the same teams, hearing the same sound-bites and watching the same manufactured narratives that 154 live games a season invariably creates. All of which is exactly the reason why opportunities like Blyth’s draw is – at least in theory – televisual gold.
Here you have a team that has already played seven games in the competition, capturing the nation’s attention (and, if it’s not too much of a stretch to say, hearts) with a late winner over near-rivals Hartlepool in the last round. You would have thought that they were an obvious TV choice, possibly for the slightly patronising, “butcher, baker and candlestick maker” style of punditry that BT Sport in particular tends to produce on such occasions.
Birmingham City may not be the draw they once were for television audiences – particularly on a global scale – but the tie is the very essence of what the tournament is about. There are, of course, a finite number of games on television in each round, as dictated by the FA’s deal with broadcasters, but with five games to be shown, surely the lowest ranked team must be shown in one of them? Alas, those TV execs in their pinstripe suits and red ties and shiny brown shoes have other ideas. Whether it’s right or wrong (N.B. it’s most definitely wrong), they’re almost completely single-minded in the quest for viewer numbers, regardless of how much said viewers actually enjoy the game.
Manchester United are on BT Sport. Of course they are. It almost seemed that the fact they are hosted by Yeovil – themselves draped in the robes of great FA Cup pedigree – was incidental, given the global draw of the team in red. Arsenal against Hull City too was destined to be broadcast the second it was drawn given the fact that a rematch of last year’s final is apparently a mouth-watering prospect. And the BBC were never going to let AFC Wimbledon hosting Liverpool slide, what with the chance to wheel out John Motson and replaying the “Crazy Gang has beat the Culture Club” snippet for the nth time.
That left two spaces for our “plucky” non-league teams, almost an insult when you bear in mind that they have played at least five games to get to that point. So, naturally, one of those slots went to Everton against West Ham United. Non-league, consider your face well and truly slapped. Again. There’s no reason why these two middling Premier League sides won’t produce a half-decent, just-enough-action-to-keep-you-awake Tuesday night pseudo-classic, but they’re hardly box office teams that are guaranteed to draw the viewers in, which makes choosing it over Blyth, or Southport, or Wrexham all the more baffling.
There’s also the financial benefits to consider. Call Blyth greedy for wanting the £144,000 that a televised Third Round tie earns them, but that kind of money makes a real difference to a club at League Two level, let alone a Northern Premier League side. If spent in the right way, it can create a platform for a club to build from for years to come – imagine if it was ploughed into the youth team, or invested in bar or catering facilities to bring in the holy grail of seven-day income. For Premier League clubs, that kind of money is a drop in the ocean. For a non-league side, it’s like the Hoover Dam opening.
So when you’re sat probably not watching BT Sport on 6th January, hopefully television executives will think about the lad with the tin foil cup who could’ve been the next Jarrett Rivers, or the guy with the dog who could’ve had a nice pint in a refurbished clubhouse. Magic and upward mobility – that’s the modern magic of the FA Cup.
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