The FA Cup (Briefly?) Shines Again
Taking the world’s oldest football tournament and smacking it over the head with a rubber chicken has become something of a national sport in itself in recent times. With the FA broadly as silent as ever and no sophisticated media machine drip, drip, dripping us into believing that This Is Important, it’s become a punching bag, a useful outlet onto which anybody with an opinion, regardless of its value, can express their hopes or fears for The State Of Things. Time does move on. We can all agree on this. But while many, many people are satisfied to look at banks of empty seats at matches and confidently predict its demise, who seriously, for one single second, believe that the Football Association might just actually pull the plug on it? “We’re very sorry for not having noticed it earlier,” their accompanying press release might read, “But it would appear that entitled Premier League supporters are now only interested in European Super Leagues or retaining fourteenth place in the final league table in perpetuity, so we thought it would be best if we just knock the FA Cup on the head and replace it with endless exhibition matches between Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG. Apparently, that’s what you people want, these days.”
The FA Cup isn’t going anywhere, of course, but the whining isn’t going to stop and the FA doesn’t help itself with their tinkering with something that we might have believed mattered to them, of course. Whether through allowing Manchester United to jet off to Brazil to play in the World Club Championships in an obsequious attempt to curry favour for their pathetic bid to host the 2006 World Cup finals, destroying at least half of what made Cup Final Day special by moving the semi-finals to Wembley, making the official ball bright pink or deep orange in colour, moving the kick-off time to 5.15 in the evening and ignoring protests from supporters who’d quite like to attend a football match in London without having to stay the night afterwards whilst crowing about meagre increases in television viewing audiences, or introducing VARs, a development which threatens to eat the whole of top tier football in this country, the FA’s relationship with its apparently prestige cup competition has often felt in recent years very much like Sideshow Bob’s relationship with garden lawns covered on rakes. Whichever way they turn, whatever they do, they’re going to smack themselves in the face, and there’s nothing that you or I can do to stop them.
Sometimes, though, the football manages a way to shine through the white noise of advertising logos, whining from coaches keen to deflect a verbal shoeing for their own shortcomings and a media that can spin thousands of clicks hand-wringing at its imminent demise. This year’s tournament has been the usual mixed bag, but after the excitement of last year – perhaps only time will afford us the perspective to be able fully grasp what an extraordinary achievement it was for a National League side to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in more than a century – this season’s competition had felt a little flat. Sure enough, there was much to laugh about in Arsenal reaching peak Arsenal for the eleventh time this season at Nottingham Forest at the start of January or in Tottenham Hotspur labouring in the wild open plains of Newport in the following round, but something about this year’s competition had failed to inspire. This doesn’t mean that the FA Cup is in “crisis”, of course. If greatness of any sporting competition can be measured in its unpredictability, the FA Cup scores highly because its surprise results come rarely but often enough for us to know that they still happen, even if they can appear thin on the ground at times. That’s the point. Shock results couldn’t even be described as shock results if they happened all the time.
Over the course of the back end of Fifth Round weekend, however, this year’s competition started to rumble to life. The weekend had started routinely enough on Friday night, with Chelsea swatting Hull City aside without too much discomfort and Leicester City edging their way past Sheffield United, whilst Saturday’s matches did little more to awaken a fire in anybody’s bellies. Late on Sunday afternoon, however, the timbre of the weekend shifted with Tottenham Hotspur’s trip to Spotland to play Rochdale. To their credit, with their complaining about the condition of the pitch, under-strength team and Delle Alli’s swan-dive to take attention away from what was probably a legitimate penalty award, Spurs played the role of Big City Fancy Dans to perfection. A stoppage-time equaliser and a trip to Wembley for the replay was the absolute least that Rochdale deserved from this match. Spurs supporters, meanwhile, continue to look tetchily at a period of almost ten years without a trophy and wonder whether this team, for anybody under sixty years of age the best Spurs team they’ve ever seen, will ever win an actual competition before its inevitable break-up at the hands of Europe’s ultrasupermegaclubs.
It turned out, however, that this pulsating, incident-filled match was just an hors d’oeuvres. There is no question that Manchester City are the best team in the country at the moment. Turning the Premier League title race into an irrelevance by the new year is an achievement for the ages in itself, and such has been their dominance of the season so far that much attention has been given in recent weeks to how likely it would be that they could land a quadruple of the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup. All of this, however, was reckoning without Wigan Athletic. Wigan’s preparations for the match could have been better. In their previous two league matches they’d been beaten comprehensively at Southend United and then at home against Blackpool, results which dropped them from the top of the League One table to third place, although they do still hold games in hand on those above them. Previous wins in this very competition against Manchester City in the 2013 final and the quarter-finals the following year, however, felt more like statistical anomaly than an indicator that a hat-trick of wins against New Manchester City might somehow be on the cards. It felt as though this should be a routine away win played in a three-quarters empty stadium and with both teams with at least one eye elsewhere.
Somewhere along the line, though, this version of events couldn’t quite hold itself together. A crowd of almost 20,000 people lent the occasion the air of a match of critical importance. Pep Guardiola’s main contribution towards the ancient rite of playing the weakest team possible only truly manifested itself through the decision to leave both Kevin de Bruyne and Kyle Walker on the substitutes bench whilst starting the greatest leveller of all, the hapless Oscar Bravo, in goal. And Manchester City looked uncharacteristically out of sorts from more or less the outset. They dominated possession in that way that the ultrasupermegaclubs do, but the chances that they did created were finished sloppily, and it was clear before the evening took a turn for the controversial that this particular incarnation of the team was not firing on all cylinders. This particular controversy, of course, involved the sending off of Fabian Delph for a tackle on Wigan’s Man Who Got His Name From A Hairdryer, Max Power. Referee Anthony Taylor gave conspiracy theorists their moment by moving to caution Delph before reaching for a red card instead – the notion that he was “influenced by the crowd” is, of course, a completely baseless one – but in amongst this latest instalment of Refereeing: The Decline & Fall of Western Civilisation something significant was happening. Wigan’s players seemed visibly buoyed by their one man advantage, and the timing of it all, shortly before half-time, gave the home players an opportunity to go into the interval with their tails up, starting to believe that they might yet be able to edge past their gilded opponents. Perhaps the sight of Guardiola arguing animatedly with both the Wigan coach Paul Cook and the referee over a decision that was clearly, obviously not going to be reversed, further emboldened them.
De Bruyne took to the pitch with an hour played, and the extent to which this one player appears to have become a talisman in a team of icons seemed immediately apparent. Tails lifted by his arrival on the pitch, the noise from the away supporters reached crescendo as Manchester City parked up around the Wigan penalty area, knocking beautiful passes of little consequence around as the home side held their defences, not allowing City’s players to see the whites of their eyes. And then, with eleven minutes to play, came the coda that none of us were expecting. Increasingly urgently seeking to avoid a schedule-disrupting replay, City committed one player too far forward one time too many, Wigan recognised the chink in the armour, and Will Griggs, who only managed another eighteen touches of the ball throughout the entirety of the ninety minutes of the match, stroked the home side into the lead. Cue pandemonium around three sides of the DW Stadium, of course, but also a stomach-knotting level of tension as the Manchester City pressure turned up to eleven. A patchy night at the office for Guardiola had suddenly and unexpectedly became something altogether more embarrassing, but for all their huff and all their puff, Manchester City couldn’t blow this particular house down. The final whistle was accompanied by further pandemonium, of course, and a pitch invasion which led to the familiar language of newspapers clicking effortlessly into gear. “Unedifying.” “Disgraceful.” “Back to the dark days of the eighties.” We all know that particular drill now, of course. The only surprise is that anyone could still believe that newspapers believe in anything beyond faux outrage and the accumulation of clicks for money.
The supporters of ultrasupermegaclubs do not get embarrassed by this sort of result any more, of course. There’s always somebody else to blame. But the tantalising notion that somewhere, if only it can be consistently unpicked, there might just be something about this team that can be exploited by others in the Premier League if only they can get over their fear of playing them. It’s true to say none of these matches featured a full-strength City team, but Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bristol City and now Wigan Athletic have all given Guardiola plenty more to think about this season than many more apparently illustrious teams from the Premier League. There will be a certain sting to the fact that there will be no quadruple of major trophies, but winning the Premier League title again or the Champions League for the first time would surely ease this discomfort to a point some distance beyond irrelevance. And one bloody nose throughout the course of the season hardly diminishes the achievements of a team which has at times played some of the most sparkling football that the domestic game in England has ever seen. Or to put it another way: they’ll get over it.
But what now, for Wigan Athletic? There an be little questioning the achievements of Paul Cook over the course of this season. Wigan may have spent the last few seasons bouncing between League One and the Championship without settling in either, but this season has seen his team settle into a battle for promotion back to the second tier, whilst a hat-trick of wins against Premier League opposition – no-one could reasonably argue that they don’t deserve their place in the quarter-finals of the competition – leaves the club one win, at home in the next round against a moribund Southampton, away from the semi-finals of the competition. For most lower division clubs this might be considered a once in a lifetime opportunity, but Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup in 2013 and took Arsenal to a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals the following season. Would they eschew the possibility of winning the FA Cup from the third tier – becoming the first team to do so since its creation in 1921 – in favour of a second promotion from League One in three years? Elated supporters today might well be forgiven for thinking “Why can’t it be both?”, but the difficulty of managing this remains immense.
It’s likely that the FA Cup mattered as much as it did in the past because the final was one of the two club matches shown live on the television over the course of any given season. The multimedia global village doesn’t particularly suit this environment, and there is an element to the competition that feels a little anachronistic these days. This doesn’t however, mean that changes to the format of the competition are necessary or even desirable. We all know that remaining in fourteenth place in perpetuity is more important to many Premier League supporters than actually trying to win trophies. That is, of course, their choice. Nights like last night, or matches like the last of Sunday afternoon, however, offer pause for thought. League football can only offer drama like that seen during the closing minutes at Spotland on Saunday or with eleven minutes to play at the DW Stadium last night every once in a blue moon, and it seems completely implausible that it will happen this season. Perhaps the Premier League being a procession and the FA Cup finally becoming considerably more interesting than it had looked forty-eight hours earlier will give it a boost, as it dawns upon people again that professional football should be more about dancing around a half-empty stadium with the lid of a trophy on your head than worrying about the financial and prestige costs of losing a place at the top table for a year or two. It’s a nice thought, but likely fanciful. After all, football is Important these days, and Important Football doesn’t often seem to have too much time for enjoyment.