One of the sure-fire signs of the arrival of the New Year, along with even guiltier than usual looking smokers, piles of reduced Thorntons chocolate reindeer and streets littered with sad looking, decaying Christmas Trees is that January is the season for the annual obituaries for the FA Cup. This annual debate is unlikely to ever be conclusively resolved (the likelihood of Premier League clubs, say, withdrawing from the competition seems remote and the FA deciding to end the competition remoter still) and it is worth remembering that this tournament remains, for many people that are turned off by the largesse of the Premier League and the Champions League, a shining light that continues to represent something almost indefinably magical about our game. On nights like tonight, however, it can be difficult for even the tournaments greatest zealots to muster much of a smile.
On this particular Tuesday night, Cardiff City’s match against Stoke City is competing with the humming of transfer window rumours of varying credibility, what may or may not be the self-destruction of West Ham United and the nagging suspicion that, if you flick through the channels for long enough, you’ll find a match from a European league that is ten times as exotic as this. This is the sort of match that looks enticing on paper, providing you don’t look at said sheet of paper for very long. It’s the Championship versus the Premier League and a chance for an ambitious Cardiff team, who harbour hopes of joining the Premier League at the end of this season, to chance their arm against a side that would make up the bread and butter of their season should they enter The Promised Land Of The Premier League (©, all rights reserved, etc) at the end of this season. For Stoke City, who have seen a good number of their Premier League compatriots already humbled in this year’s competition, eighth place in the Premier League means that the threat of relegation is already receding into their rear-view mirror. What better way could there be for them to mark the end of a successful “difficult second season” than a first ever appearance in an FA Cup final?
The reality is somewhat more prosaic. Ninian Park is a memory that is already starting to fade. This match was being played at The Cardiff City Stadium, a threadbare name for a stadium that seems to be waiting for naming rights with a threadbare pitch, thanks in no small part to their ground-share with the rugby club Cardiff Blues. There were banks of empty seats here this evening, too. The “Magic Of The Cup” felt a long way away this evening. Perhaps it was having an evening off. It certainly wasn’t in the faces of the players. Everyone on the pitch this evening is a highly talented athlete earning thousands of pounds every week, but precious few of them played as if they mean it. There was a point during the first half at which Jermaine Pennant (who, let us not forget, played in the 2007 Champions League Final for Liverpool against Milan) carried the ball forward before corkscrewing a shot fifteen yards wide of the Cardiff goal. The look on his face as he picked himself up off the ground said it all. It was a face that you may have seen before, on a behind the scenes shoot at a training ground. The wry smile of a practice attempt gone wrong. It wasn’t far short of being the nearest that either team came to scoring in the first ninety minutes. Extra-time was a grinding inevitability.
The match was won for Stoke City with the two moments of genuine quality that the two teams managed between them throughout the entire match. Barely a minute had been played in extra-time when Michael Tonge swung over a corner from the Stoke left that Jonathan Walters headed in at the near post. With a glimmer of daylight between the teams the match began to open up a little more but, as time ran out Stoke took the game by the scruff of the neck and began to control it in a way that they had only fleetingly in the closing stages of the first ninety minutes, and with five minutes to play Walters added a second with a shot from a narrow angle after his first shot had been blocked by Cardiff’s Gabor Gyepes. The Stoke City manager Tony Pulis, normally one of the more animated managers in the Premier League and a man who, let us not forget, turned up at The Britannia Stadium at half-time during their match against Aston Villa on the day that his mother died to sweep his team to victory because he couldn’t not be, reacted to both goals with barely a shred of emotion. The Cardiff City stadium, perhaps unsurprisingly, emptied with the second goal.
A bad match is a bad match, and to somehow blame the abstract of a cup competition would be a facile point to make. There could, however, be no doubting that there was a lifelessness to this evening’s match which betrayed a lack of interest in the competition. Stoke City won it with two moments of quality, and the feeling to be taken away from this evening is that neither side particularly wanted to be on the pitch this evening. How the Football Association square this particular circle is a critical question for the English game’s governing body and it is one which seems unlikely to be answered by many of the ideas (which some may describe as gimmicks) that have been put forward in recent months. If the annual debate about the state of the world’s oldest cup competition is not to become a perpetual one, though, some degree of reform may be necessary.
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