We live in an age during which, if I may be permitted to mangle the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus for a moment, change is the only constant. Professional football is changing, both on the pitch and away from it, and no-one knows for certain where, exactly, this will all end up. Yet, for all the turbulence of the modern game, there remain some traditions that cling to continuity with an obduracy that most likely infuriates the sensibilities of the most radical modernisers. In England, the philosophical trade-off made by many with an interest in the game is that, for all of the milking of the cash cow that goes on by, it often feels, anybody that can make a pound or two from it, we have certain conventions of which alteration would be beyond the pale, and one of the more understated of these is the weekend of the First Round of the FA Cup.
Football in England is unique in its depth and breadth, with a pyramid shaped league structure that fans out to reach almost every town, city and village in the country, and the theoretical route from grounds that may appear to be little more than roped off park pitches in August to the relative opulence of Wembley stadium and the eyes of something approaching a global audience the following May, no matter how improbable it indisputably is, remains a seductive one. Romance may count for little in the cut-throat world of professional sport when set against the twin modern Gods of money and attention, but to have the opportunity to dream is the elixir that keeps many of us connected to this game, no matter how irrational our emotions may be.
The start of November is a time of year that wreaks havoc upon our senses. The pungent sounds and smells of Bonfire Night, the shock of wind chill flashing across our faces and evenings that draw in at a frightening pace make the end of autumn and the start of winter feel like the death of the old and the beginning of a period of stasis before the spring shakes us awake again. And marking this transition in the altogether inconsequential world of sport comes the First Round (“Proper,” if you’re the sort of person who addresses people by their full name, including title) of the oldest football competition in the world, the FA Cup, the junction at which the cut-off point between “league” and “non-league” meet.
Can there be giant-killings at this stage of the competition, though? The answer to this question may be a somewhat murky one, especially as the waters that once separated the professionals from the rest have become increasingly muddied over the last two decades or so, but the presence of such names as Preston North End, the invincible double winners of 1889, Sheffield United, the last team to lose an FA Cup final to a non-league club (even if that non-league club was Tottenham Hotspur and the gap between between the Football League and the Southern League was, at the time, very little of a gap at all) in 1901, and plenty of others reach deeply into the fabric of the history of the game in this country. The heavy artillery of the Premier League and the Championship doesn’t pitch up here until the first week in January, but there are still targets to aim at this weekend.
This stage of this competition also allows us to indulge in a little, for the want of a better word, androgyny, in a footballing sense, at least. A little over a decade ago, Exeter City were minnows in excelsis when taking the pitch at Old Trafford in the Third Round against Manchester United. Earlier this evening, however, it was they who were there to be shot at, as a long trip north to Cheshire to play non-league Warrington Town in front of the all-seeing cameras of the BBC ended in defeat by a single goal. At the time of writing, Exeter supporters may be feeling a little uncomfortable over all of this, but perhaps they can take some solace over this role reversal. The Davids became, perhaps for one weekend only, the Goliaths, and with a single slingshot they became the first Football League club to be eliminated from this year’s competition, but at least they can concentrate on the league now. Every cloud has a silver lining, Grecians, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.
And this, perhaps, is why we’re all here. I’m not going to lecture you about the “magic of the cup,” or any of the other lines that will be copied and pasted from the media’s big spreadsheet of football clichés over the course of the next forty-eight hours or so. Perhaps we’re here because variety is the spice of life, because while we are fed a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week diet of domestic and pan-continental superstars, it can be fun to pull on a big, heavy overcoat and stand on a freezing terrace, surrounded by the smell of rancid hot dogs and Bovril, shouting ourselves hoarse as the chill of the winter wind scours our lungs. If the FA Cup pales in significance these days in comparison with the behemoths that are the Champions League and the Premier League, then perhaps this competition should be fun. After all, at a time during which this game takes itself so seriously as to be almost beyond parody, perhaps we could all do with a little more of that in our lives.
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