BBC Radio’s FA Cup: When National Treasures Collide

by | Jan 13, 2021

The Football Association Challenge Cup (the FA Cup’s full name, even if the FA themselves don’t use it anymore) remains the world’s best football cup competition.

This is by no means because of its third round proper. Yes, 2021’s third round proper was an exception to that long-standing rule. A terrific example of the genre, including a healthy portion of shock results (Sheffield United won, for a start). But the real joy for me came from listening to it on various media outlets, all beginning with the words “BBC Radio.”

After too much Talksport Radio over Christmas, I was ready for some Beeb. And my personal situation (one telly’s red button not working, snooker and gameshows on the other one) dictated that FA Cup third round weekend on the radio would provide my fix. Also, while the Cup was all over the telly, too, the pictures added nothing to radio’s eloquence, insight and humour, bar Alan Shearer’s hats at Arsenal and Marine.

Cameos from darker punditry times – Chris Waddle, Terry Butcher, Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton – highlighted the quality of the ‘new’ BBC Radio generation, as exemplified by Stephen Warnock and his unexpected glasses. Warnock has been on the media scene since retiring as a player in2018 and, along with fellow Lancastrian Leon Osman, is part of a wave of ubiquitous pundits whose BBC work puts many of their immediate predecessors to shame. The source material helped make this FA Cup weekend so enjoyable. But the variety of fresher Beeb voices helped further. Who the hell was Alan Green, anyway?

Covid added a new set of underdogs to the non-leaguers and lower leaguers who normally attract the attention and occasionally make the third round headlines and history, wiping out first-team squads at Aston Villa and Derby County, forcing both clubs to field their least-experienced teams since their first ones. The Villa kids’ headlong dive into plucky territory against Liverpool on Friday night wasn’t on the Beeb. But Chorley v Derby was all over it. And the Beeb were all over Chorley v Derby.

Commentators John Murray and Pat Nevin expertly established the real underdogs. It was, after all, literally men against boys. As it was when my team, Isthmian League Kingstonian, dismantled League Two Macclesfield’s loanees and kids in last year’s Cup. And Derby were further hampered by having to field a mix of teens and twenty-somethings instead of a specific underage side. Nevin was particularly hot on how academy football experience ill-prepared Derby’s kids for Chorley’s “old school” physicality and directness. In fact, Nevin apologised long before the end for saying “old school” so often.

The ‘source material’ helped the quality of this coverage more than at any other game. Chorley’s opening scorer, Connor Hall, and manager Jim Vermiglio hit an entire symphony of right notes in a pair of outstanding immediate post-match interviews. Certainly more right notes than were evident in the team’s much-trailed even more immediate post-match rendition of what wasn’t immediately recognisable as Adele’s song “Someone Like You.”

Hall, as you’d expect from a Lancashire club striker born in Slough, picked…Newcastle United as his dream fourth-round draw. While Vermiglio paid fulsome and heartfelt tribute to groundsman Ben Kay, whose overnight vigil at the ground ensured that the game could go ahead. “I face-timed him at 6am,” Vermiglio revealed, “and someone else answered the phone and showed him fast asleep in the middle of the pitch.”

There were opportunities a-plenty to wheel out all the non-league stereotypes about a team of (insert day-jobs here) against the “big boys.” Derby, of course, didn’t fit the “big boys” stereotype. But both Hall and Vermiglio went way beyond non-league stereotypes. Vermiglio’s week as a primary school head teacher would have exhausted the best of humanity by itself. It is to his huge credit that he carried himself so magnificently on club duty too, which pitchside interviewer Gary Flintoff facilitated superbly.

The only remotely bum note was presenter Mark Chapman’s occasional references to “Charley” FC, as he mixed Chorley and Derby in his head (though this was less embarrassing than the frequent repetition of “Chorley not?” which bounced around the Non-League Paper offices after a previous Cup triumph). Expect Chorley people to reference “Mork Chapman” at every opportunity which presents itself if the BBC pay due attention to their fourth-round hosting of Premier League Wolves, a plum tie Chorley thoroughly earned last Saturday.

It was harder not to patronise Marine, the FA Cup’s biggest-ever underdogs, in terms of the league places between the sides. There was particular focus on the binman and Sainsburys worker in their line-up, although it wasn’t clear if the latter was a shelf-stacker or deputy CEO. And Tottenham led the EPL when the draw was made. But Sunday’s narrative of a strong Spurs side was instantly undermined by the words “in goal, Joe Hart.” And Marine’s current lowly status was allowed to mask the fact that Sunday was their second third round tie, having lost 3-1 to Crewe at that stage in 1993.

The telly featured more of the Shearer hat range. But the radio maxed out on the quirkiness of the occasion, the “sideways look” taken by media outlets searching for laughs. Indeed, commentators Murray and Trevor “I played here for Mickleover Sports” Sinclair had a sideways view of sorts. They were stationed behind one of the goals, as hard a place to watch a game as it sounds, (as I know from my evening in the behind-the-goal press box at Boston United’s old York Street ground). And Murray seemed genuinely worried as Spurs’ early ill-directed shooting threatened to pick him out.

Thankfully, Radio Five Live chose a coherent representative of the many Marine fans watching from pitchside gardens. Marine chairman Paul Leary was another fine interviewee. And mercifully little was made of Marine’s boss Neil Young being called, well, Neil Young. After all, the radio audience are likely too young for “Rocking in the Free World,” let alone Buffalo Springfield…or rock music’s greatest rhyming couplet (“The King is gone but he’s not forgotten, this is the story of Johnny Rotten”). Actually, the presence of Young, a Michael Howard and a James Joyce suggested that Marine’s pre-match prep involved a trip to the local deed poll office.

The best of Sunday, though, was at League Two Crawley Town. A cursory glance at the list of lower-ranked teams to have FA Cup ‘giant-killed’ Leeds United might have led some to make Crawley pre-match favourites, Chorley-style. And Crawley were more in control of the second half than Chorley were for most of their match.

Terry Butcher’s analysis was not the zenith of BBC Radio’s weekend. Or Butcher’s, you’d hope. He seemed genuinely surprised by Leeds’ style of play, as if he’d not watched them since Marcelo Bielsa became Leeds supremo…TWO…AND…A…HALF…YEARS…AGO. And he revealed a more detailed knowledge (i.e. any) of their 1972 FA Cup winners, “Sniffer” Clarke with the goal, Mick Jones breaking his arm etc…

Again, the source material was rich. Crawly manager Johnny Yems, more London than Harry Redknapp and Stuart Pearce combined, was the sort of rent-a-quote presence for which you’d definitely pay whatever rent is charged. But the most affecting interviews of the whole weekend came from the scorer of Crawley’s magnificent opening goal, Nick Tsaroulla,

The Bristolian Cypriot under-21 international was out of football for a year and his Spurs’ career was ended in the aftermath of an horrific car accident in 2018. “It’s been a tough road and it means a lot,” he said immediately post-match, his voice breaking up. And he later tearfully insisted to Flintoff that “anyone can come back from anything,” expressing the hope that he could “inspire someone else out there, who’s going through something like me” and apologising to a respectfully understanding Flintoff for his struggle to talk through the tears.

One advantage that the BBC possesses over rivals such as TalkSport is their extensive local radio network. A commenter on the ;Digital Spy’ forum noted that TalkSport’s resources were “considerably stretched” by covering nine Cup games instead of six on a normal EPL weekend. The Beeb has resources nationwide. And they applied them to good effect.

On Saturday evening, the gap between the 3pm kick-offs and Arsenal/Newcastle was memorably filled, and more, by BBC Radio Lancashire’s unashamedly pro-Blackpool coverage of the Tangerines’ penalty shoot-out triumph over “Big” Sam Allardyce’s West Brom. This featured “Lancashire legend” Brett Ormerod as co-commentator, rocking the sort of strong local brogue you’d expect from Paddy McGuinness doing an impression of a Paddy McGuinness impressionist.

And the weekend drew to a close with as Welsh a guttural scream as I’ve ever heard, when I hit the BBC Wales button by mistake in my rush to check out Brighton’s late “winner,” against Newport County, only to gatecrash the party to celebrate County’s 96th-minute own-goal equaliser. Here, I was genuinely spoilt for choice, as the Radio Five Live analyst’s chair was eloquently and impressively filled by Wales women’s manager Jayne Ludlow.

A diversity of voices covered the whole weekend, although I wasn’t expecting such a ferocious battle between pundits to determine the most Dublin accent. Ex-Spurs defender Stephen Kelly’s early sprint for the line at the Boreham Wood/Millwall tie on Saturday lunchtime was overtaken at speed by ex-Nottingham Forest midfielder Andy Reid’s insertion of multiple vowel sounds into the word “first” as he endured Arsenal/Newcastle that evening.

And the fall-out from Beeb Radio’s third-round coverage continues. As I typed this, Murray was regaling listeners to the Burnley/Man Yoo EPL game with tales of “Birdpoo corner” (polite version) at Marine and the very subsequent discovery of a neatly-wrapped pigeon deposit in his bag. This is literally NOT the sort of sh*te you get on TalkSport. What a weekend.

The BBC and the FA Cup are institutions which the representatives of new money in government and elite football would have you believe are showing their age. Neither institution is without its problems. The BBC’s impartiality will always offend someone in these divisive political times. And despite my huge FA Cup evangelism, the sight of empty spaces at Wembley for the 1993 final replay still feels, 27 years on, like the start of an inch-by-inch decline, it perhaps not being entirely co-incidental that 1992/93 was the EPL’s debut season.

Yet this weekend showed example-after-example of the everlasting qualities of both institutions. Many people who complain at having to pay the BBC licence fee will gladly pay way more for their live football. The FA Cup is still a unique reminder that our National Game IS a national game, as well as the most effective redistributor of wealth as football’s money-grabbing elite continue to do just that.

And when their worlds collide, as they did last weekend, they are a marvel. Not to be sneered at. But to be treasured.