Stubborn As A Mule, The FA Cup Continues To Frustrate
Everyone loves to say that they still enjoy and respect the FA Cup. From obsequious television hosts to misty-eyed hacks, from duplicitous managers to administrators who aren’t quite certain which century we’re living in, it’s short code for “I’m a real football man.” Never mind that, to all intents and purposes for most of these people, the competition may well not start until the middle of November. Never mind that the tinkering of this generation of people has reduced the world’s oldest football competition to the husk that it is today. The FA Cup isn’t big box office any more, and wringing one’s hands over it whilst offering suggestions that will almost certainly further hasten its increasingly imminent appearing demise rapidly seems to be displacing it as one of our preferred annual sporting events.
There are some of us on the sidelines who genuinely believe in the competition, but that number is dwindling. There comes a point when even those of us with the rosiest of tints in our glasses lenses start to understand that not even the degree of colorisation that we apply to it all can hide the fact that brown is brown. To be clear, the blame for this doesn’t rest anywhere near the smallest of clubs in the competition, those who begin their journeys in the competition before the summer has even begun to end. The dull clanking sound of “what’s the point?” grows over time, reaching a crescendo in the first week of January when, still feeling bloated and gaseous from gorging on the Christmas and New Year schedules, the Premier League clubs waddle into view with their under-strength teams, banks of empty plastic tip-up seats, and the feeling that they’re only here out of a diminishing sense of obligation.
Of course, we might say that this hasn’t been a very good year for the competition. That tingling feeling of schädenfreude that we feel when one of the bigger clubs gets biffed on the nose has been noticeable only by its absence this year, and might even have been still further diminished by the suspicion that their contempt for it all is now so open that they barely even pretend to feel chastened by it when it does happen. And you can’t force people to care about things. It would be easy to blame “the FA Cup” for the paucity of excitement this year, but that feels a little too abstract to make much sense. The competition’s would-be reformers, already aware of the fact that they hold the vast majority of the power in the game, and that the only thing standing in the way of reshaping it to meet both their short and longer terms hopes is public opinion, are careful to imply that change will bring revitalisation. They understand that, even for those who may have suppressed it, this particular competition holds a deep-seated place in our collective psyche.
So they lobby. Anything that has been pushed into the public sphere in terms of reforming the FA Cup has probably been privately discussed for months, if not years. The idea of scrapping replays – never mind the loss to smaller clubs of the possibility of earning a little extra money and the fact that penalty shoot-outs after ninety minutes may well benefit bigger clubs with better players more than replays ever could – has been touched upon with increasing frequency in recent years. The idea of moving the entire competition to midweek from January on is similarly one of those ideas that feels moulded for non-footballing reasons. The Premier League would, after all, doubtlessly love to have months of uninterrupted Saturdays and Sundays to itself rather than the stop-start motion of January and February.
The longer that time goes on, the more it feels as if it might even possible that the clubs are making it deliberately bad this season. There was some gallows humour to be had in the fact that Steve Bruce came out in favour of scrapping replays and then saw his team force one against the team that his might have played more than any other over the last three years or so. Arsenal were profligate in front of goal and didn’t play at anything like full pelt, but at the camera shots at the end of the match showed Hull supporters celebrating grinding out a draw there rather than turning almost tumescent with rage at the possible effect that the result might have on their chances of getting back into the Premier League. Funny, that.
Where there was the possibility of gilded blood being spilt, there was little room for excitement. Could Leeds United beating Watford really be classified as a “giant-killing”? And is it possible to find much energy to get behind a team managed by Steve Evans and owned by Massimo Cellino unless you’ve been stuck with that club for the whole of your life? Such existential questions were ultimately dodged when Watford squeaked through by slenderest of margins. In the other three o’clock kick-off, Reading beat West Bromwich Albion by three goals to one, a surprise result that didn’t really feel much like a surprise result. Still, Reading – who, one suspects, would benefit significantly from returning to their original nickname of “The Biscuitmen” – will represent the Football League in the quarter-finals of the competition.
Bournemouth, meanwhile, can concentrate on Premier League survival. They should have taken a first half lead after having been awarded a first half penalty kick which Charlie Daniels missed, but two second half Everton goals from Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku kept the wolves from Roberto Martinez’s door for a little while longer. Bournemouth, it rather feels, will probably be okay in the Premier League come the end of this season – there are, on the balance of what we’ve seen over the last five or six months or so, at least four worse teams than them in the division this season – and their supporters can probably expect their club to join the phalanx for whom finishing fifteenth in the league each season is now the summit of all ambition.
It feels as though we are living in an age during which change is imminent. Some people aren’t quite as rich as they believe they deserve to be, some markets aren’t playing ball by meekly surrendering to this cultural imperialism, and the risks that come from football being a sport rather than a business are painfully obvious to anybody who is on the wrong end of a defeat. There will be winners and there will be casualties. The winners will be the wealthiest, because the truth of the matter is that in modern sport they always get what they want. We, the rest, will decide whether we wish to bother continuing to engage with it all. In the case of the FA Cup, it is starting to feel as though that decision is already a done deal. And no amount of real platitudes from “Real Football Men” is likely to change that.
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