The FA Cup Second Round: Spoilt for Choice

by | Nov 29, 2020

Like many, I continue to prefer the live experience to watching football on the television. Sometimes, though, life throws you lemons (or, more specifically two small children), and the television has to suffice. For a couple of years prior to the start of the pandemic, I was essentially an armchair supporter. Getting two small boys – ages five and three, a period during which they they can turn kissing each other goodnight into something requiring a Kent Walton commentary – to any form of football match was a logistical challenge, and it wasn’t even a challenge that guaranteed anything like watching a football match. When they turn they turn, and they don’t care if there are still twenty minutes to play when they do.

Of course, that all feels a time of great plenty, now. Under the old, pre-lockdown restrictions, I could go to a match if I wanted to – on one occasion I did, dragging my kids to Southwick for their first league match of the season – but now even that option isn’t there any more. But watching mostly on the television has changed the way in which I watch the game. Broadly speaking, for example, I’m not much more interested in analytics than I was ten years ago, but I certainly give them more credence than I used to, and I’m likely to be impressed, should throw an impressive statistic at me. I’m not suddenly sitting here like Nate Silver or anything like that – I probably won’t be seeking them out – but I’m receptive to them, and I didn’t used to be.

An unholy trinity of watching matches on the television, consuming as much football coverage online as possible and video games has done that to me, but the social element of watching the game does remain important to me. And even when watching a match on the television, there remained the feeling that a decent atmosphere inside a ground can lift a match. It helps to suck you in. And regardless of one’s feelings on the subject of broadcasters adding fake crowd noise during matches, we can surely all agree that the current choice of players voices bouncing back off cold concrete walls or the unnaturally undulating white noise of artificially applied crowd effects aren’t an improvement on having real crowds there.

Choice is another matter in which my perception has been changed in recent years. I used to bemoan the fact that there was so little football on the television during the 1980s. Everybody did. Those days are long gone, but one of the blessed pleasures of televised football is the lack of choice that they still give you. There’s a match on at a certain time. It’s the only match on. Take it or leave it. It’s not the level of choice that the 21st century consumer has become used to, of course, and many get distraught every time their team can’t be seen live on the television. But necessity has started to chip away at it, over the years.

There was never any ‘politeness’ about any of it. As football’s voracious need for more money continues unabashed, the schedules have become increasingly clogged up, and clashes are now far more commonplace than they used to be. On most Saturday lunchtimes and evenings, there is a choice of a Premier League match or an EFL match, while the EFL also tends to schedule matches on Champions League group nights, too, and the Premier League has scheduled matches on FA Cup Final day. There aren’t too many innocent parties in this rush towards a dog eat dog world, and in terms of my football consumption, that’s just the EFL, and the Premier League, a list to which I could add the National League, WSL, and the non-league clubs whose highlights I watch on YouTube as  being those those matches I watch as much of as possible. And no, no I don’t really have the time for European club football.

So Amazon’s Boxing Day extravaganza last year brought me out in hives, and the early rounds of the FA Cup have left me in this state, as well. This weekend was Second Round weekend, and at 1.30 this afternoon BBC IPlayer began showing live coverage across seven different matches. So you have to invoke the process by which you decide which one to go for. Mind goes something like this: Is the (or “a”) team that I support playing? Is a team that I’d really like to see lose playing? Is a match of any particular importance at the top or bottom of a league table? Do I have any interest in either of the teams, even a fleeting one? What’s the likelihood of a lot of goals? What are the kits like? In In more or less that order.

As something approaching a footballing hobo myself, I can understand the agony of choice. I’ve lived in several different cities and have allegiances of little to no consequence in each of them, and prefer exploring an area’s football culture rather than becoming too attached to one club, though I have life-long “fanhoods.” You can literally be in one place at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, so you have to make a decision. It’s an agony that the season ticket holder cannot appreciate. Their choice is made before the season starts, backed up by a financial investment of several hundred pounds. It’s a merit that I’d not given much thought to, when thinking about buying one for me and the boys a while back, but I thought about it quite a lot at 1.30 this afternoon.

Seven matches! How on earth am I supposed to choose between them? There was little between the matches to recommend any of them specifically. No small, packed grounds filled with ruddy-faced, beaming children holding up tin foil FA Cups. Several of the matches were EFL vs EFL, and even the one all non-league match, between Stockport County and Yeovil Town, is one of those matches that still feels as though it should be a League One or League Two match, even though they’re both in the National League this season. Stockport have been away from the EFL for almost a decade.

I chose Bristol Rovers vs Darlington in the end, though there wasn’t really a great deal in it. The Memorial Ground is, at least, a unique-looking backdrop for a football match, while Darlington are fan-owned and trying to rebuild after the club’s death was brought about by years of financial mismanagement. They’ll have to make do with just their prize money, this season, though. Bristol Rovers won by six goals to nil, including rolling in four goals in the last eighteen minutes of the first half.

By the time that half-time break came about, though, my mind was elsewhere. I’ve developed a curious interest, since the start of this pandemic, in counting how many people actually are sitting in the stands at different clubs. Now, to be clear, I’m fully aware of the fact that most of them are players, officials, directors or whatever, and I’m not going to chide anyone who has managed to sneak into a ground every week and just sits there, watching a match, preferably with people glancing at him and wondering whether he might be a youth team coach, or something. So out of idle curiosity, I flicked through all of the matches and reported my findings back to Twitter. I missed at least two of those four Bristol Rovers goals, and I nearly missed a third.

Whilst scrolling through all these matches, though, I did at least catch a glimpse of some of them which hinted at their outcome. I paused on Shrewsbury Town vs Oxford City for about five minutes, and it looked as though Shrewsbury were really labouring against semi-professional opposition. They eventually squeezed through by a goal to nil after extra time. Where there were surprises, they were low-key. Stevenage beat Hull City on penalty kicks, and Stockport beat Yeovil in the aforementioned all non-league match, a result which only most fleetingly feels like a surprise because Yeovil were in the EFL last season and Stockport haven’t been in it for nine and a half seasons. The truth, however, is that Stockport are mid-table in the National League at the moment while Yeovil are anchored to its bottom place, without a league win yet this season.

Where the significant results did come about, they were away from the gaze of the BBC’s cameras. Yesterday, Chorley justified BT Sport’s decision to televise their trip to Peterborough United with a two-one win, the real surprise result of the round. Chorley have had something of a rollercoaster ride, over the last few seasons. In 2019 they were promoted into the National League after a penalty shoot-out in the National League North play-off final. They finished bottom of the National League table last season, with just four wins from their thirty-eight league matches, and the hangover from that over-stretch has reached into this season, as well. Chorley are currently second from bottom in the National League North, with just one win from their seven league matches so far this season.

And this afternoon on Merseyside came Marine, whose 1-0 win against Havant & Waterlooville was also selected for coverage by BT Sport. Marine play in Division One North-West of the Northern Premier League. When relegation came in 2019, it dropped this Liverpool-based club into the lowest division in which they’ve played since joining the Northern Premier League in 1979, and two divisions below Havant & Waterlooville, who are in the National League South. When last season, their first at this level, was abandoned, Marine were in third place in the table, albeit thirteen points behind the leaders, Workington. They are currently in mid-table in this distracted season, though with games in hand on almost all the clubs above them in the league table, a winning run could yet push them back into the title race.

They’re going to continue with this in the next round, aren’t they? My eyes will be darting from screen to screen, trying to keep up-to-date with thirty-three simultaneous matches, quite possibly with my eyelids pinned open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. There is a limit to the amount of football that one can consume, but I haven’t quite found it yet.