NO MAGIC OF THE CUP ANYMORE

05/06/20

The decision to proceed with the FA Cup, despite the fact there will be no fans in the stadium, has caused a fair amount of debate. Here's Barclay flag guru Terri Westgate to have her say.....

The last football match I attended was at White Hart Lane, watching the heroics of Tim Krul in that dramatic penalty shootout. Experiencing the sheer joy and emotion at that final save, hugging my friends as the playing squad sprinted towards the nine thousand Canary faithful who made the journey. After many seasons of disappointment we were on a decent cup run, and there was real hope that it would spur the team on in the fight to avoid relegation.

It was a magical, special night, and many of us didn’t make it home until the early hours. I, along with hundreds of fellow fans, was on the football special train. The late hour meant the mood was subdued for the return journey, but every face was beaming. We were in the quarter finals of the FA Cup and had a winnable home tie between us and Wembley.

COVID-19 was already in the news, it had been over a month since the first case had been confirmed in the UK. I had even been quite dismissive at the idea that it would affect our lives too much. You’ll never stop people going to football matches, I casually posited.

But things moved fast, and nine days after that glorious evening in North London football was put on indefinite leave. Within a week pubs and shops were closing, infections were rising and most of us moved into isolation to leave key workers and frontline staff to face the pandemic.

For those of us safely cocooned in our homes, the extent of the unfolding epidemic seemed distant. Norwich in particular had low numbers when lockdown was enforced, so we have escaped the worst of the disease – though of course every death is a tragedy. The news became grim watching, and the daily tally of loss of life often overwhelming.

The football that we loved, which gives us nights to remember, didn’t seem important any more. Whilst NHS staff and care workers were passing away, any sport seemed irrelevant. Yet almost as soon as it was paused, people began asking when it would return. The clamour by some for Project Restart seemed ugly and ill-judged, particularly when hundreds were dying each day. It was soon apparent that the top flight at least would have to come back, to fulfil overseas TV contracts and proving once and for all that money was the boss.

Fans already disillusioned by VAR and the corporate greed within the game were even more distanced once behind closed doors became the only viable solution considered. Supporters were superfluous, it was all about completing the fixtures and televising the games. With a start date agreed, politicians and newspapers joyously proclaimed that football is coming back! Whilst most of us just shrugged at this inevitable decision to restart without us.

But then news came through that the remaining FA Cup games were also to be included in the empty stadium fixtures. For me this was devastating.

What is the FA Cup? To younger readers unaware of this history of this seminal competition, it used to be the biggest prize in the English game. That was until the riches of the Premier League and the Champions League arrived, like the devil tempting clubs to sell their soul. The FA Cup is a season long tournament, which the smallest team in theory can win. It starts at the bottom of the pyramid in August, and ends at Wembley in May.

Over the years there have been many David and Goliath matches, and occasionally the underdog would cause an upset – often in a small stadium, with stands tight against the pitch and packed to the rafters. There would always be a young fan holding a cardboard cut-out of the trophy, covered in tinfoil. This is where the magic came from, the hopes of unfancied teams and their followers battling against the odds to make it all the way. If you actually got through to the final the whole town would be caught up in cup fever, shop windows dressed in team colours and there was even a tradition of teams recording a song to mark the occasion.
But with the rise of more lucrative competitions, it began to lose its appeal with the big clubs. Whilst smaller teams could have their finances for the season saved with a tasty third round tie, those with European football to focus on would start to rest players and even put out a second string line up. The only thing that kept it alive was the upsets. Like the one we achieved against Spurs just three months ago.

Yet imagine that penalty shootout in an empty stadium. Without the sixty-two thousand fans what pressure would those players have felt? Would Spurs have been intimidated by our goalie’s shithousery? And if the result had been the same, would Krul have sprinted away with the same energy? If so, where would he have sprinted to?

The FA Cup, even more than the league, is nothing without the fans. That this once prestigious contest is to play out the latter stages in vast, vacant grounds is an insult to its 148 year history. The sight of the famous trophy being lifted to empty seats being the polar opposite of the white horse at Wembley in 1923, and could haunt it for seasons to come.

People have said that surely you would want Norwich to win the FA Cup whatever the circumstances. But for me it’s just fulfilling a commitment, seeing out a contract. A sterile completion required to keep UEFA happy. So far removed from the experience of every other team who have ever won the competition.

People have also said it is a route to European football, and therefore should be pursued. But with our country so far behind dealing with this virus, the chances of any of us fans seeing those European fixtures are slim. With the economy also taking a battering, there will be less fans able to afford to travel.

The FA gave up trying to preserve the status of their tournament years ago, and the oldest football competition in the world is seen by supporters of teams such as Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea as just a backup if their league finish was disappointing. Behind closed doors may be the final coup de grace of the once great, behemoth of the game. There will be no magic at the cup final this year. The cavernous national stadium will resound to the echoes of players’ shouts, not football chants.

All that joy I felt that night in Tottenham seems like a distant memory now, and the victory feels hollow. Fans are no longer required for the competition to continue, and my long love affair with the tournament is over. Our nation mourns forty thousand dead due to the virus, so the decline of the FA Cup may not seem that important. Yet the worst thing is not that I would want Norwich to lose our tie to Man Utd, or any that follow. The worse thing is that I no longer care if they do.

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