Nick Hayhoe is usually so positive. He sees the good in everything. Which is why this rant about the FA Cup and the FA's part in its decline is just so good.....
The announcement that Norwich’s 3rd Round FA Cup game against Portsmouth would kick off at 5.30pm to cater for ‘overseas television audiences’ seems to have been met with a derisive snort from most supporters, where the only thing one can do, when seemingly unfathomable decisions like this occur in modern football, is laugh.
Someone, somewhere, decided that a game between two teams who haven’t reached past the 5th round since 2010 was so worthy of being shown to empty airport lounges in Riyadh, Shanghai and Dallas, that there was justification to move the kick off back two hours; at a massive inconvenience to the expected large band of travelling support from the south coast - who no doubt are looking to make a good day of it in a city known for its sights and watering holes.
It is a laughable modern-footbally thing to have happened, but it is also a sadly familiar tale now for supporters when it comes to the FA Cup.
All but 10 games of the 3rd Round are to be played at other times than on the Saturday at 3pm. This is an incredibly alarming number, and the Football Supporters Federation are, as I write, trying to seek answers from the FA on their decision making but, alongside the usual PR waffle about “demand”, “maximising audiences” and so on, I wouldn’t put too much money on them simply telling the truth; that it will make them more money.
Ironically, considering its roots in the public schools of southern England, the FA Cup was always the people’s tournament.
Stripped away, league football is simply a way of ranking all of the teams in the country from the best to the worst. If you finish 16th in the 2nd tier, you know that you are the 36th best team in the country and all of the teams above you are better.
As football has progressed over history, (and, yes, even before money got involved) the clubs that normally finish near the top have tried to put lots of things in place to make sure they stay there. These teams also want to make sure their big friends are with them all of the time so that more people can watch them; and more people watching means more people are paying money to watch them. The big clubs even set up their own league to make sure this happened.
Yet, there was always the Cup. There were no “rebrands” and no en masse resignations to form a new tournament. The Cup’s structure was pretty much unchanged for decades. You played in the Cup, and it didn’t matter if a club felt it was above them to be mixing with the rabble and the riff raff down “there”.
The 3rd round, rather brilliantly, always came at a time that was an inconvenience to most big clubs - right after that busy Christmas period, almost as a show of power. A statement to say, “no, you can’t have a break and your warm weather training week. To a freezing Vale Park you must go.”
In the Cup, no teams were considered the best or worst. While your league position did change where you entered the competition, once you were in the pot you had no protection.
If you were Manchester United, your ball was the same size as the one used for Carlisle United and if you are drawn against them...well you had no choice but to play them. If Carlisle United beat Manchester United in the 90 minutes, then Carlisle United moved on to the next round and Manchester United didn’t and Manchester United couldn’t win the FA Cup because of Carlisle United. If Carlisle United drew, then they got to play Manchester United again, and it didn’t matter if Manchester United had a Champions League game against Barcelona that week. They, and all of their millionaire players and staff, still had to go to Brunton Park on a freezing Tuesday night to play Carlisle United again.
The Cup gave everyone, all of the people, the one chance to think that their team could beat a big team who were much higher than them in the rankings. Not only that, it gave a chance for teams who were not in highest divisions to still win it.
Norwich City nearly came close to doing this themselves, as they sat in the Third Division in 1959 as an otherwise ordinary lower league team and went on to beat Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United to reach the semi finals, only missing out on a trip to Wembley by a controversially disallowed goal.
The fact that the people loved the Cup is found in the sheer weight in numbers of people that went to watch the matches. Most club’s record crowds (at least those clubs from outside of the top six with their new mega-stadiums) are still from FA Cup matches from the 1950s and 1960s, where terraces swayed and strained as they sang and roared to see if their team could get that one shot at glory they had never had before.
What a football club represents has never been about winning, or its league position, or its balance sheet. Instead it represents a community, a set of ideals and a collection of hope. The Cup used to give a chance for the smaller clubs to show that they were there as well. The Cup gave all clubs the chance to be the wanker sign in the direction of authority, the two fingers up at the privileged and arrogant, the “whheeeeyyy” shout to the rich and elite.
Now, however, the rich and elite have won and they have taken it all away from us. They want to stay the rich and elite so much, they actually want to strip the soul away from a 147 year old institution. It is a robbery, a heist, and a steal. A move made by men in suits in glass office buildings with pine wooden desks and aspidistras in a world away from the terraces of Barrow and Halifax, where Bovril steams, roars were caused and dreams were made.
The criticism of the Cup at first came from a drip of propaganda. We were told continuously that the competition was of a low priority for fans on TV, that managers don’t care, it made England players exhausted, that it was disruptive to schedules and it was irrelevant in the face of the Champions League, where we should instead focus on boosting our coefficient.
All of it was spin by the richest and most privileged clubs. And, without warning and seemingly without protest, replays were eradicated, midweek fixtures were scheduled and kick off times were shifted from Saturday, 3pm so that everyone from San Diego to Auckland could ignore a match being shown with the sound off in a dive bar no matter the time of day. They stripped and sold off every part of it that made it unique and special. They ripped it away from the people.
I do not like writing negatively about football. I like to try and keep it as positive as possible because, with modern football’s destruction seemingly systematic and the (for the most part, brilliant) writing following that everywhere you look, we need to cling onto what makes it so good in the first place.
At the risk of sounding like a massive fanboy, after reading Daniel Gray’s Saturday, 3pm, last year I found myself both subsequently picking up a pen again and enjoying football more than I had done in years. The book so eloquently summarised everything that was still good about football that I too want to be a part of that celebration, to hold it and to cherish it, and I have aimed to focus my writing in this direction about the game ever since; to try and stop all that is good about it from being removed from our collective memories. But with this flagrant disregard from the FA as to what the Cup is supposed to represent, I find myself so angry I cannot stop myself from being yet another voice shouting at an organisation that is too self-serving to even care to attempt to listen.
It no longer belongs to the people. It has become a shell of its former self. It’d be easy to say enjoy it while it lasts here but, sadly, the FA Cup seems to have already gone.
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