Tuesday 27 June 2017

COMMENT - The magic returned to sport last weekend... but NOT In the FA Cup

Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

"It may be hard for our younger readers to believe this, but there was a time when winning the FA Cup meant just as much - and maybe even a little more - than being crowned as champions of England."

The words of Liverpool and Ireland goal scoring great John Aldridge serve as a timely reminder that the oldest cup competition of them all used to be the most glorious gem in English football’s crown.

FA Cup upsets through the ages were remembered by football fans as landmark moments in a sporting education, with the giant killing exploits that made the competition so very special captivating a nation who loved the competition as it offered up a rare chance to watch a game live on TV.

Those halcyon days were not so long ago.

In fact, just 20 years back, kids who loved the game could reel off a list of clubs who had won the FA Cup with a relish they would rarely show as their tried to memorise their mathematics or science figures.

The FA Cup was special. It was loaded with mystique and the always mesmerising third round weekend provided the perfect tonic to the early January blues.

Yet try as they might, the good people at the BBC and BT Sport struggled to convince anyone looking in on the FA Cup fourth round ‘drama’ last weekend that they were, in fact, looking in on the final embers of a competition that has long since lost its spark.

Liverpool’s reserves losing to Wolves at Anfield was a big story and yet a highly motivated Championship side taking on a shadow team of wannabes and rejects from Jurgen Klopp’s spare box was hardly FA Cup folklore at its finest.

Then there was Wycombe’s heroic effort as they lost 4-3 opponents described as ‘eight-time FA Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur’ at White Hart Lane.

Okay, the name on the team-sheet said Tottenham, but a line-up featuring Georges-Kevin Nkoudou Mbida, Harry Winks, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Josh Onomah and the embarrassingly dreadful £30m misfit Moussa Sissoko could better be described as a Spurs XI.

In essence, Mauricio Pochettino picked a team they may send into battle in a pre-season friendly at Bray Wanderers, fulfilling a commitment to turn up and not mentioning that a majority of their star names would be perched on their sofas back home.

Down the road from White Hart Lane, a crowd of 13,979 showed up to see Crystal Palace lose to Manchester City, which was a dramatic decline in comparison to the 25,529 that were present when the same two sides met in the Premier League in November.

If the managers are not interested in the FA Cup, why should fans pay to watch reserve team football? Those who decided to stay away had a valid point.

Lincoln’s win against Brighton reserves and Sutton’s win against an unrecognizable Leeds reserve side were decent stories, but the magic of old was not reignited by results that were essentially made possible because the top teams in England no longer take the FA Cup seriously.

Foreign managers lack the appetite to embrace the history of the FA Cup and while teams begin to take it seriously when they reach the latter stages of the competition, few tears are shed if they crash out in the early stages, giving them time to focus on their priority of league matches.

“Clubs care about money, whereas fans care about trophies,” suggested former England striker Alan Shearer. “That’s very unfortunate. I don’t get the resting of players. It’s crazy, I don’t understand it.”

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville offered an alternative view as he suggested the deployment of young players ‘was the right thing for the FA Cup’, yet you can’t help feel the Football Association are losing their battle to preserve the image of their precious knock-out competition in an era when clubs are not longer willing to embrace the chance to aim for Wembley glory.

The best days you will experience as a football fan will be when you see your team winning a trophy, with a top four finish in the Premier League hardly an achievement that demands the open top bus to be ordered for a parade of success, yet Shearer is right to suggest clubs push cash before glory in 2017 and that is why the FA Cup has lost its sparkle.

Magic was injected into the sporting agenda last weekend as Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz fought out their epic battle in Las Vegas and it was hard not to feel a tinge of emotion watching the majestic duo of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal do battle for potentially one last time in their Australian Open final classic.

It was sport at it’s finest, not the half-baked effort to stir up interest in an FA Cup that is no longer relevant.

Football has changed forever with the rapid expansion of the Premier League and the FA Cup is one of the big casualties.

Tragic though it may be, the competition that has been on life support for a few years now simply cannot be revived.

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