Opinion

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Acts of resistance warm the heart

Dan Burn is mobbed by fans after Wigan Athletic’s win over Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup at the DW Stadium last Monday. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Dan Burn is mobbed by fans after Wigan Athletic’s win over Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup at the DW Stadium last Monday. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Magic Of The FA Cup. It's one of those phrases uttered almost exclusively with sarcastic intent. Like Theresa May's 'strong and stable government' mantra, Fox News' 'fair and balanced' slogan or Richard Nixon declaring, 'I am not a crook,' it is so demonstrably and deliciously untrue as to summon an automatic cynical curl of the lip.

Magic is it, me old china? A devalued competition where the strongest clubs send out second teams that still prevail and where even the smaller fish of the Premier League spurn the prospect of success, preferring to save their players for next week's mid-table clash. Magic? Pull the other one, it plays Abide With Me.

Yet it's very hard to avoid the M word when thinking of the moment in the 93rd minute when Steve Davies lashed in the equaliser which earned Rochdale a replay at Wembley against a Spurs team who'd been expected to hammer a side which has won just five of its 29 League One matches this season.

Or when remembering both Will Grigg's superb solo effort to put Wigan Athletic 1-0 up with 11 minutes left in their fifth round match against Manchester City and the frantic finale which ensued when it seemed impossible that the outsiders could hold out. Yet they did. It was, well, magic. A magic peculiar to the FA Cup which shows why rumours of the competition's irrelevance have been exaggerated.

Professional football has entered an unprecedented age of oligarchy, one where the rich clubs get ever richer and more powerful and the Rochdales and Wigans of this world struggle to keep their heads above water. It is a world where Paul Pogba earns five times more in a week than the average League One player makes in a year.

It's a pretty nasty oligarchy too. Remember the guy who'd trained Marcus Rashford as a schoolboy wondering why Manchester United had never so much as donated a bag of footballs to his club? Think about the fact that most Premier League clubs refuse to pay their catering staff the Living Wage requisite for some form of decent life.

Yet I've seen journalists passionately defend United against the unreasonable demands of Rashford's presumptuous old coach. That Living Wage campaign always prompts furious responses by keyboard warriors showing how much they love their club by defending its right to pay catering workers less than eight quid an hour.

You could explain this by invoking the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci's theory of Hegemony whereby those at the top of an unjust system persuade those lower down that the way things are is just 'common sense'. Or maybe there will just always be people who touch the forelock to the aristocrat and suck up to the bully.

FA Cup ties offer small clubs the chance for an act of resistance. It offers them an opportunity to prove in a sporting context the truth of James Larkin's words, "The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise."

Consider the history of Rochdale AFC which in 111 years of existence has never managed to climb beyond the bottom two divisions of the Football League. Rochdale have never won either of those divisions or even the league's lower division cups. Their promotion to League One in 2010 was their first promotion in 41 years.

Imagine being a fan of a club like that, especially when a mere 10-mile journey would take you to Manchester where you'd have your choice of two of the world's biggest clubs. Now imagine what it must mean to a club for whom success has been, like the cat on the hot tin roof, a case of just hanging on to get a crack at Spurs and make a fantastic job of their big opportunity. What a holiday from grim reality it must represent.

By comparison Wigan's history has been pretty glamorous. It's just five years since they won the FA Cup at the end of an eight-season stint in the Premier League. Yet they are undoubtedly minnows by comparison to Manchester City, their annual wage bill of £16.6m mere pocket change compared to the Premier League side's £198m. Almost every club is a minnow next to Manchester City, as shown by their 4-0 Champions League win away to Basel the week before they arrived at the DW Stadium.

Wigan beating Manchester City is like Leitrim beating Dublin. Yet the latter is an actual impossibility, perhaps because, as my father used to observe, "points mean you never have a really big shock in the GAA". Carlow's magnificent obduracy in denying Dublin a goal in last year's Leinster Championship didn't really matter because the Dubs were able to rain over points.

Soccer is different because sometimes goals are pretty hard to score. Diligence, tactical nous and a bit of luck can be great levellers. Hence the inability of a City side which had scored 114 goals in its previous 43 games to find even one against Wigan. That failure delivered one of the biggest FA Cup shocks of all time.

One of the great joys of such shocks is the colossally bad spirit in which they tend to be taken by the Premier League clubs involved. The big guns tend to approach these matches in the manner of a Wall Street billionaire who's been asked to share a table with the woman who cleans his office. City were no exception. Pep Guardiola's demeanour in his half-time tunnel contretemps with Wigan manager Paul Cook displayed a certain outrage at the home side's temerity in giving him such an uncomfortable evening.

Similar considerations may have motivated Sergio Aguero's punching of a Wigan fan after the game. City claim the supporter spat at Aguero and perhaps they're telling the truth. Yet at the very same time City fans were throwing things at Wigan stewards and police without any notable provocation from either of those parties. City's desire to make Wigan's pitch invasion the big story seems like a bid to obscure the true meaning of the night. These clubs who think they can bury everyone else under an avalanche of money don't like it up 'em.

The majority of Irish soccer fans won't fully realise what the last week meant to fans of Rochdale and Wigan. That's because most of those fans follow an English club which they picked when younger solely because it was extremely successful.

They tend to condescend to clubs outside the Premier League because they do not realise what it's like to follow Rochdale because you're from Rochdale and your father followed Rochdale and you can no more switch your allegiance than a Carlow man could start supporting the Dubs because they win more things.

The League of Ireland fan understands because we know what it's like to be the wretched of the earth. I wasn't surprised to get phone calls and emails from the members of my family immediately after the final whistle blew at Spotland Stadium on Sunday. But if that was satisfying, what happened on Monday night was nirvana.

Because masterminding Wigan's victory was none other than Paul Cook, who 11 years ago arrived in Sligo, a managerial neophyte who'd just been sacked by Southport after six months in his first job. In five years at the Showgrounds he steered the club to two FAI Cups and one League Cup and runners-up spot in the league, his teams producing football of a stylishness which not just Rovers but the League of Ireland had rarely witnessed and creating a level of excitement in Sligo that even that soccer-mad town had never before experienced. No-one who saw those teams in action doubted that he would make a success of his return to management in England.

He has. Cook brought Chesterfield promotion to League One and into the promotion play-offs in that division, gave Portsmouth a League Two title and now has Wigan in third place in League One, three points off the leaders with three games in hand. He will go higher still. Expect to see Paul Cook in the Premier League, notwithstanding the current suspicion of English managers which prevails in the top flight.

Yet, though the man has moved on, one of the most cheering things about Monday night was how he still seems the same old Cookie once idolised in Sligo. The hoarseness in the after-match interview after 90 minutes and the generosity of spirit which saw him praise Manchester City to the hilt were typical.

His refusal to back down from Guardiola in the tunnel displayed that Scouse irascibility remembered with fondness in our corner of the North-West. What a man.

And what a week. The football world will soon resume its usual pattern, the rich will roll over the poor without a second thought and these acts of resistance will seem no more than spits into the wind. But when pickings are slim for Rochdale fans the memory of that last-gasp goal scored by a man who in his time at Derby County had six operations in three years, one of which required the insertion of ten metal plates in a fractured skull, will bring a smile and a reminder that the game is always worth the candle for those who keep the faith against all odds.

They can be heroes just for one day. They can kick against the pricks.

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