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Frank Roche: It breaks my heart but Cup romance is dead

READERS of a certain -- slightly pickled -- vintage will be familiar with the phrase, the romance of the Cup.

More often than not, the trophy in receipt of all this amorous attention was the FA Cup. Long before the Champions League was king, long before Sky Sports was even a twinkling in Rupert Murdoch's eye (for the endless buck), the FA Cup had a cherished place in all our childhoods.

Back then, our staple diet of TV soccer was confined to Match of the Day highlights from maybe two English games on a Saturday night, followed by ITV's The Big Match on a Sunday afternoon.

And contrary to conventional wisdom that the longest day of the year occurs on June 21, it used to happen on a Saturday in May, when terrestrial TV coverage of Cup final day would start sometime after dawn and finish long after the old Wembley was deserted.

Boy was it fun. Remember the late, late drama of Arsenal's 3-2 win over Manchester United in 1979? Or Ricky Villa's mazy dribble to win the 1981 replay for Spurs? Or Kevin Moran's historic red card in 1985, followed in extra-time by Norman Whiteside's classic curling winner? Or, two years earlier when, in the last minute of extra-time, Gordon Smith was through on goal, seemingly poised to scalp the mighty Man U and give Brighton and Hove Albion their first FA Cup?

(In case you've forgotten, legendary BBC radio commentator Peter Jones bellowed "and Smith must score" -- only for Gary Bailey to save and United to win the replay 4-0. Those four immortal words became the title for a Brighton fanzine: proof that comedy is indeed the last resort for long-suffering Seagull fans.)


Maybe young boys/adolescents simply possess more forensic memories, but Curve Ball would struggle to recall the winners, let alone who scored, in the majority of FA Cup finals played in the last decade.

There is another explanation, we suspect: the Cup doesn't matter any more. And here's some further incontrovertible proof from the weekend just gone by.

The fifth round stalemate between Bolton and Spurs was watched by 13,596. Vast swathes of the Reebok were empty. This contrasts with the 21,035 who watched the sides meet in the Premier League last October, or the average league crowd of 22,485 who watched Bolton at home last season.

Over at Eastlands, we had 28,019 paying to see another deadlocked encounter between Manchester City and Stoke. Healthy enough? Perhaps, until you consider that the corresponding league fixture on St Stephen's Day attracted 47,325 -- or that more punters (29,023) turned up for a pre-season friendly against Celtic last August.

Fulham fans have a slight excuse for the paltry 16,132 who turned up at Craven Cottage: they were playing those noted crowd-pullers, Notts County. Still, when you consider that the club had an average gate of 24,340 last season, and that here was a glorious chance to reach the last-eight of a competition they have never won, and that Fulham have never even won a single major trophy of note ... you get our drift.

True, as ITV never tires of reminding us, the FA Cup can still generate the odd shock-and-awe moment.

Leeds can go to Old Trafford and snare the giants. Reading can ruin it for Rafa at Anfield.

And yet, as the Champions League cranks into knockout gear this week and the all-powerful Premier lords supreme, you've got to wonder if anyone really still cares for this battered old relic of romance.