Wednesday 13 December 2017

Cup only provides fleeting memories in the age of hype

THERE'S nothing like Christmas to send people down the road of reminiscence. Selection boxes were bigger and tastier when you were a child than they are today; being hit with a snowball was funny rather than painful; and the original version of every film from 'A Christmas Carol' to 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' is superior to its new, digitally enhanced re-make.

The last two days have been football's annual equivalent, a nostalgia-filled, memory-driven weekend of the way things used to be in the days when finishing fourth in the top division was considered a failure rather than an achievement.

It's easy to be cynical about the FA Cup third round, but there is something strangely quaint about the weekend once the nonsense of tricky draws and associated 'magic' is stripped away.

The 1970s had second division Sunderland beating an all-conquering Leeds, and Arsenal scoring in injury-time to beat Manchester United, having thrown away a two-goal lead.

The '80s gave us Ricky Villa jinking through half of the Manchester City team in the final, Keith Houchen's diving header for Coventry and Wimbledon beating Liverpool in the only game ever played by Dennis Wise, Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu that could be described as a fairytale.

The second final of the '90s was the beginning of the end for Paul Gascoigne's career and in 1999, Ryan Giggs shattered both Arsenal dreams and his image as a sex symbol when he ran through the Gunners' defence to score before taking off his shirt in celebration and revealing a small rug of hair on his chest.

It's not necessary to have been watching, or even alive, to know about such moments such is their iconic status but, until yesterday, the relevance of the cup would have been difficult to explain to anybody not old enough to remember that there was once such a European competition as the Cup Winners' Cup.


Leeds' victory at Old Trafford was a welcome surprise in a sport which is becoming overly predictable but, other than for their supporters and a few Manchester United players in whom Alex Ferguson seems to have lost faith, yesterday's result won't have lasting consequences.

That now seems to be the role of the FA Cup: interesting for a day, then almost immediately forgotten. Last season's final provided a historic moment of the quickest goal ever scored in the decider, yet Louis Saha's strike has barely registered on the football psyche.

Instead, many still think Roberto Di Matteo holds the honour, as his goal for Chelsea against Middlesbrough in 1997 came towards the end of a period when the FA Cup seemed to have some relevance.

Even for those television companies who bang on about the cup's tradition and then insist on kick-off times of Sunday at 6.15, it must be difficult to argue that the competition is now anything other than a sideshow. Silverware is nice but it doesn't mean much when the bank manager comes calling -- just ask Portsmouth.

Next up on the never-ending football treadmill is the Carling Cup semi-final, which sees United play Manchester City and by Thursday there will either be a portrayal of United in crisis or City having a long way to go. Either way, the Leeds result and its winning goalscorer will be consigned to an awkward quiz question next Christmas.

The second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final comes before the FA Cup fourth round and then the behemoths of the Champions League and Premier League begin to stir.

Judging by the paucity of decent matches in yesterday's draw, there won't have been too many diaries marked as reminders of the fourth round.

But rather than mimic the hype and hysteria that habitually surrounds Super Sunday, Magic Monday or Tremendous Tuesday, the FA Cup could simply portray itself as something different from the hyperbole which consumes, then corrodes other competitions.

Imagine an advertising campaign which viewers are simply told the truth rather than asked to believe that when teams can't pass the ball 10 yards and tackles fly in with the timing of a broken watch, this somehow represents "a real Cup tie".

"You'll enjoy this because the teams are so bad that there'll probably be lots of goals," would be a more honest introduction to the vast majority of cup matches and, unlikely as it seems, it could catch on with those who are tired of being force-fed on tradition and potential banana skins.

It might even make for some fond memories.

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