Tuesday 20 March 2018

Money tarnishes Cup's lustre

Eamonn Sweeney

I 've a terrible confession to make. Last Saturday I kept having a nagging feeling I'd forgotten something. Had I left the kids on the roof of the car? Gone to town with no shoes on? Neglected to prostrate myself the required number of times in the direction of The Showgrounds? Nay, nay and thrice nay. But there was something missing all the same.

That evening it hit me. I'd forgotten all about the FA Cup final. And as I watched the highlights of this year's tedium-fest that night I realised that if you'd told my younger self one day the FA Cup final would slip his mind he'd have been incredulous. Because once upon a time the FA Cup final felt like the biggest game of the year. Not only was there an enormous match-day build-up, It's A FA Cup Final Knockout, FA Cup Final Question Of Sport, Road To The Final, reporters travelling on the team bus with players who played cards thoughtfully while stroking their '70s sideburns, but you looked forward to the big day for weeks beforehand.

I knew all the landmarks of FA Cup final history, going all the way back to 1923 when a policeman on a white horse helped clear the pitch so Bolton could beat West Ham in the first ever Wembley decider. Stanley Matthews skipping down the wing in 1953 to lay on the winner for Bill Perry and have the final named after himself, Peter McParland committing GBH on Ray Wood in 1957, Nat Lofthouse putting ball and Harry Gregg into the net together a year later, David Webb arriving at the far post to nod in Ian Hutchinson's long throw in 1970, Charlie George lying on the ground with his arms raised in the air after scoring the winner in 1971, Jim Montgomery's miracle save in 1973.

And every year added a few more gems to the memory hoard. Southampton shocking Manchester United in 1976, that thrilling United team doing the same thing to Liverpool the year after, the incredible finish of the Brady final in 1979, Ricky Villa's slow-motion slalom through the Manchester City defence, Kevin Moran's agony being followed by the magical Norman Whiteside moment which redeemed the Dubliner, Keith Houchen throwing himself headlong to score the equalising goal as Coventry City beat Spurs 3-2 in 1987 in what may have been the best final of them all, Wimbledon defying all logic to beat Liverpool, Gazza crocking himself and Spurs winning anyway in 1991. The sense of anticipation was huge but the big day often delivered something appropriately extraordinary.

They called it the world's greatest club competition and it seemed to be back then, possessing a magic which even dwarfed that of the European Cup. It seemed odd that in Italy, Spain, Germany and the rest of Europe the domestic cup was almost a sideshow, of little importance beside the league. The league might have been the most important competition in English soccer but the FA Cup final was unquestionably the biggest occasion. There was nothing quite like it anywhere else.

Yet over the past decade the FA Cup has dwindled in importance. The decline has been so precipitous that the great old competition seems to be fast approaching Railway Cup territory and last Saturday offered a notable milestone in the FA Cup's progress towards the knacker's yard.

In scheduling the final for a day when there was a programme of league fixtures the football authorities showed a huge amount of disrespect to the FA Cup. Everyone could foresee the likelihood that Manchester United would clinch the Premier League title last Saturday and overshadow the FA Cup final. This is what transpired and it showed that those in charge of the game don't even bother to pretend that they're interested in the competition anymore. The exile to midweek is probably not far away.

Manchester United's decision to withdraw from the competition in 2000 so they could go on an ultimately disappointing expedition to the world club championships is often cited as a key moment in the decline of the FA Cup's prestige. But the real reasons for the decline lie in the changes wrought by the injection of television money which heralded the advent of the big bucks modern era. One reason the FA Cup final was special, to the extent that we not only tolerated having to sit through the likes of It's A Cup Final Knockout but enjoyed doing so, was that only a handful of live games were screened back then. There was something thrilling about the rare prospect of seeing 90 live minutes of Football League action. But once we became inundated with live football that USP was gone.

The FA Cup, and its less glamorous League counterpart, used to be the only domestic matches played at Wembley. But this also changed. The decision to play semi-finals at Wembley lessened the magic of the decider and when the stadium was closed for renovation the competition as a whole suffered a loss in prestige. The axing of the Cup Winners Cup by UEFA put another little dent in the armour.

Yet it was the attitude of the clubs themselves which really cemented the idea of the FA Cup as an inferior competition. All the talk in the world about the 'magic of the FA Cup' from the television companies meant little when fans saw managers field weakened teams which demonstrated that they regarded the competition as an afterthought or even an irritation to be stoically endured.

The idea that there is some advantage to be gained from fielding shadow sides in the Cup has become a cherished piece of conventional wisdom. Yet you wonder sometimes if it's not also a reflection of managerial timidity. Nobody wants to be accused of jeopardising top-flight survival by chasing success in the FA Cup even if a few cup games in a season will hardly have a disastrous effect.

We're always told that the modern-day footballer is considerably fitter and stronger than his ancestors in the game. Yet back in 1980/1981 Aston Villa were able to win a 42-game first division, the precursor to today's Premier League, while using just 14 players all season on inferior pitches at a time when only one sub was permitted. Far from being burned out, Villa went on to win the European Cup the following season. They weren't anomalous, most players in those decades endured a schedule which many contemporary stars would find hard to read let alone fulfil.

The elite sides do have the excuse of involvement in the elongated European competitions which weren't there back in the glory days of the Cup. But you'd imagine that most of the lesser lights might welcome the opportunity of the bit of glamour offered by an extended cup run. Stoke City's progress to this year's final seemed to have no negative effect on their league fortunes as they once more survived comfortably in the top flight. In the quarter-final, Stoke had a 2-1 win over West Ham United who'd rested their best striker Demba Ba with an eye on future league games. The Hammers got relegated anyway, Avram Grant's decision showing both the futility of such decisions and the sorry state of affairs when a club with such a mighty Cup tradition turns its nose up at success in the competition.

Maybe nobody cares very much about the FA Cup anymore and it will eventually be axed at the behest of the Premier League's big clubs. But there is a sad irony that in an era when Sky Sports and the likes spend a lot of time persuading you that dross is actually gold, something that was genuinely great has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Looking at an FA Cup match now is like seeing the ruins of a beautiful mansion.

And those old highlights which enlivened our youth don't feel celebratory anymore. When they're trotted out now, they have a sad elegiac look about them. They're a reminder of a time when money wasn't everything in soccer, when every promotion or relegation wasn't immediately accompanied by a mention of how much this will cost or earn the club. Tradition mattered then and loving football meant you learned about and remembered its history. If that has left the game, well then perhaps the Premier League really is nothing more than the biggest and best soap opera in town.

Maybe I didn't forget about the FA Cup final last Saturday. Maybe there's a part of me which just doesn't want to see a treasured old friend in such terrible shape.

FA Cup? RIP.


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