I don’t recall, as an 11-year-old, being aware I was watching an exhibition of sport as a thinly disguised substitute for war, writes Liam Mackey.
If there’s one thing better than a cup game then it’s a cup replay.
Or so it seemed to my young eyes, watching enthralled as the black and white TV blazed with live coverage of Chelsea versus Leeds United in the 1970 FA Cup final.
The match, played on a bog of a Wembley pitch churned up by the Horse Of The Year show which, astonishingly, had been held just a week earlier, is nowadays not so fondly remembered by many as the most violent cup final ever, the two sides setting about each other with malicious intent right from the first whistle, encouraged by the leniency of a referee, Eric Jennings, who booked only one player over the course of a juggernaut collision which, according to no less an authority than David Elleray, would have produced at least six red cards and 20 yellows in the modern era.
Not so, 47 years ago for, as Hugh McIlvanney memorably observed in his match report on the day: “At times it appeared Mr Jennings would give a free-kick only on production of a death certificate.”
To be honest, I don’t recall, as an 11-year-old, being aware I was watching an exhibition of sport as a thinly disguised substitute for war. And if I was, I certainly wasn’t the least bit troubled by it. All that mattered to me in that era of starvation rations for televised football was that this was a rare opportunity to watch some of the game’s household names — Giles, Gray, Bremner, Clarke, Lorimer, Osgood, Cooke, Harris — in action on the grand if pock-marked stage, an experience to be relished all the more when it was prolonged into a full 30 minutes of extra-time.
And even then the two sides couldn’t be separated, a 2-2 draw at the end of 120 minutes necessitating — oh joy of joys! — the first post-war FA Cup final replay. Held under lights at Old Trafford, this was another gripping slug-fest which — hooray! — again went to extra-time before David Webb, capitalising on a misdirected Jack Charlton header, bundled the ball home at the far post to win it 2-1 for the Londoners.
As for this enraptured young viewer, being entirely insensitive to the fact the few players who still had legs attached were barely able to stand, let alone run, at the end of the gruelling marathon, I would have been more than happy if they’d had to come back for still more, please.
Because, if there is one thing better than a cup replay, then it’s a replay of a replay. Or even a replay of a replay of a replay: the one-off drama elongated into an epic box set.
En route to their famous 1979 FA Cup triumph, Arsenal had to play Sheffield Wednesday no less than five times, but the record is the six ties it took before Alvechurch saw off Oxford City to reach the first round proper in 1971, finally prevailing in the fifth replay by one goal to nil after 2–2, 1–1, 1–1, 0–0 and 0-0 draws.
Revisiting the bonkers saga a few years ago, Alvechurch’s Graham Allner recalled: “We played each other six times in less than three weeks - Saturday, Tuesday, Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Monday - and four of those games went to extra-time. Plus we had a league game in between, and we all had full-time jobs as well. Then we had to play Aldershot in the first round proper on the Wednesday, two days after we finally beat Oxford, by which time we were on our knees.”
Not surprisingly, the non-league troopers lost 4-2 but, with the advent of penalty shoot-outs at the end of the first replay meaning the Alvechurch-Oxford City experience can never be repeated, the clubs at least get to share the reward of a permanent place in FA Cup history.
Now, sadly but perhaps inevitably, the replay itself looks increasingly like it’s destined for a place in the same museum. Just this season, the quarter-finals of the FA Cup have been added to the semis and the final as replay-free zones and, following his side’s 3-1 defeat at Leicester this week, Derby County manager Steve McClaren added his voice to growing calls for replays to be abolished altogether.
Between them, McClaren and Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri made 18 changes from the first game, shining an unforgiving light on a once glorious competition’s now humble place on the totem pole, well below attaining promotion to, or avoiding relegation from, the Premier League.
“We didn’t need this replay,” said McClaren. “I don’t think Leicester needed this replay, and I think maybe the FA have to look at this competition and say, ‘Let’s just have one tie’, because nobody wanted this replay. You could see that.”
That was certainly the case on Wednesday night for the duration of a 90-minute snore-fest at the King Power which, much to everyone’s relief, was followed by a more entertaining 30 minutes of extra-time, illuminated by two great goals from Wilfred Ndidi and Demari Gray, the latter a particularly thrilling solo effort which recalled famous FA Cup goals by Ricky Villa and Ryan Giggs — both of which, ironically enough, were also scored in replays.
And while it was nice to hear the home crowd raised in voice behind their embattled manager again, even the BBC Match Of The Day team — who must be contractually obliged to make the most of their tiny slice of the live TV pie — couldn’t spin the positive outcome for Leicester as anything other than a mildly pleasant diversion next to the perceived win or bust stakes attending the Foxes’ relegation six-pointer away to Swansea tomorrow.
As a greybeard for whom the incomparable romance of this great knock-out competition was a major factor in my originally falling under the spell of the beautiful game, it pains me now to have to admit I think McClaren is probably on the right track, and that the total abolition of the replay might well be the latest heavy but necessary price to be paid if the FA Cup isn’t to degenerate still further into a hollow showcase reserved exclusively for plucky minnows and the reserve teams of elite clubs.
The only consolation, I suppose, is that they’ll never stop us replaying the greatest games in the mind’s eye.
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