THE SECRET FOOTBALLER: Paying the price for faded glory of the FA Cup

Our man inside the game goes in search of the FA Cup’s lost magic...

I’m acutely aware that last week’s column started with the tried and tired cliche, “it’s that time of year again”. But we say it about everything at this time of year. Christmas obviously, New Year’s Eve and in the football world we apply it to the FA Cup third round. But we have to dress it up obviously, so we throw straplines at it like “the magic of the FA cup”. Not even I could bring myself to start this column with that old chestnut.

The BBC struggle, too.

They once drafted in the boxing promoter Don King for a TV advert in which he pretends to give the competition a makeover. “A cup? That ain’t a trophy, you need something big like a bowl! The FA Bowl. The FA super mega bowl! I want the thriller at the Villa! A man with no imagination has no wings, he cannot fly!!”

Tell me about it.

You know when the FA are sending up the world’s oldest cup competition in TV adverts, the cup has lost a little of that magic.

But why?

Well, four Premier League games in 10 days is a good starting point. The medium that the FA use to remind us of the magic of the FA Cup third round is the same medium that has helped to expose it as a spectacle. Stoke losing to Coventry isn’t particularly magical. It’s an unexpected result of course but the magic of that triumph is lost when you consider that Mark Hughes’ job was on the line and he still put out a reserve team.

Small teams aren’t beating big teams. They are beating their reserve sides. That wasn’t Arsenal’s first team Forest beat yesterday.

But so what, there’s the payday, the chance to be on TV. The plumber marking the world player of the year. There is a uniqueness about that which is so ridiculously British that we end up rooting for the plumber. We can’t help it. The underdog is in our blood. Small island mentality makes the FA Cup third round watchable.

“Goliath v David — this weekend.” When I played, I really didn’t like the FA Cup. And am on record in countless newspaper articles saying as much. I had multiple gripes about it which all stemmed from the understanding that I was playing for clubs that had no interest in winning the competition. Our interest was solely to stay in the Premier League, and you can think what you want about that but I’m here to tell you how it was and how, at a lot of clubs, it still is.

When I was eventually relegated from the Premier League, lots of my friends lost their jobs because our biggest source of revenue had been taken away from us. Players pulled out of the car park in their £100,000 cars as secretaries and cleaners walked out of buildings with cardboard boxes in their arms.

Nobody was thinking about the magic of the FA Cup at that moment, but when I dared to suggest one January that the sooner we were out of the competition so we could concentrate on our dreadful league form, the better, the papers had a field day. The hate mail I received was off the scale. I opened one letter that simply read “fuck you, from big jock”.

“Where has all the FA Cup magic gone?”

On Sunday I was watching Spurs v AFC Wimbledon. The magic is heightened here because Wimbledon are playing at Wembley, Tottenham’s temporary home. They have history here. Spurs may have won the FA Cup on this ground eight times but none of them were as magical as the previous incarnation of Wimbledon beating the favourites Liverpool 1-0 in 1988.

Ten minutes into the game and it’s 0-0. It’s freezing and yet AFC Wimbledon have brought 7,500 fans to Wembley. That’s twice as many fans as West Ham last week and three times as many as Monaco in the Champions League group stage. There is something about this competition. It is special. It doesn’t need rebranding. What it needs is an acceptance of where it sits in the list of priorities. It will never be the number one competition to win for England’s elite clubs and it will never be won again by England’s smallest clubs. But that’s not to say that it can’t do drama.

It doesn’t concern me that I didn’t win the FA Cup but I played against, and beat, the most famous clubs in this competition at different tunes of my career. And when I look back, it’s an achievement that I’m proud of.

As a kid, the FA Cup final was Saturday, right from the start when the teams left their hotel rooms to the kick-off at 3pm, to the lifting of the trophy. All the kids in our street would play football out in the road after the final had finished. Recreating the goals. This year the final finishes at 8pm. All the kids are in bed. Nobody is outside enjoying the true magic of the FA Cup.

Last week, I was returning home from a match in London. I bumped into a friend at the train station, Jon sold his company last year for £50m. We talk about Tottenham. We’re both fans. He says that if ever I can’t make a game, then he will happily give me market value for my season tickets. His son, who went to the same school as my son until Jon made a fortune and went to a slightly better school, is desperate to go. It’s strange to hear.

I tell him that if he wants to go to watch Spurs then he should take his son to Wembley on Sunday. It’s the FA Cup third round. It’s magic. He’s not interested until I tell him that family tickets are £20. “Really,” he says. “That’s amazing!” I’m not sure if he went but the introduction for this week’s column belatedly comes to me...

“This week: The Magic of the FA Cup... at affordable prices.”


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