Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The magic of the cup

The magic of the FA Cup. The most historic cup competition in the world. It’s full of tradition, as they never stop reminding us.

The FA Cup, if you prick it, it bleeds tradition. Once the FA Cup ate too much cake and vomited tradition all over the bathroom. That’s how much tradition it has. Giant killers, pitches like no-man’s land after months of bombardment, scarves and rattles, great days out for supporters, floodlights at 4pm, players caked in mud, Friday night kick offs, the Wembley wa … wait … what?

Friday night kick offs? Live on TV Friday night kick offs? Yes, this is your new tradition now. Nothing is sacred. We knew that last season when they moved the kick off time of the final to 6.30 on a bank holiday Tuesday, or something, but Friday night FA Cup football … I dunno.

It’s a time that will suit some and not others, and certainly not the fans who have to come from Coventry. People, you know, have to to work and all that, so it’s something that’s frustrated them. From an Arsenal fan point of view I’m sure there are plenty whose working weeks will impact on them seeing this game whereas a 3pm Saturday game surely wouldn’t.

It is just another example of how, in the modern game, the fans have become an afterthought and the competition they continue to harp on about being the greatest cup competition in the world is now just a thing around which they can sell advertising and sponsorship. That is all it is now.

And the relatively miniscule financial rewards of the FA Cup are now such that we see teams actively throwing games because it’s a nuisance. What West Ham did at the weekend was the perfect illustration of that. Business drives football. It’s better to finish 17th in the Premier League than win the cup. If you think about it from that point of view it’s impossible to argue with it, but it kinda robs you of what football is really about.

Everyone wants to see their club play at the highest level, to operate well, and to make money which, ideally, can improve the team, the stadium, the facilities etc, but you generally don’t hear fans singing about how ‘We’re by the far the most efficiently run and sometimes profitable solidly mid-table club the world has ever seen’.

The more money controls the game, the less the game itself becomes important. It’s not as if we haven’t been party to that too. Arsene Wenger’s talk of the top four being like a trophy may be irritating when we haven’t won any actual trophies, but I defy anyone not to see the logic of what he’s saying. The phraseology might not be ideal but what he’s saying makes perfect sense.

It’s what happens when you give control of the game to people whose first thought it how they can make money from it, not what’s best for it. TV companies, sponsorships, marketers, advertisers, bookmakers and beyond call the shots now.

But the FA have to take some of the blame for allowing the cup and it’s importance to dwindle. The desperate need to squeeze in another Premier League fixture – no doubt at the behest of the broadcasters – means that fatigue and injury left some managers with little choice but to look at their cup draw as nothing but an inconvenience.

That’s another tradition, of course, the festive football, yet any attempt to fiddle with that one leads to outrage and acrimony – the suggestion that teams play one less game in a ridiculously congested period is dismissed because it’s part and parcel of English football. Yet we can have the FA Cup sponsored by the worst beer in the world, the kick off time of the final moved to a time when some fans can’t get public transport back home, and now Friday night cup ties and it’s all ok. How malleable we are.

If we can’t touch festive football because it’s one of the things that makes English football so great, then why is it ok to mess so heavily with the FA Cup? Because it too was one of the things that made English football great. It was a competition watched the world over, for many it was the only chance of seeing live football on television, the final was not just a final it was an entire day of awesomeness even if your team wasn’t playing, and for me – and I’m sure many Arsenal fans of my generation – it was hugely formative.

The cup finals, the good and bad of them, the endless Sheffield Wednesday replays, the Liverpool replays, listening on the radio, watching Liam Brady’s socks down around his ankles glorious in victory in 79 and in desperate defeat the following year, the double-cup winning year, the doubles under Arsene Wenger. The cup has lost its lustre and it’s a shame, but it feels a bit like nobody has ever stood up for it properly.

A Friday night game at the Emirates might well be a fun thing. It’s unusual, something different (the last time we played on a Friday night was in the 2003-4 season when it happened twice, wins over Newcastle and Leeds … oh Thierry), but the next time they do the draw, the next time they’re on the television talking about the magic and tradition of the cup, treat that nonsense with the outright disdain it deserves.

In other news, well, there’s not a lot, but if you want to know more about the way Theo Walcott is going to have his cruciate injury treated and the recover he faces, check out this article on Arseblog News by @TomGoom. There were suggestions yesterday that his recovery could be fast-tracked in order for him to play at the World Cup, but it’s fanciful notion and one that ought not to be taken seriously if we want him to come back properly.

Right, that’s that for this Wednesday. More tomorrow.

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