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30th Jan 2017

Why nostalgia rather than weakened team selection is killing the FA Cup

We are constantly force-fed nonsense about the 'magic of the FA Cup'

Tony Barrett

The Football Association Challenge Cup, to give it its full bit rarely used title, does not stand a chance.

Not because of the Premier League, rotation obsessed managers, declining attendances or big clubs prioritising Europe, although none of those factors help the competition.

The biggest impediment that the FA Cup faces is that it continues to be hyped within an inch of its life and undermined by a selective nostalgia which means it is doomed to fail in comparison to the past.

Like a Disney movie destined for Channel 5’s Sunday afternoon slot, “The world’s greatest cup competition,” to give it its other, over-used, title is measured in “magic” and “romance.”

Like Premier League managers who were contractually obliged to namecheck Barclays before mentioning that competition, it seems that anyone who discusses the FA Cup can only do so if they mention the magic of the cup. It is so endemic it seems like a conditioned reflex.

Leaving aside the obvious reality that every major football playing country has its own domestic cup competition and that England’s desire to be known to have the best one seems increasingly needy, what would be wrong with being realistic about the FA Cup? Would its legend die if we saw it for what it is – a tournament which one team will win, one that throws up some truly great moments but also one that isn’t always as wonderful as we try to make out?

There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t want to win it. That is an absolute given. Even those managers who use the early rounds as an opportunity to rest senior players and blood younger ones did not intend for their teams to get knocked out.

But like any other kind of manager, they have to make the most of the resources available to them and they also have to deal with the consequences when their selection policies backfire. In any circumstances, but particularly in top level sport, winning is always preferable to losing.

They know the risks when they pick the team and can’t complain if criticism follows a bad result. That’s the nature of the beast. But surely we can spare them the sanctimonious nonsense about them disrespecting the cup as if they have defied a sacred order passed down from one generation to the next? It is by attaching that much importance to the FA Cup that we unwittingly undermine it. Not only is it magic and romantic, it also comes complete with an ancient set of rules that must be obeyed at all times and woe betide anyone who doesn’t.

If that isn’t enough, every year we are bombarded with the same footage, the same images, the same stories and the same history that show how great the FA Cup once was. Ronnie Radford’s piledriver, Jim Montgomery’s saves, Keith Houchen’s diving header, Frank Lampard senior dancing around a corner flag, Ryan Giggs’ chest hair, white horses on the pitch at Wembley; all moments that the BBC values so much that they commissioned Olly Murs to narrate a video about them. It doesn’t get any more magical or romantic than that.

They are all, without question, truly great football moments and we should, of course, cherish them as much as we do. But we should also acknowledge that by repeating them year in and year out we’re misrepresenting the FA Cup because it is precisely because such moments are out of the ordinary that they become so special.

We don’t remember Leeds United’s goalless draw against Liverpool in 1996, a game so bad that Howard Wilkinson was forced to admit he had told his players not to try to entertain; we don’t recall the giants who did the killing and don’t, whatever you do, mention that the game’s governing body once chose to hold a semi-final at a venue that did not have a valid safety certificate.

The lows do not fit the narrative, only the highs do. By focusing on only the good, the FA Cup has become a competition that finds it impossible to live up to its own reputation. At its best, like every other football tournament, it can be and is undoubtedly great.

There is no need to over-hype it or to subject it to a standard that it cannot attain. Allow it the space to breathe and the room to be itself, for better or worse, and we might just be able to enjoy it for what it is, if not as much as men of a certain age say we did in the past.  If it’s magic and romance that you’re after, Leap Year is on Channel 5 this Sunday. 

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