Ah. ‘The magic of the cup’. That old phrase that BT Sport and BBC recycle every year at the beginning of January for FA Cup third round weekend. The weekend that used to promise so much, but now, nothing. There are a few scares along the way, and usually one or two upsets, but something is missing. Something, somewhere, is absent. It says a lot that FA Cup weekend sometimes now even gets frowned upon on the same level as the international break does – a ‘bore fest’. Reserves are fielded, crowds are low, upsets are rare and if they do it is because the minnows are playing against a team of kids that have never played together. It is not disastrous, but it is far from magical, and ‘magic of the cup’ is a phrase that has to be entered into the cliché manual, because it is dying. Sadly.
I’ve hardly glanced at the FA Cup fixtures this weekend, I know there are a few eye-catching ties, but I can assure you Manchester United v Reading is televised, although I haven’t checked*.
*Correction: I have now checked and indeed, Manchester United v Reading is on the TV. Why? The same mundane, boring, tie that will finish 3-0 to United’s kids. No neutral wants to spend their FA Cup third round day watching that, even Reading will probably field their reserves in order to give their starters some rest ahead of a gruelling relegation battle to commence in 2019.
For clarification, BT and the BBC are not the ones to blame, not solely anyway. The FA Cup ‘magic’ is dying, and this is not a new phenomenon, it has been a dying art for well over a decade now. Some point the finger at 1999, when Manchester United pulled out of the following FA Cup…
Late in May in 1999…Solskjaer scored a goal in injury time, as the song goes. What that iconic United song doesn’t tell you is that also in that summer, Alex Ferguson’s side confirmed that they were to pull out of the FA Cup the season after.
The reason was because United had to compete in the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup in South America early that year, and Fergie didn’t want his players to tire. It was the first time the holders did not defend their title.
Somewhere along the line, Manchester could be seen to be the base for the downfall of the FA Cup, with Pellegrini’s City side fielding a side with no regular starters at Stamford Bridge, many of whom debutants, in a 5-1 loss. Needless to say, it did help City’s progress in the Champions League, they got to the semi-final that year, but it was disrespect for the FA Cup, and Manuel Pellegrini came under intense scrutiny for it. City fans (including myself) had paid the best part of £80 for that day – train, match ticket, food, away day sundries, etc., and we had to watch a team of kids play against Chelsea’s best, then travel the long and lonely journey home after?
Paul Wilson of the Guardian compared the two events, writing that ‘Manchester United and FA damaged the Cup more than Pellegrini ever did’. He thought that the problem is not the FA Cup, it is the Champions League. He said: “How could it ever retain its old status when the best four teams in the country were required to play bigger, more glamorous, more lucrative games at the same time? Now people are talking about switching to midweek or scrapping replays, when they should be looking instead at the insidious creep of the Champions League. Ought it really take a whole month to sort out the round of 16?”
It is a sad reality, in truth. The current generation, the ‘snowflake generation’ if you so desire, will never understand the FA Cup magic in full. I have stories from older people that ignite the magic, but in reality its hard to capture it.
I hear stories of waking up on FA Cup final day, treating it like Christmas Day. Each family had their traditions: what they had for breakfast, what they would do counting down to kick off, what they’d wear etc. The build up would start at about 11 in the morning and families up and down the country would be transfixed on the screen until well after the match.
I never really got that experience, with all that is on TV now. On third round day for example, Saturday, there are games at 12:30, 3 and 5:30, and god knows how many tomorrow. There are some glamour ties, and some that I am looking forward to watching, but I can’t think of too many neutrals that would want to watch Manchester United at home to Reading.
Stuart Horsfield wrote a wonderful piece for TheseFootballTimes, titled ‘Is there any magic left in the FA Cup?’ He said:
“From 1978 to 1988, I adopted a similar tactic to Her Majesty the Queen and afforded myself two birthdays. One was my actual date of birth, and the other was a slightly more fluid date but always in May. FA Cup final day was like a second birthday. Crisps, lemonade and wine gums were all supplied by my mum, who had very little interest in the beautiful game. As well as providing traditional cup final nourishment, she also afforded me viewing rights to the television in the lounge for the entire day. During those 10 years, the routine was similar. Wake up early around 7am, football kit on and an early breakfast. Check the Radio Times to see what time the extensive, and at times random, coverage would start. I never liked wrestling, but when it was a Cup Final Tag Team special, who could resist? Cameras on board the team coaches were like an insight into a mystical portal which only opened one day a year in May. Then it was outside with a football trying to while away the time until coverage started, and back inside 15 minutes before the first match-related programme commenced.”
Even in books and film on football that I have watched, you can see the excitement just for the FA Cup draw. One springs to mind is Green Street, the awful yet somehow brilliant film on the Green Street Elite of West Ham. Although fictional, it depicts the excitement perfectly, when everyone around the city gathers round office radios and car stereos to find out the result of the FA Cup draw, which obviously for dramatic value was West Ham v Millwall. Nowadays, there is none of that, it is just a draw after a random game on a Monday night with two ex-players you forgot existed. Half the teams in the draw aren’t bothered anyway, they are too busy focusing on promotion, relegation, Champions League or whatever else. It is dying.
What seemed so special about the FA Cup was that it brought everyone together, it had a community feel to it. Everyone wanted to win it, and everyone put their all into every round, for the dream of Wembley and smell of those onions outside the ground lived in every fans mind.
To conclude, and answer the question of whether the ‘magic’ is indeed dead or not, is that it still has some life yet, but it will never be what it was. Whether it is the Manchester clubs amongst many others disrespecting the competition, TV packages or just simple loss of interest due to other competitions taking priority, the FA Cup is dying. I will still kick back on the sofa this weekend and watch the football, but it is with regret that the whole weekend has a bit of an international break vibe to it rather than a magical, FA Cup third round weekend.