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FA Cup response — How much more romantic can you get?
So Kevin Fylan has poured scorn on this season’s FA Cup, saying romance was “the last word” he would choose to describe what’s happening in the competition. Well Kev, as we prepare for this weekend’s semi-finals, let me say I couldn’t disagree more.
I’ll admit I’m something of a footballing Luddite, one of those old-fashioned fans who laments the fact that the days are gone when clubs like Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Everton and Aston Villa won league titles. The days when supporters had a genuine affinity with players. The days when Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham could win the FA Cup.
Although it’s clearly not their top priority, I simply don’t agree with the assertion that the FA Cup doesn’t matter to the Big Four. One look at the Chelsea line-up that went down at Barnsley indicates how much they were up for the Cup. Sure, they rested Frank Lampard and Petr Cech, but it was by no means wholesale squad rotation and you only had to see the look on Avram Grant’s face as he trudged down the tunnel at Oakwell to see he was far from ambivalent about his team’s cup exit.
It was a similar story with Manchester United as they were beaten by Portsmouth. Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-match rant was not the work of a man happy to be knocked out of the FA Cup.
When I was a kid the FA Cup was the pinnacle of the football season. It’s scarcely believable that until 1983 it was the only domestic match to be shown live on TV during the football season, and the media build-up to the game would last for weeks.
One of the best days of my life was the FA Cup final of 1980, when my beloved West Ham beat the favourites Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley thanks to Trevor Brooking’s header.
On May 8 in 1980, two days before the final, it was my eighth birthday. My Dad had taken my brother Bill and me to Upton Park to most home matches during the season, as well as the FA Cup semi-final against Everton, but due to a complicated voucher scheme we were only eligible for two tickets for the final and, as the youngest, I was going to have to miss out.
I will never forget the morning of my birthday as the presents were handed out in my parents’ bedroom. Every few moments I would grab an innocuous looking envelope with my name on it, thinking it was merely another birthday card. My folks would take back the card, put it back on their dresser, and hand me another present. Eventually I was handed the mysterious envelope. When I opened it and saw a Cup final ticket I can honestly say that I have never felt such unadulterated joy. I can still remember the feeling of pure childish happiness as I ran around the room in a circle, shouting and punching the air.
All these years later that moment still brings a tear to my eye, sentimental old fool that I am. That’s why I love the FA Cup. And that’s why it still matters to me, and to old-fashioned fans like me.
Twenty-six years later West Ham made it to the FA Cup final again, at the Millennium Stadium against Liverpool. Sitting in the stadium 10 minutes before kick-off with my father, my brother, and his two sons, I was overcome with an unexpected welling of emotion as ‘Abide with Me’ was sung across the stadium.
I found myself weeping, something I had never done before at a football match. The fact that my team couldn’t hold on to a 3-2 lead and lost the match on penalties was hard to swallow, but my overall memory of the day is one of sheer joy at having made it to another Cup final.
TV viewing figures will probably plummet for this year’s final as the Johnny-Come-Latelys who think that football began in 1992 decide to give it a miss. I’m sure that next year the old order will be restored and we can look forward to a Cup final stalemate like the Chelsea-Man United snorefest of 2007.
But I really don’t care because on May 17th we will see the People’s Final. I for one will watch every minute of it and I’ll revel in the fact that for one day I can pretend the FA Cup is still the most important knockout tournament in the world.
I can hardly wait.
Jim Drury is a reporter/producer for Reuters TV
PHOTO: Barnsely celebrate a goal against Chelsea, March 8, 2008. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis