The biggest game of the season? Why the cup matters

The FA Cup

The FA Cup

IT’S one of the biggest clichés in football. The Magic of the Cup. And it is true. The three-week window from just before the draw until our inevitable first-round exit in the most unglamorous circumstances possible (last three exits: Millwall, Scunthorpe, Yeovil), is my favourite time of the season.

It is great (although it does always take a slight hit when we get our usual terrible first-round draw). The stories of the underdogs from the depths of non-league, the TERRESTRIAL TV game on the Friday night and the Sunday, a rare treat for those of us who refuse to fund Murdoch’s sport-wrecking empire, and finally, our brief cameo on the Saturday afternoon before we lay down and become another also-ran in the world’s greatest club competition. If I can bring myself to watch them after the disappointment, even the highlights programme in the evening is an enjoyable watch with unfamiliar teams, grounds, and the inevitable tired lines delivered by commentators about plumbers, electricians and personal trainers making history against professional opponents. All of it is fantastic.

Yet not everyone sees it this way. Tomorrow’s match against Crawley Town, who are mid-table in League Two, will probably attract 4,000 spectators, well down on the 7,000 who would normally attend a League One fixture at Roots Hall. A cursory look at the message boards and social media detects a couple of comments about the league being more important, and the cup having lost its magic.
Hang on. Who says the cup has lost its magic? The media. They are constantly analysing this subject, based on a few complaints from a handful of greedy clubs who are far more worried about their balance sheets than their team sheets. Yes, the 5.30pm kick off for the final is a nonsense. Yes the abolition of replays is a nonsense. But really, how often do clubs like ours get far enough to be affected by these issues?

People are very suggestible and there is a school of thought that, if you are told something for long enough, you will start to believe it. We have been told for years, decades, that the cup has lost its magic. Man Utd pulling out in 1999, big clubs fielding understrength sides. That’s their prerogative. But if west ham or Spurs came down here and got dumped out, they could have fielded the groundsman in goal for all I care. We’d be in the next round and they wouldn’t. Fans of clubs like ours don’t go to cup games to see stars play, we go to see our team knock another team out.

I also don’t buy the argument that we should be resting players for the league. We are currently in the midst of the most ridiculous injury crisis to have ever been experienced by a football club. Boots and Laces currently resembles a field hospital. But it’s been six days since the Barnsley game and, once Saturday is done, there will be seven before we play again in the league. There is technically a game on Wednesday in the Checkatrade (now there’s a competition that really has been devalued) but if we can negotiate the 87,000 regulations about team selection, we should still be able to rest a few key players for that. Tomorrow, we should be playing a full first team, and given recent events, you could argue it is the most important game of the season.

The injuries may not have completely written off this season but it has made success so much harder. If we can avoid being dragged into a relegation battle, the realists among us recognise it will likely be a mid-table season, as befits a club of our size and resources even before our best players started twisting their limbs in the turf. A win in the first round nets you about £30,000. May I remind you that as a club we lose about £200k per month. If you want to keep enjoying Dru Yearwood, Ron needs a reason not to sell him. A cup run, even to round three, just might let us cling on to his shirt tail until the summer.

The FA Cup generates stories, proper ones. Not about net spend or Jose Mourinho’s tactics. Rochdale v Spurs last season was probably the most emotionally involved I have ever been in a game not involving Southend. I went absolutely batshit mental when they scored in the last minute to force a replay. For the vast, silent majority of football fans that couldn’t give a flying fuck about the big six or the Champions League, it is still here. The media might not realise it. The FA might be determined to undermine it in their desperation to placate their big club overlords because surely we can’t have a situation where clubs who incubate 80 or so professionals can be forced to play two games in a week. For those clubs, the cup is no longer a priority. But for the fans of 99% of clubs that enter the competition, the magic is undimmed. There has been no devaluation.

So let’s not be blasé about tomorrow’s match with Crawley. If you’ve not bought your ticket, they are very reasonably priced, get down there and enjoy the FA Cup. It might be another year before you get the chance again.