By Paul Gardner
This past weekend has been, you may have noticed, the Big FAC Weekend. By FAC I mean England’s FA Cup, and FAC has been the name of the game, certainly on Fox Soccer Channel. The FAC has been praised and exalted to the skies, all of this delivered in breathless, panting tones by FSC’s coterie of Brits and wanna-be Brits.
Yes there is something different and potentially thrilling about the FAC -- it’s an open tournament, any old club can enter, however small -- and with a bit of luck a small club can survive the early rounds and may end up playing against -- even beating -- one of the legendary clubs. Which is a lovely, lovely scenario.
We had some of that this weekend, with little Crawley Town -- not even in the four divisions of the Football League! -- playing at all-conquering Manchester United. And third division Leyton Orient hosting mighty Arsenal.
Before we got to those games, however, the FAC started off the weekend with Chelsea vs. Everton, which was not a good game to start anything with. A dreadful FAC game between two Premier League clubs, which droned on through overtime into the dreaded penalty kicks, from which Everton emerged as the winner. Or, more accurately, as the less bad of two awful teams. And the less said the better.
This was decidedly disappointing, because the jolly FSC mob had been promising all sorts of wonderful excitement from these FAC games. Next up came Birmingham City vs. Sheffield Wednesday, Premier League vs. third division, so this was a bit closer to the heroic David vs. Goliath matchups that we kept being told about.
If anything this was even worse. Birmingham romped away to a quick 2-0 lead, after which -- or even before which -- nothing of any interest happened, from the soccer point of view. It was dire stuff. If agricultural tackles are your thing, there was much to be admired, especially in the 22nd minute, when Sheffield’s James O’Connor rammed into Alexander Hleb. Not to worry said the Brit commentators -- of course, just as they always do -- nothing serious. Hleb left on a stretcher, while the commentators admitted that just maybe it was more serious than they thought. Nothing more was seen of Hleb. No contest here -- Birmingham ended up 3-0 winners.
Then we got the prize exhibit of the FAC weekend. Little (we heard a lot of that word) Crawley Town challenging ManU at Old Trafford. This was, in theory, a really intriguing game, one that pulls out all the emotional stops in support of the underdogs. But this was never David vs. Goliath -- ManU backed out of that possibility by fielding a reserve team. Just a week ago ManU had played ManCity and from that lineup, the one used for a crucial game, only two players were on the field against Crawley.
Sure, Crawley made a game of it, against a largely dysfunctional, even nervous bunch of ManU subs, but ManU took it 1-0. That was Saturday. Yesterday came another potential David vs. Goliath game -- which was also torpedoed before it started, because Arsenal, like ManU, chose to field a shadow team. From the starting 11 that beat Barcelona in midweek, only one player survived! Another depressingly dreary game until with only a couple of minutes left, Orient scored to tie it up at 1-1. For the short remaining time, the crowd, which had become almost somnolent, burst into furious noise and, yes, this really was exciting.
As the game finished, commentator Martin Tyler remarked, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.” We were whisked back to the studio where Warren Barton told us, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.” Seconds later, Kevin Costigan chimed in with, “This is what the FA Cup is all about.”
I had watched nearly five hours of utterly uninspired soccer before, for a few minutes, I got to watch what was the real thing. There were three other FAC games that I did not watch -- and I have every reason to believe that they were all equally barren. Just listen: Stoke vs. Brighton, Fulham vs. Bolton -- both of which managed to look woeful even in the highlights, and ManCity vs. Notts County, where the poor little Notts Davids got slaughtered 5-0.
What all of those games add up to is this: the so-called glamour and magic of the FAC is a thing of the past. It has been overtaken by a different world, a different society, a different game. And, of course, a different set of values. The over-riding value now is money. And that means the European championship.
Sadly. I say that with real feeling, as I grew up with the FAC in its glory days, when it really was a major competition -- indeed in many ways, even without all that David/Goliath stuff, many fans of those days rated winning the FAC a bigger achievement than winning the League.
This is so obviously not the case any more, that I’m stupefied that the FSC crew should try to con everyone into believing that nothing has changed. Do they think we don’t know that ManU reserves vs. Crawley Town is quite different from ManU vs Crawley? That it makes a mockery of that cherished David-Goliath fable? That we don’t know that ManU and Arsenal put out shadow teams because the FAC is no longer a major trophy?
It is even suggested -- though stoutly denied by the very coaches who put out reserve teams -- that the FAC is a damn nuisance, merely a competition that clutters the calendar. Does Arsenal need another game in its already crowded schedule -- which is what they’ve now got, with a replay against Leyton.
The scenes at the end of the Arsenal vs. Leyton game were heart-warming, as the minnows celebrated their moment of glory. But that scenario happens so rarely nowadays, and anyway has been so devalued by the attitude of the big clubs, that it makes no sense to keep repeating that “this is what the FA Cup is all about.” Not any more, it isn’t.