The first football match I ever went to was an FA Cup First Round tie between Boston United and Morecambe in 1996. Taking my seat in the main stand at York Street next to my Dad and Granddad on a grim November afternoon, there was a palpable sense of excitement around the ground. The Pilgrims had been in excellent form, challenging for promotion at the top of the Northern League and on an eleven game unbeaten run, though their visitors weren’t exactly pushovers. Morecambe had played themselves into contention in the Conference, though would eventually fall away from the top three come the end of the season.
My memories of the match are split into sensory shards. The unfeasibly bright floodlights cutting through the light blanket of mist on the pitch and burning themselves onto my retina at the merest glimpse. The bitter taste of Bovril, which I’d insisted on trying, resting on my tongue until a half-time Snickers replaced the watery-meat flavour with a far more palatable sugary sweetness. The exhilarating rush of hearing my Dad calling the referee a “fucking tosser”, not for the last time. The smell of cigar smoke wafting around the stands, as an elderly fan three seats down tried to calm his nerves. The guttural, skull-juddering roar that greeted the home side’s opening goal. A feeling of stomach-churning deflation when the stadium announcer read through the Premier League scores at half-time and revealed that my team, my real team, were 1-0 down. Completely forgetting about so-called elite football when Leroy Chambers scored his second of the match, and immediately placing him on a pedestal in my mind as one of the greatest goalscorers the game has ever seen. The shock, awe and delirium when Steve Chambers made it 3-0 to Boston with a half-volley from 25 yards. The satisfaction of the final whistle, as four thousand fans trudged out into the cold, dark Lincolnshire night in the knowledge that their club were now one game away from the promised land of the FA Cup third round.
A month later Boston were knocked out by Chester City, and the FA Cup dream ended there, but Dad and I would go to every match at York Street for the next three seasons as The Pilgrims fought their way up to the Conference. Euro ’96 had brought football to my attention, and the opening months of my first season as a supporter made me fall in love with the sport, but that afternoon in a ramshackle ground on the flatlands of the Fens cemented my devotion. That’s the power of the FA Cup.
Another man whose love for football has been influenced by the cup is Phil Annets, founder of the comprehensive statistical resource FACupFactfile. Having amassed over 12,000 Twitter followers with his treasure trove of cup-based trivia, we caught up with Phil to discuss the current state of the competition, and asked him to regale us with his abiding memories. Like many, his first forays into the world of football were shaped by Cup Final day.
“A lifelong supporter of Leeds United, but nowadays from afar, I’ve always enjoyed the FA Cup because, as a young lad, the final was the only domestic club football available to watch on TV, and being such a big event it left a lasting impression on me. My deeper passion for the FA Cup began when I moved to Oxfordshire and started watching local football. The FA Cup was the perfect competition to get to watch a lot of different clubs, especially in the first half of the season.
“One particular fond memory occurred at Hook Norton FC, hosting their biggest match in their history. I asked an elderly looking gentleman in the bar if there was a team-sheet. He produced a small whiteboard with the names of both sides on it and I took a photo of it as he held it up for me. I thanked him for helping me and asked what his involvement with the club was. “Oh, I’m the Chairman”, he said. It was a great example of the fantastic connectivity between those who run the club and those who visit the club.”
For Phil and millions like him, it’s galling when, year after year, the same tired, handwringing, bedwetting thinkpieces get trotted out by sportswriters about how the FA Cup has ‘lost its magic’. Thirty years ago, Britain’s idea of magic was a balding middle-aged fella from Middlesbrough convincing his considerably younger and considerably more glamorous assistant to join him in holy matrimony. Now that’s magic. In 2019, Giles Rentanopinion is spewing out eight hundred words in whichever gobshite publication will pay him decrying the oldest cup competition in football because it no longer possesses the entirely subjective ethereal properties it used to.
Reports of the death of the FA Cup have been greatly exaggerated. Ask Newport County fans, who’ve witnessed victories over Leeds United, Leicester City, and Middlesbrough in the last thirteen months, and have also welcomed Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City to Rodney Parade. Pep Guardiola, European Cup winner, prowling the touchline in his uncle’s knitwear and setting up his team against a club that were midtable in the eighth tier of English football when he was lifting the continent’s biggest prize at Wembley. Tell those supporters that the FA Cup is dead. Or Wolves fans who, some eighteen months after watching a turgid battle against relegation from the Championship, can now back their team as fourth favourites to lift the cup despite having not lifted a major trophy for thirty-nine years.
It’s undeniable that the FA Cup has changed in the last thirty years. The pomp and circumstance that surrounds the latter stages has disappeared, replaced increasingly by measures that dilute the product older fans grew up with. To the nostalgists and romantics, the Football Association owe a catalogue of apologies. After all it was they who strongarmed Manchester United into travelling to the Club World Cup in 2000, forfeiting their right to defend their FA Cup crown in an ill-fated bid to bring the 2006 World Cup to England, cited by doom-mongers as the beginning of the end for the competition’s credibility. It was they who sanctioned overspending on the new Wembley stadium, leaving a debt that demanded all semi-finals be held at the national stadium instead of the traditional neutral grounds across the country. It was they who sold the soul of their flagship tournament for the untold riches of international broadcast rights, which now sees the final kick off two and a half hours later, and third round ties scattered across four days, all at the inconvenience of travelling supporters. Phil Annets agrees, “The FA needs to stop making changes to the competition just to please those people who are only interested in how much money they can make for themselves. None of the recent changes to the competition have been made because it was beneficial to the FA Cup for the change to be made. It has been always to accommodate other parties.”
If someone is employed at St George’s Park to make the FA Cup the best footballing spectacle it can be, they should have been asked to clear their desk years ago. Once held up as the paragon of the sport, it has been reduced to a testing ground for ever harmful ideas. If the introduction of VAR last season for one game in every round saw initial teething problems, the decision to roll the technology out at any ground that can afford it this year has proved a disastrous trip to a backstreet dentist. The beauty of the FA Cup is that it provides a level playing field for clubs in England’s top ten divisions, but providing officials with extra support in some ties and not others removes that equilibrium. Bowing to the paymasters of the Premier League and slowly abolishing potentially money-spinning replays from the competition round-by-round only further highlights the priorities of the governing body.
For all the negative headlines the Football Association generate for the competition however, Phil Annets suggests there are positives to be found in the small-print. “Another thing happened in 2000 that has never really been picked up by the mainstream media or the majority of fans. The FA began opening up the competition to lower and lower level clubs. Participation numbers gradually increased from around 450 clubs last century to the 736 we regularly see compete in it nowadays. And that influx of clubs has increased the popularity of the competition in the eyes of people involved with those clubs. Also, the recent increases in prize money for lower level clubs for advancing in the competition have been most welcome and these increases have been vocalised a lot by those who have benefited from them.”
It seems ironic that an injection of cash has only enhanced the affections of lower league clubs for the cup when, thanks to broadcasters and sponsorship, the Premier League’s license to print money is seen as a major contributor to the FA Cup’s supposed downfall. The clear correlation between an increase in Premier League prize money and broadcast fees and the amount of lineup changes top flight teams make in the early rounds of the cup is no coincidence, and from a grey-skinned, soulless bean-counter point of view it makes perfect sense to prioritise a higher league finish over a cup run. Besides the glory of lifting a trophy an earning a place in the history books, a victorious cup campaign will net the winners around £6.8m, roughly £900,000 less than finishing seventeenth in the Premier League. Rather than expending energy on five extra games, a team could instead win fifteen extra points in the league – enough to lift a team from fifteenth to seventh in last season’s final table, and worth an extra £15m. While this shift in priorities has at least given us two surprise winners of the cup in Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic, it has also fed the media narrative of the competition’s diminishing importance.
Which leads us to the crux of the issue. Whilst the Football Association’s endless tinkering and the Premier League’s financial doping have desecrated a cherished cornerstone of English football, the annual mourning of a competition still very much alive and kicking by pundits and journalists alike only serves to reinforce the blinkered view that the FA Cup is no longer fit for purpose. The suggestion that the FA Cup is a relic of a bygone era comes from an elitist mentality. Because Manchester United or Liverpool no longer take it as seriously as they did twenty years ago, that must mean there’s no worth in it for anyone else. Arsene Wenger may offer a different opinion. As would Pep Guardiola, evidenced by the presence of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Ederson in the starting line-up for Manchester City’s 7-0 steamrolling of Rotherham United in round three. In fact, ask a fan of pretty much any of the 716 clubs outside the Premier League that entered the cup this year whether the cup has lost its magic, and you’ll find the majority disagree.
According to Phil Annets it’s those at the bottom, rather than the top, that will ensure the FA Cup continues to carve a special place in the hearts of football lovers. “The fans are the ones that keep the FA Cup vibrant and alive, and their levels of enthusiasm intensify the further down the pyramid you go and the further on in the competition their team progresses. The biggest disconnect between clubs and fans, in my mind, is their respective regard for the FA Cup. Fans of clubs at all levels want their club to go on a Cup run; owners and managers of many bigger clubs do not care for it, not until the latter stages anyway.”
It’s a fact that is conveniently ignored. The FA Cup, more than any other domestic competition, is the greatest tool for attracting the next generation of match-going supporters. Whether it be to Premier League clubs who, to their credit, offer discounted tickets for cup games, or a once-in-a-blue-moon glamour tie for a local non-league side, nothing draws you in quite like a cup tie. For that reason, it remains one of English football’s most important institutions.
Thanks to Phil Annets from FACupFactfile for his help with this piece. For FA Cup facts in 280 characters you can follow the factfile on Twitter, or if you’d prefer access to your cup-based trivia in longer form, head to the website.