The FA Cup is the last bastion of romance in football



There are three things in this world that every single one of us is guilty of. Firstly, we've all dipped back into the bin for some packaging, having not read the cooking instructions properly before discarding them. Secondly, we don't clean the screens of our mobiles, we just wipe them so all the smudges go in the same direction. And finally, we constantly romanticise our childhood.

I'm sorry, but Live & Kicking wasn't the greatest show ever to air on British television, sweets weren't some sort of superfood, and the school summer holidays weren't eight months of perpetual sunshine and new toys. In fact, the only part of growing up that definitely was as good as we all remember it was The FA Cup final.

You remember it, don't you? You'd leap out of bed with the sort of bounding lunacy only otherwise seen on December 25, and be greeted by the bristly charm of Des Lynam, football's Aslan, live from Wembley stadium. Ahead of you would be an entire day of legitimately magical broadcasting: every dramatic moment from the previous rounds, every personal tale of hope and ambition, the special suits, and the sight of London drenched in colour and sunshine. It felt like a national holiday.

And the singles! Do you remember the singles? Just as the sound of Slade wailing down your radio would make the back of your neck tingle in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so the awkward chanting of 11 tone deaf footballers over the top of a karaoke track had you in cup final mood weeks in advance. If you ever doubt the existence of “cup fever”, keep in mind that Gary Pallister has more UK number one singles that Led Zeppelin, Depeche Mode, and The Who combined.

It was some wonderful disease that manifested itself in every other round of the tournament. Teams of plumbers and firemen got a chance to test themselves against the best players in the world for an afternoon, and just maybe write their name into future Wikipedia articles. It gave those fans who couldn't commit to a season ticket a chance to say “I was there when...”

Now though, we can barely flick on a highlights show without hearing how it's lost its spark. Take last year's final. What was once one of the grandest spectacles in world football clashed with a regular weekend of Premier League fixtures so that England had more time to prepare for a friendly with Norway.

I'll just give you a minute to let that sink in properly.

Teams just aren't interested, we're told, and who can blame them? From third round to final, last season's winners Chelsea collected something around the £2million mark in prize money - about the same amount Blackburn were awarded for their 19th-placed finish in the Premier League. It's not a big money spinner, and clubs are so dependent on their lucrative league position that the cup has gone from a priority to a financial risk. You might finish 8th with a fully fit team, so why chance their fitness on a cup when dropping a couple of league places will cost you twice what the prize money is?

It's totally predictable, anyway. The Premier League's self-appointed “top seven” (that's Manchesters United and City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton, if you want to argue about it) have it all their own way. Coincidentally, they're the teams with the deepest squads and strongest academies. Oh, there was Portsmouth of course, but I wonder how many of the 9,000 who saw them beaten at home to Hartlepool at the weekend think their disastrous spending was worth it just for getting to see their side win its first major trophy since 1950.

Actually, I bet it's quite a big chunk of them. This weekend Luton became the first non-league team to dispose of top-flight opposition since 1989. In the cold light of day that's just the story of yet another small club who are staring down the barrel of financial oblivion, getting a result against a team of second string Premier League players. The few grand they'll have picked up in prize money might put some new grouting on their dressing room showers, while the Norwich players all spend the same on imported furniture to cheer themselves up.

But do you think a single one of those Luton fans was bothered about that when Scott Rendell stole across his marker to knock in an 80th-minute winner? As they watched Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez trudge solemnly off the field on Sunday, do you think Oldham's fans could even remember that their club was nearly liquidated? And whilst a lot of Leeds' travelling support can still remember trips to the Nou Camp, do you think that Ross McCormack's winning goal was met with anything less than hysteria?

Maybe the FA Cup has lost something, but for all the grotesque financial inequality at both ends of the game, and in spite of the cancerous money structure of the league system, we're still having these once-in-a-lifetime moments every single year. Cup football remains the preserve of the fans. As long as we choose the sweet naive pursuit of joy, and reject the cynicism of reality, it'll continue to reward us with its unpredictable beauty. Just like any great romance.


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