As a Sheffield United fan, and therefore by definition a pessimist, I’m expecting the mighty Blades to get trounced in the FA Cup 3rd round tomorrow evening. I’m not expecting our excellent recent record in cup competitions continuing. We (I say we, but I do not include me) will be travelling the relatively short distance to Manchester to play Manchester United at Old Trafford. Even though the red devils are going through a patchy spell, they are still in contention for the Champions League and contain world class internationals on wages in excess of £100k a week, whereas the Blades travel with equally scrappy form which probably means automatic promotion is out of the question and even a place in the play-offs (for which we possibly have the worst record in football) looks dodgy, and a group of players whose total weekly wage Wayne Rooney could probably cover in less than a week. I’m not optimistic to be honest!
However ruminating over Sheffield United’s chances is not the point of the post – so I’d better get to it quick! The 3rd round of the FA cup is supposed to be the most ‘romantic’ day in English football. It is the day that minnows (and relative minnows like Sheffield United) get the chance to meet and maybe knock out the royalty of English football – the Premier League teams. Think of Ronnie Radford scoring that thunderbolt for Hereford against Newcastle United in 1972, think of Sutton United beating the then cup holders Coventry City in 1989 and the romance of the cup means something.
As a young boy I remember going to Bramall Lane in 1978 as the Blades, who were then in division 2 (now the Championship) were drawn to play mighty Arsenal of the 1st division (which would now be the premier league). This was a team which contained players of the ilk of Malcolm McDonald (who would score 2 goals), Pat Jennings, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton et al. There were in excess of 30,000 stuffed into Bramall Lane alongside myself, my dad and my cousin Graham. Unfortunately we got stuffed 5-0 but I remember the excitement and awe of seeing these players I’d only seen on Match of the Day before in the flesh. (Arsenal would be defeated by Bobby Robson’s Ipswich in the final that year). You can actually re-live the agony of the game on this YouTube clip.
You will hear the ‘romance of the cup’ ad nauseum this weekend from commentators on the radio and on TV but is it still there? I ask this question in all honesty because I think as football has progressed and particularly with the adoption of the Premier League, the romance is dying if it isn’t already dead and statements to the contrary are flippant. It is no longer romance but a brief (and not very satisfying sometimes) flirt. Take tonight’s commentary game. On BBC we will be able to watch minnows from league 2, Exeter City take on football giants Liverpool at St James Park Exeter. A true David vs Goliath game. But this game will kick off at 7.55pm. The distance between Liverpool and Exeter is in excess of 250 miles. Whose bright idea was it to stage a game of this magnitude at this time when many of the away fans won’t be able to get to and from the ground? I believe that last train that could take Liverpool fans back to Exeter leaves shortly BEFORE the game, involves 2 or 3 changes and would get the Liverpool fans back to Liverpool for about 7am the next morning!
Take also the fact that the Premier League have scheduled a round of league games on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. Think of those managers who are fighting for European places or, financially possibly more importantly, against relegation. Which game will they priorities? The FA Cup game or the Premier League game? For the financial future of their club they have to prioritise the league game, hence many managers (and we will see evidence of this tonight) will play under-strength sides with promising but often not well known younger and fringe players rather than some of the super-stars we may want to watch. The Premier League clearly don’t care about the FA Cup and are rather more interested in getting a few extra pounds from continental TV broadcasters where most nations are still on mid-season breaks and hence they have carte-blanche on the TV airwaves.
Terry Neill fielded a full strength Arsenal side against Sheffield United in 1978 and as a young boy I got to see, first hand, the sublime skills of Graeme Rix, Alan Sunderland and especially Liam Brady – one of my favourite all time footballers. I wonder if a similar Exeter City fan will be able to say the same about some of the Liverpool players they may want to watch in the flesh tonight? Will a young Sheffield United fan or young Scunthorpe fan be able to have the same feelings I had in 1978 as they travel to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge respectively?
Because of the selfish nature of the broadcasting companies and the greed of the Premier League, football fans don’t matter any more. The romance of the cup is dead, long live the inconvenient flirt that it has become for the broadcasters and the Premier League.