‘Andy!’ roared my Paddy Power editorial paymasters earlier today. ‘You’re possibly the most enthusiastic writer we’ve got – do us a love letter to the FA Cup ahead of this weekend’s drool-inducing third round fixtures, eh?’
I really wish I could, but my enthusiasm for the ‘greatest cup competition in the world’ just isn’t there any more. Maybe it’s to do with age and the fact that I’m a jaded, cynical fortysomething who feels only raw, visceral pain where once there was warmth and love.
Sticky, gooey love.
I mean, I can rattle off a list of every FA Cup winner from 1971 onwards for over a decade as though it was a multiplication table learned at school. Arsenal, Leeds, The Mighty Sunderland, Liverpool, West Ham, Manchester United, Ipswich, Arsenal, West Ham again, Tottenham, Tottenham again, Manchester United, Everton, Mancheser United again, etc etc etc. Glorious matches from my childhood, etched into my very being.
As for recent finals though… well, I’m drawing a blank. I can remember that one where Alan Pardew did his infernal dance and I distinctly remember the last one at the old Wembley Stadium being so bad that it was a surprise the old stadium didn’t fall apart under its own steam hours later, dismembered to dust by the sheer stench of the footballing atrocity it had just witnessed.
A modicum of research has led me to discover that Chelsea recently won the FA Cup four times in the space of six years, a run of victories that is certain to leave a sour taste in the mouth of any true lover of football.
Perhaps that is what extinguished my love for the competition.
Truth is that the most memorable FA Cup final of recent times for me was Liverpool’s triumph over West Ham after a penalty shootout in 2006. Memorable not for the exhilarating see-saw nature of the match but more for the fact that I watched it in a Wetherspoons in Blackpool as part of a stag weekend, and played pool against a Liverpool fan an hour after full time.
Two things were especially notable about this. Firstly, the fact that he removed his false teeth beforehand because he claimed it made him play better, and secondly, he had no recollection whatsoever that his team had lifted the trophy a mere 60 minutes earlier. None. A booze-addled mind that had turned as blank as a sheet of paper.
Now THAT, as far as I’m concerned, is the magic of the FA Cup.
But I digress. Those few matches aside, I haven’t been gripped by the FA Cup at all in recent years. So much about it these days seems to be designed to drag it down to second class status – the removal of replays in the latter stages, some Premier League clubs’ reluctance to field full-strength teams (I’m looking more at the relegation flirters rather than the big clubs) and the unhelpful fact that semi-finals are played at Wembley.
Where’s the romance in the knowledge that the final hurdle to be overcome before making it to the promised land of Wembley is… a match at Wembley?
Maybe we need to admit that the FA Cup is on its last legs, and look back at last year’s competition for the conclusive evidence. Let’s see… there was… non-league Lincoln City reaching the last four after going to Premier League Burnley and turning them over. Sutton United knocking out Leeds in round four. League One’s Millwall putting out the Premier League champions, Leicester City.
More? Fast forward to those Wembley semi-finals – who could forget Chelsea’s 4-2 win over Spurs, enhanced by Spurs coming back from behind twice along with some outrageous long-range goals. Followed by Arsenal’s thrilling extra time win against Manchester City, leading to a scintillating 2-1 win for the Gunners in the final with Aaron Ramsey’s late winner denying Chelsea the elusive league and cup double.
OH GOD, FA CUP – I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. PLEASE DON’T EVER LEAVE ME FOR YOU ARE IN MY BLOOD AND IN MY BONES. FA CUP! FA CUP! FA CUP!