Ronnie Radford, Ray Crawford, Jim Montgomery, Keith Houchen, Mickey Thomas: to football fans of a certain age, these are names to roll off the tongue. These are figures from the FA Cup’s televised golden age, when giants were killed on the muddy fields of Albion. Their feats were replayed endlessly when FA Cup third round day came around.
Pitch invasions defying inadequate policing, 30-yard screamers from non-league scuffers, managerial eccentrics pulling off the biggest coups of their footballing life: these were the riches of the world’s oldest, proudest cup competition.
This season, the FA Cup has seen plenty of that flavour, particularly in the fourth round just gone. AFC Wimbledon’s downing of West Ham brought back fond memories of the old Wimbledon Crazy Gang spirit, with former player Wally Downes masterminding the triumph. In Tony Pulis’ South Wales backyard, Newport County shocked Middlesbrough in a replay.
And yet, still the competition appears a little less than magical. Just as it is now difficult to recall the recent winners of FA Cup finals in the way fans used to be able to reel off Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United 1979 and West Ham 1-0 Arsenal 1980, the likes of Wimbledon heroes Scott Wagstaff and Toby Sibbick and Newport’s Robbie Willmott and Padraig Almond are unlikely to become indelible names like Radford and Ricky George, Hereford’s scorers when First Division Newcastle were shocked in 1972. John Motson went bonkers as fans roared on their local heroes from trees surrounding Edgar Street.
As late as the 1990s, winning the competition was a dream for players and managers.
It even kept Alex Ferguson in a job in 1990 when Manchester United’s league position was little short of disastrous. But somewhere along the line, the Cup lost its mystique.
The shocks sustain, lower league and non-league football are thrown to prominence, serving keen reminders the game can never be confined to the transnational corporations that the Premier League elite has become. But the attitude of those elite clubs is what damages the FA Cup. Once the focus of the competition swings to those with a genuine chance of lifting the trophy at Wembley, the intrigue dissipates. Who remembers the last great semi-final, a game to match Manchester United and Arsenal in 1999 or Tottenham v Arsenal in 1991.
Would winning the competition save Maurizio Sarri from the sack at Chelsea? Certainly not if his team finish outside the top four. An FA Cup win for Manchester United could be a romantic way to sign off the sunshine that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought back to Old Trafford, but if his team fail to qualify for the Champions League then the temptation to pay the cash to lure Mauricio Pochetttino in would be near-irresistible.
Winning the FA Cup in 2016 was not enough to stop Louis van Gaal being sacked, and last year, the doubts about Jose Mourinho within Manchester United were apparent even before his team lost last season’s final to Chelsea.
And of the remaining member of the elite left in this year’s competition, Manchester City, then the FA Cup is merely part of a quest for a quadruple. Were City to end the season with just the FA Cup, it would have been a crashing disappointment, the champagne and fireworks a veil drawn over failure to beat Liverpool to the Premier League title and another Champions League miss.
The FA Cup, with its inferior prize money and distraction from the real business of the Premier League, has become garnish. Its broadcast partners frantically try to think up different means of making it relevant, from holding draws on the One Show, where replica-shirted super-fans get to boo and cheer as the balls are pulled out of the hat, to blue-sky thinking on how to repurpose the phrase “the magic of the Cup”.
This season, due to overseas TV rights deals struck to swell the coffers, the FA Cup Third Round kicked off at staggered times. Listening to the scores deluging in from the 3pm Saturday kick-off from wild and wacky venues was once as enjoyable a sporting day as the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival or the mountain stages of the Tour de France, but instead, it was splintered across a weekend of indifference. No amount of media whimsy and the back stories of part-time players could distract that the FA has messed with its core product.
When did the rot set in? The usual watershed moment is set as Manchester United’s refusal to defend their trophy in 1999-2000 due to the fixture list pile-up caused by entering the FIFA Club World Cup in Brazil that January. United were blamed for self-interest, and within the club, the likes of Bobby Charlton railed against the decision, but it had been the FA itself who were asking United to fly to Rio and win diplomatic points in the race to host the 2006 World Cup. If United had demurred, Bayern Munich, on a winter break in January in any case, would have taken their place, to win extra sway for Germany. And who ended up hosting 2006 in any case?
There have been further meddles. That same year, the third round, that sacrosanct day of action, was rescheduled for an early December date. Disorientated fans sat it out in their droves, forcing an immediate rethink.
The FA has been careless with its crown jewel too often to escape the sense that the Cup’s downfall can be heavily blamed on its supposed trustees. The Premier League’s original formation happened when the FA decided to take against the Football League and go with a breakaway cartel.
The FA Premier League, as it used to be known, has slowly eaten the FA Cup, such that the League Cup, with its business done by early spring and its acceptance of its place as a competition where young players get their go, has often been a more interesting competition.
While Van Gaal was cock-a-hoop to win the competition in 2016 – a joy short-lived – other foreign managers of the elite have not been so taken in by the traditions of the trophy.
Mauricio Pochettino has repeatedly made clear his indifference to secondary trophies when compared to league position while Jurgen Klopp has hardly set himself out as someone with ambitions to repeat the FA Cup heroics of Liverpool’s glorious past.
Even Solskjaer, who won the FA Cup twice as a player with United, has subsumed to the idea of the competition as a secondary concern, with David de Gea not making the trips to London for the ties with Arsenal or Chelsea. Just like the League Cup, and until the semi-finals come around, the competition is used to give reserves a run-out; against Sheffield Wednesday in the fourth round, Chelsea fans got to see Callum Hudson-Odoi, a player Sarri has been otherwise reluctant to select, and forgotten man Emerson Palmieri.
The FA Cup as dumping ground for spare talent is not a good look for an entity of such historic and haughty traditions. The magic has gone, probably never to return.