Bosnia Herzegovina, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, USA, Deepdale. What connects these places? Well, the last one probably gave it away, but these are the dozen locations you would’ve needed to be in order to watch Rovers FA Cup match at Preston, live. Bumped 23 hours because supposedly the people of Skopje couldn’t get through a Burek brunch without Andy Butler heading everything in the background. Well, they’re only human.
Scheduling wise, no-one can argue the FA Cup third round was anything but a mess. One match on Friday night, seven at Saturday lunchtime, five on Saturday evening, eight on Sunday and one on the Monday. Less than a third of the round’s ties survived in the staple 3pm, Saturday slot. A tradition decimated in one fat six-year television contract that suits everyone except for those that keep this sport going; us, the match-going fan.
The FA have always been quick to champion the FA Cup’s tradition; the oldest national cup competition in the world, ‘the magic of the cup’, and so forth. But it takes some front to trade on tradition whilst simultaneously picking it apart. As well as the shuffling of kick-off times we’ve seen replays scrapped, initially from the quarter-final stage, and now fifth round, onwards. And we’ve also seen the ad-hoc introduction of VAR; available at some ties and not others, thus ending one of the other great aspects of the competition – that from the extra-preliminary round to the final the game being played was the same throughout.
The FA’s failing here is clear. Rather than stand firm and truly uphold the sanctimony of what I still genuinely believe is the greatest Cup competition there is, they have shifted and conceded, and pandered to the clubs who’ve largely shown the competition the shortest shrift. The scrapping of replays was to appease clubs whose resources are such that fixture congestion should never be a problem; managers who complain of too much football, whilst happily travelling across the continent to play the often pointless games of a Champions League group stage.
Pundits and supporters often point to these concessions as contributing factors to the waning ‘magic of the cup’. But whilst I am certainly not welcoming of them, I don’t think that’s the case. Do I feel less excited about the FA Cup because there’s a chance that if we ever get to the fifth round we’ll have to settle the result on the day? No, not really. And the fact that it was Sunday didn’t stop me twirling my scarf in the Preston air with the enthusiasm of a kid who’s been told its chips for tea.
No, what’s diminished the FA Cup’s standing can be summed up in one word; ‘priorities’. In the past fifteen years we’ve allowed this word to become an accepted part of football. The idea that rather than just try and win football matches, football clubs should weight potential achievements. Thing is, there is no glory in mid-table, there is no reward in a second round exit. Show me someone who is happy to unironically use the phrase ‘concentrating on the league’ and I’ll show you someone who has no joy in their soul. We will be pointing at the same person.
The only footballing priority a club should have is winning matches – not winning some games more than others. Are you really going to celebrate that season you finished 12th or 15th; are you going to dine out on stories of being five points clear of relegation with a game to go? Of course not; no-one else cares – you won’t care in a year or two. But a heroic cup failure, an unlikely triumph… that’s the stuff of stories, of memories. That’s the thing that in a decade’s time will have someone saying ‘Oh, you support Rovers, what was it like to almost make the League Cup Semi Final?’
A few years ago the band Future Islands were invited to play their track Seasons (Waiting On You) live on David Letterman’s US television show. You might have seen it. Thanks to the performance of singer Samuel T. Herring the clip went viral. Herring didn’t hold back; staring intensely down the lens, sincerely thumping his chest, passionately grabbing at his own shirt and occasionally lapsing into a guttural roar. Afterwards a reporter commented to Herring that he really gave it everything. His response? “Why the hell wouldn’t I?”
That’s the attitude I want to hear. And surely that’s all we want as supporters. We want to know that the people we’re watching are giving it all they can – whether that be in team selection, in effort, in commitment. The empty seats at FA Cup games aren’t there because they’ve scrapped replays, they’re there because you’re not going to head down to the stadium for a match your own manager tells you isn’t a priority. If the teams we’re expected to turn up and watch have made it clear they couldn’t give a shit whether they win, why should we?
If the FA really want to cash in on the tradition of oldest national cup competition in the world then they need to stop flirting with the sports bars of Belgrade and instead fine clubs who field weakened teams. The big clubs will complain of course, but it’s time something didn’t go their way. If the FA really want to be ‘for the good of the game’ and uphold the tradition of their main competition, it’s time they put their mouth where the money is.
by Glen Wilson
This article first appeared as the editorial of issue 98 of popular STAND fanzine, which was published ahead of Doncaster Rovers 4th round FA Cup tie with Oldham Athletic.