I know it’s only July… I know the first round proper is months away… But I’ve decided to give some extra love to the FA Cup this season.
Lately the top clubs have been treating the world’s oldest football competition like the red-headed step-child of trophy runs. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and United refuse to devote themselves as fully to a domestic cup with League and continental priorities weighing heavily on their minds and competitive well-being. The loftiest ambitions prevail. If we were talking about a festive family dinner, the FA Cup would be relegated to the kids’ table with the Carling Cup while the top four clubs are with the grown-ups, offering the Premier League more wine and pretending to laugh at all the Champions League’s jokes.
And I openly admit: I’d rather Liverpool took home the League title or won the final on the continent before they added to their FA Cup collection.
But while dipping my toes in David Goldblatt’s hefty The Ball is Round – A Global History of Soccer/Football (depending on which continent your local bookstore operates), I’ve been contemplating the modern game’s delicious pre-history. I’m feeling the buzz… The FA Cup becomes a sexy notion once again.
The Cup’s storied history begins on 20th July 1871, when the FA’s Honorary Secretary, Charles Alock announced: “It is desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the Association, for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete.”
The first final was played in 1872 between Wanderers F.C. and the Royal Engineers at the Kennington Oval. The Wanderers, the competition’s first underdog, won by a single goal scored by a player playing mysteriously under an assumed name: “A.H. Chequer”. The scorer, Morton Peto Betts, had formerly played for Harrow Chequers. (Could Ashley Cole avoid the boos at the Emirates if he played as “A.F. Gunner”?)
This was before nets, crossbars and lines on the field. This was before the first sighting of a 442 lineup or a passing game. This was 50 years before turf was broken to commence the building of Wembley.
The first Wembley final was played on 20 April 1923. Bolton Wanderers v. West Ham United. A record crowd of 200,000 marked the growth of football’s popularity. The stadium was designed to hold 127,000, but a good 100,000 had stormed the gates and barriers. The match was delayed 45 minutes as police cleared supporters from the pitch. There were delays during corner kicks as well, as police had to push spectators out of the way to allow the player his run-up to the ball.
Supporters who had once saved all year to travel to the final, were able to watch Blackpool and Bolton live on television in the 1953. And what a match to watch. Twenty-two minutes from time, Bolton were up 3-1. But through the persistent and legendary set-up play of Stanley Matthews, Blackpool were able to win 4-3.
Many other exciting matches would thrill supporters over the years. Giant killings. Come-from-behind-wins. Late drama. Perhaps the ease with which we can now watch through modern media has taken from the acclaim of the event. Made us take it for granted.
Today’s pitches, teams and tactics would all be unrecognizable to the supporters who turned out in 1872, but the spirit of the F.A. Cup endures. Even if the teams competing in Europe and vying for the League title don’t hold it in the same esteem throughout the season, once any one (or two) of them gets to the final they suddenly embrace the full importance and thrill of the FA Cup.
These days, the smaller clubs enjoy the most excitement. Eager to qualify and take on a team from the upper eschelon. And I still love a good giant killing. I was devastated the year before last when Burnley knocked Liverpool out of the Cup. But when they knocked Chelsea out as well, I felt redeemed. It was meant to be. Burnley were on a mission. I longed to see them in the final that year. It ended up with Pompey beating Cardiff, but that was a memorable FA run. Portsmouth was the only top flight club in the semi-finals.
Last season I remember watching Liverpool in the FA Cup and feeling the English players were far more invested in this Cup than the imports. Carragher was completely gung ho. Even Pennant looked fired up. Most of the non-English players seemed to regard it as a waste of time. Shouldn’t we be saving this energy for the Champions League? I pointed this out to friend recently, a fellow Premier League die-hard.
Him: Well, do you know who won any of the domestic Cups in mainland Europe last season?
Me: Yeah… Barcelona won in Spain.
Him: You only know that because they won the triple… who won one in Germany, Italy, France?
Me: Ummm…. I have no idea.
His point. The FA Cup is important to me because I follow English football. To those who from other leagues, it doesn’t hold anything near the same importance. They know it’s there, just as I know the Copa del Rey, the DFB-Pokal, the Coupe de France, the Coppa Italia are going on at some point during the year. That’s all I know. I won’t know who’s doing well in them and they won’t really get my attention unless a match happens to be on when I’m channel surfing and I watch out of curiosity.
So I can’t expect the top players from the continent to sign with a big English club because of FA Cup ambitions. They want to play in Europe. That’s the ultimate draw. Sure, when they win the FA Cup they’ll celebrate whole-heartedly, but until their club makes the final, it remains a sub-plot to the rest of their season.
I’m a sucker for history. The FA Cup is like an old man, hanging around, telling war stories to anyone who will listen. He doesn’t seem as fresh and exciting next to the vibrant Premier League and the exotic European Cup. But if we take the time to appreciate his heritage, he will make it worth our while.
Above all else, I’m counting the hours (four-hundred and five) to the start of the Premier League season. But I’m keeping the FA Cup high on my radar. More so than recent seasons. Maybe this year there will be that giant-killing or come-from-behind win to add to the history books.
If I could pick: Sven’s Notts County come back from an early goal down to punch-out Manchester City. The stars would have to align for that one, I know. But it’s the FA Cup. So why the hell not?