Sunday, January 07, 2007

Cup Cheer Refreshes Bitter Taste of Premiership

It is fitting that the FA Cup third round sees the BBC get itself all dolled up and take centre stage with the broadcast of live matches. The combination of cockle-warming nostalgia, a cast of hokey provincials and the reverent adoration of a national institution fit the BBC's brief much better than the cut-throat free marketeers of Sky.

In many ways football as it is experienced through the FA Cup is almost a different game altogether than the harsh world of the Premiership. Not just in the fact that the BBC get their pick of the games to show live, but in the entire atmosphere that surrounds it.

The commentator introduced the Tamworth v Norwich tie on Saturday with the declaration that this was "the best weekend of the football calendar." The selling of the FA Cup, and its third round in particular, in this way is part of the Beeb's job in buttressing their flimsy live portfolio. And this sort of veneration is much more likely to be heard from those who curate the game's image and history, and supporters of lower division teams, than the vast majority of Premiership worshipping hordes.

To them, particularly supporters of the top clubs, the Cup is often a distraction, a scratch in the normal groove of league matters. Their opinion of the Cup has declined in a fashion almost commensurate with that of the managers and chairmen of their clubs, many of whom rest players for cup ties in order to preserve resources for crucial relegation or European place battles.

Most in the media castigate this attitude and bemoan the 'blatant disrespect shown to the FA Cup', claiming that the supporters would love to win the trophy, the only chance - along with the even more degraded League Cup - for many of them to win silverware at all.

But the fact that no club outside the 'big four' (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea) has won the Cup since 1995 has almost totally obscured visions of glorious Saturday afternoons in May from the view of the rest of the clubs, only exacerbating their managers' prioritisation of league safety.

Still, what this denuding means is that on weekends like the one just gone, football seems to exist in a much nicer, warmer place. Indeed after a weekend of early round Cup action, the snarl of controversy and overseriousness that the Premiership returns with seem inappropriate, or even ludicrous. It's a little like when one of your friends comes home from travelling in Nepal, or studying yoga in India, and goes on about how ridiculous the rat race of the developed world is.

It really puts things in perspective, man.

Undoubtedly, this quality helps keep the tournament alive and in relatively rude health. Of course, the fact that it provides novelty - in the spotlight that it throws on hitherto unheralded corners of the football map - and excitement - for those who enjoy those rare moments in the limelight - is part of it too.

But just as the attention the Premiership receives adds to its perceived 'value', the excessive importance it is imbued with is frequently tiresome and undoubtedly unhealthy. The microscopic analysis of refereeing decisions; the paranoiac vitriol of managers who, to a man, swear to being the victims of all-encompassing plots against them; the 'simulation'; the tapping; the hangdog, sleepless countenances of struggling managers whose very public humiliation seems like some unbearably cruel torture; the fear football that paralyses teams for whom relegation is now 'unthinkable' rather than merely unwelcome.

It is, of course, condescension of the first order that characterises the coverage of the cup exploits of such clubs as Tamworth. The interviews with the milkman-cum-centre forward, the chairman who spent the week painting the grandstand, the tea lady who remembers the last big Cup run in 1975.

But for all that, the restorative quality of a bit of a wander around the unfashionable outposts of the game is clear: as well as providing football with a much needed link to the past in a time of rapid change, it also reminds the game's many 'consumers', like the goat-herders of the Himalayan foothills do our bead-wearing, incense-burning friends, that there is, indeed, a whole other world out there.

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Blogger Paddy C said...

Ah the magic of the F.A. cup, remember when Trevor Brooking scored that header eh? ... but Tom, I'm surprised Henrik didn't get a mention. An auspicious debut marked by a great striker's goal.. what odds he stays at manyoo until the end of the season?

12:28 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

I'd bet his dreadlocks (which I keep in a jar of formaldehyde in my room) on fact, expect Barca-style begging him to stay another season come May. The man seems to get better with age.

I wonder will he bring on Rooney out of the little trough he's in at the moment...looking forward to see how they work together...

11:54 a.m.  

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