It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. That’s kind of how I roll – that’s why a book I started writing five years ago still sits, 20,000 words lovingly written, definitely unfinished. Time catches up with me, and I don’t make enough space in my work/commute/boyfriend/lazy arse schedule to do things like this.
So to those of you (are there any of you?) who have been waiting, I apologise.
Anyway, a blog. A blog… Ah, yes, the FA Cup third round. I’m old enough to remember the days when this was THE weekend of the year. It was huge. I can still remember being in the back of the car (I think it was a G Reg white Ford Escort) aged 10 listening to the radio as Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1992. I remember Woking winning at West Brom the previous year, and of course Sutton beating Coventry in 1989. I was proper giddy when I covered a game at Gander Green Lane a couple of years back and it LOOKED THE SAME. They’ve built on it now, but when I went it still had those vast open ends behind the goal. It was all part of the general magic of the cup. In my previous life as a lower-league football fan, reaching the third round was the Holy Grail – would there be a home tie against one of the big boys?
That isn’t the case anymore – and hasn’t been for some time. Money in the game has had such a huge effect on the FA Cup. When smaller teams get to the third round, they don’t want a big boy at home. They want them away. They want a share of the gate receipts and sod the chance of actually having your own Matt Hanlon, Tim Buzaglo or Steve Watkin. That the TV companies have actually picked some ties where small clubs are going to bigger ones for live coverage makes it even worse.
You have to admit the draw was a bit of a stinker for the romantics of us out there – but even so, the BBC and BT Sport both got it wrong. Massively wrong. The Beeb were always going to get their mitts all over the biggest all-Prem tie of the round – Manchester City’s trip to West Ham – because they don’t show a lot of live football, so they have to get the big guns when they can. Nothing to moan about there.
Preston against Arsenal was the other obvious choice for coverage, and BT snapped that one up – and Cambridge v Leeds isn’t a bad shout from BT Sport to be fair to them, a bigger club going to a smaller one, and if you’re going to get a Championship side on the road, then it might as well be them as they do travel in numbers.
But after that? Well, well, well. Tottenham v Aston Villa, Manchester United v Reading and, worse of all, Liverpool v Plymouth fill up the televised slots. All home bankers, and all ties where the Premier League side will probably look to rest players. Liverpool have horrible previous for this. Last year against Exeter – a tie that was rightly shown live from St James’s Park – Jurgen Klopp showed a complete lack of respect for the competition and the opposition with an inexperienced line-up. He’s already sown the seeds to do the same this year as well, moaning about fixture congestion on Monday when also not making changes to his Liverpool side.
I’m sure it’ll be a great experience for the Plymouth fans and players on Sunday afternoon at Anfield, and I’m sure that the Liverpool youngsters who play in the tie will also get something out of it. Good luck to them all – but it doesn’t mean that I want to watch it. I wouldn’t watch a game between an U23 team and a League Two side in the shockingly bad Johnstone’s Paint Trophy format (and I’m not alone in that one), so why would I want to watch it in the FA Cup?
There are a fair number of non-league teams who have got this far. Sadly none of them pulled out a massive tie, but the TV money on offer would make such a difference to them. They all have big stories to tell (bigger than Aston Villa travelling to Spurs for the first time in, ooh, one season) and deserve their moment in the sun.
Of the ties to miss out, Sutton v AFC Wimbledon seems the hardest done by – I’ve already talked about Sutton’s win over Coventry, but who were the holders of the cup at that time? Wimbledon, long before that club was moved to Milton Keynes and replaced by this glorious phoenix club who have risen from the very bottom to the same division as the franchise lot. If you want upsets, the number of league places between these two is far superior to Manchester United and Reading. And the glamour of the cup is far more prevalent at Gander Green Lane were two smaller clubs, both with FA Cup pedigree, go all guns blazing for a spot in the fourth round, as opposed to watching the reserves from a club who view the Cup – especially the early rounds – as an inconvenience going through the motions against sides they really should be beating easily.
And that’s the crux of it. Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham are all trying to get into the Champions League. Or even win the Premier League. That’s much more important to them than winning the FA Cup. Go out to Villa at home? We’ll get over it, as long as our best players don’t get injured. The FA need to come up with a way to make the great competition a priority again.
And I’d suggest not letting broadcasters pick crap ties like they have done would be a decent start…