Up for the Cup? Why it means very little now
Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger et al take a bow. Television executives give yourself a pat on the back.
Our politicians, jolly well done.
And last, but by no means least, the Football Association, give yourselves another big fat bonus – because you have all, in one form or another, contrived to achieve what I had once thought impossible.
This former FA Cup romantic has suddenly found himself out of love with the once illustrious competition.
Yes, you read it here first. For once in my life I am struggling to get myself geared up for the return of FA Cup action this year.
And as someone who has always passionately defended the competition, that is a pretty massive turnaround.
For as many years as I can remember football has played a big part in my life and the FA Cup has been at the forefront of that.
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I suppose I was lucky because my first few years following the sport coincided with a string of classic finals, all of which have stayed with me many years later.
I was aged just eight when Keith Houchen’s header in Coventry’s 3-2 victory against Spurs in the 1987 final was probably the first time football really started to make me sit up and take note.
A year later giant-killers Wimbledon conquered Liverpool 1-0, and the year after that an absolute classic saw Ian Rush’s two goals help the previous year’s losers overcome their rivals, Everton.
They are games that resonated with me so much I can still vividly remember where I watched them.
Moving into the 1990s I can recall Crystal Palace’s Ian Wright coming from nowhere to stun Manchester United in the 3-3 draw, before United overcame them in the replay.
And of course Gazza’s (and then Des Walker’s) heartache a year later in Tottenham’s 2-1 win against Nottingham Forest.
At the time it felt so important, so epic. For that one day, Wembley became the most impressive arena known to man, the perfect place to host such a gladiatorial battle.
There were only four television channels, and at the time the telly was probably the other most important thing in my life, so I knew it must have been important if one of them devoted most of the day’s schedule to it.
And of course that passion was also helped by the fact that these years coincided with a relatively successful time for Norwich, the club I was beginning to love, with us reaching the semis twice between 1989 and 1992.
But it wasn’t just about doing well in the competition, because so many of the best stories involved those who went out in the early rounds.
To those minnows and giant-killers the FA Cup was often the pinnacle. Games made careers.
And it is probably these memories which have kept me passionate in recent times as the competition has been degraded and downgraded year after year.
While the interest of many fans has waned and subsequently attendances have dropped, I have been in a form of football denial, woefully clinging on to the belief that the competition still mattered.
I have even used this column to try to keep the flame burning, trying to convince fellow fans, and of course the Norwich players, that it was still important.
But looking back on it now I think deep down even I knew.
I can remember where I was, who won and who scored in the 1988 final, some 22 years ago.
Ask me the same questions about the 2008 final and I honestly haven’t got a clue. Now I even find myself wondering if the competition means the same to those plumbers, bakers and candlestick makers who find themselves being given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play the big-boys.
It would seem I have finally given in to all those determined to show that the competition was no longer important. By this I mean: the Government by giving away its protected television status; the television companies by treating it with disdain; the aforementioned managers by fielding weakened teams and in one famous case not fielding a team at all; the fans by staying away and of course the FA by allowing it all to happen.
And as happy we all are with the goings-on at Carrow Road at this moment in time, I can’t completely let the club off the hook for their own abysmal efforts in the competition during the past decade. It gives me no pleasure to say that I won’t be at the game against Leyton Orient on Saturday.
Normally, all other plans take a back seat when it is FA Cup third round day – but this time it is the competition that plays second fiddle. I guess that makes me the same as so many other football fans, who once cherished this competition but now suddenly finds they have something better to do when it comes around.
The fear is that declining attendances will make those in charge of football and football clubs think the competition matters less to the average football fan. That it will in some way vindicate their decisions to treat it with such disrespect.
But I believe the majority, just like me, are desperate to fall back in love with the competition, and hope the powers-that-be work to return it to its former grandeur.
• FIVE OF THE REST
1. Talk about pick a bad time to go away. Family gatherings and New Year celebrations saw me miss both of Norwich’s home games over the festive period. Gutted on the one hand, delighted on the other. Two weeks ago seven points was my estimation for the four games over Christmas, but even at the time it felt a little too optimistic. But to take seven points from three games was outstanding.
2. We won’t ever be able to prove it or otherwise, but the postponed game against Crystal Palace may turn out to be a key moment of the season. Judging by Monday’s somewhat tired performance you have to wonder whether the standard of play would have been as high against QPR had that been our third game in a matter of days. What’s more we still have a chance to go and get points at Crystal Palace at a time when hopefully our injury list will not be so big.
3. Now here’s a staggering fact. After just a year and a half in the hot seat, Paul Lambert is the ninth longest-serving manager in the Championship. He stands behind just Dave Jones, Sean O’ Driscoll, Kenny Jackett, Simon Grayson, Nigel Clough, Billy Davies, Roy Keane and Malky Mackay. In terms of how ridiculous the managerial merry-go-round has become that figure says it all really.
4. We know we are doing well when we start winding up the likes of Neil Warnock. It was only a few weeks ago when he said: “I like Norwich, if I’m honest: good old Delia, the way they play.” Almost patronising. Funny how, now I assume he sees us as a real threat, the tune has changed. Talking about the sending-off, he said: “It was a con – a sneaky little one – although I expect they are very pleased with him in the Norwich dressing room.”
5. Great to see Grant Holt winding up so many managers and players, a surefire sign of a player at the top of his game. My only fear, though, is that there is the chance in the long run that those whinges pay off and referees start to eye his behaviour with more suspicion than they currently do.