05 January, 2008

128 teams of men, 1 Cup

So Dave Kitson doesn’t give a shit about the FA Cup. To be honest, in his position, I’m not sure I would either, especially when recently released economic statements revealed that finishing last in the Premier League is still more valuable to clubs than winning any other European country’s league, or even the trophy that all the other pretty cups want to ask them out on a Saturday night, the Champions League. Reading have played four matches in a seemingly more-crowded-than-ever Christmas period, and face Tottenham again today, having lost 6-4 to them just a week ago in the Premier League. Not everyone can be in the fortunate position that Arsenal are, with two full competitive teams ready to roll out any day of the week. They can survive successful life in the Carling Cup, FA Cup and Champions League, while still staying in contention for Premier League superiority. No other sides in the country, remaining ‘Big 4’ teams included, can make this boast. A minimum of £30 million for Premier League survival to a club like Reading is always going to be the focus, and reaching even the FA Cup final is just an unnecessary drain on resources.

Sounds clinical, but that’s just the approach of top flight teams to the once magical FA Cup; they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Sure, for the lower league sides, they could have conceivably played a staggering 10 rounds just to get to this stage in the competition, but what does that matter to a Premier League or Championship side? In the approach to this weekend’s third round, Newcastle United find themselves with their manager’s head on the block, fans baying for blood, and a return to Premier League ascendancy the only priority. Instead they face promising Championship side Stoke City, on a cold Sunday night in the midlands, where to save face, they must risk talent such as Obafemi Martins, James Milner and perhaps even Michael Owen. If they win, then the response is lukewarm because they’re expected to win, lose however, and the wheels come off the cart. It would a tragic state of affairs for Sam Allerdyce to be fired over this, as Stoke manager Tony Pulis has acknowledged in today’s press, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility.

But isn’t backing the underdog what makes sport and football so exciting though? If Manchester United were literally unbeatable, what entertainment would that produce, both for opposition fans and also home supporters? We won again, great, so what? The fact of the matter is that the FA Cup is not made for the Newcastles and the Liverpools, but for the Chasetowns and the Havant and Waterloovilles. They face Cardiff and Swansea respectively, in what is without doubt the biggest day of the players’ lives. That expectation and excitement is a feeling that week in, week out Premier League players cannot appreciate, so blasé are they about the money and fame that the lifestyle encompasses. You see for a Havant player, football is not a job, it’s a passion; that same passion a fan feels on the journey to a huge game, but made manifest. The Havant chairman has promised their team an end of season holiday to Las Vegas if they get a result today against Swansea, but surely no incentives are required today.

So here’s to Coventry, Sheffield United, Bristol City, QPR, Oldham, Huddersfield, Ipswich, Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol Rovers, Luton, Stoke City, Havant and Waterlooville, and of course Chasetown, the lowest ranked team still involved. Do yourselves proud boys, the boat to immortality is sailed on the blood of giants.