Saturday, 2 February 2008

Haves, Havants and hopefuls

First published in The Grecian, 02 February 2008, Exeter City -v- Stevenage Borough

Even when, as with Exeter, your own team has been knocked out; even when the bookies say one of the ‘big four’ is bound to win; even when second-string players replace stars; even when the oft-used appellation ‘magic’ sounds beyond cliché … still the FA Cup has the capacity to grab us by the eyeballs and sum up everything football aspires to be.

The classic example came last week, when Blue Square South have-a-go-heroes Havant & Waterlooville took on the undoubted ‘haves’ of Liverpool and stole the lead from them not once but twice, before finally going down to 5-2 in a truly memorable Anfield encounter.

Rafa Benitez, cheered from the rafters even when his millionaires were 2-1 down (such is the animosity towards wealthy American owners on Merseyside right now), put it succinctly. “This couldn’t happen in Spain”, he declared, recalling that non-league teams are barred from the Copa del Rey.

It wasn’t a resentful statement – though the romance of minnows worrying the Premiership’s big fish was never likely to persuade Steven Gerrard and his bling boys to start fraternising with the bin men and caretakers.

From Havant’s perspective, the long-term benefits of a cool £240,000 proceeds from the tie will stretch a good deal further than the afterglow of a treasured defeat. Though not as long as the memories, of course.

And that’s the point. Put ‘Exeter versus Manchester United’ into Google and you’ll still come up with 26,000 hits and a forest of tales, clips and comments. For those who don’t spend their footballing days in the spotlight, the game isn’t captured in pounds and positions; it’s evoked in memories and ‘maybes’.

Like the cheeky ‘nutmeg’ Scott Hiley performed on Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance. The Portugese superstar looked momentarily annoyed, but has probably forgotten it entirely by now. For Grecians fans, and Scott himself no doubt, it will live for a lifetime.

But what of the FA Cup itself? Can it thrive and prosper in an era when Reading’s Dave Kitson can dismiss it summarily, when Premier League sides make eight or nine first-team changes in the earlier rounds, and when the chances of an outsider actually lifting it at the new Wembley seem ever more remote?

I believe it can. Because the final outcome is only part of what sustains the competition’s spell; and because our memories are a little deceptive. Though Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have won 18 of the last 20 finals between them and you’d have to go back to Wimbledon in 1988 for a real shock, the relative predictability has been with us since the 1970s.

On the other hand, ‘giant killings’ have been a regular occurrence, and if the gulf between a handful of elite sides and the rest has grown, the days of poor performances, hopelessly unfit players and endemic tactical naiveté in the lower divisions have also been banished.

Well, almost. It’s comparative, of course, but there are far fewer ‘walkovers’ than there used to be. Oddly, the real embarrassments are more likely to be experienced between teams where the gap ought not to be so great. Derby’s 4-1 humiliation by Preston, for instance.

That said, since the foundation of the Football League, Tottenham Hotspur have been the only non-league winners of the FA Cup, in 1901. They were then playing in the Southern League and were only elected to the League proper in 1908. Don’t expect that record ever to be beaten.

Meanwhile, Exeter and dozens of other aspiring giants won’t be snubbing the possibility of more Cup glory too soon, even if promotion is the unquestioned priority. Football cannot live by league status alone.

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