Thursday, 3 April 2008

Still the people's game

First published in The Grecian, 03 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Droylesdon

Right now the focus at St James’ Park is not on the FA Cup, or any other cup. What Exeter City need, without a doubt, is three points to keep us in the play-off zone and right on that promotion pathway – following the disappointment of five points out of six dropped on the road at Crawley (I was there, on a bitterly cold night) and York. [Nb: The Grecians have won at Halifax since then; but this programme note was written way back in March. The Droylesdon game was postponed until tonight - so the penultimate para is a little out-of-date]

For others, however, the Cup still overflows. I’m thinking of Barnsley (back-to-back wins over jolly giants Liverpool and Chelsea), Cardiff (an away win at Middlesbrough) and West Brom (who frustrated Bristol Rovers, but now have a crack at Manchester United’s vanquishers, Pompey).

Believe it or not, some of the whiners on internet message boards for ‘the Big Four’ were complaining last week that “the FA Cup has been devalued” – not by the Football Association’s highly questionable decision to use Wembley to stage the semi-finals, mind, but by the early exit of their precious teams.

What? The usual complaint from the Premier Leaguers, even down to Reading’s Dave Kitson, whose only glory this year might be avoiding relegation, is that the world’s most prestigious national Cup competition has become a bit of a meaningless distraction. Now they are upset they’re not in it.

You’ll recall that the rot set in, or was confirmed, when Manchester United made an ill-fated decision not to compete in 2000, travelling instead to Brazil in January for the inaugural World Club Championship – where they were promptly humiliated.

But the idea that the 135-year-old FA Cup lacks genuine meaning when MUFC, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, who expect to continue their dominance, are knocked out, will be greeted with hilarity in many more than four other locations come the semis on 5 and 6 April.

By contrast, for the neutrals this has been a vintage year. Every round has produced its heart-stopping twists, turns and upsets. Just as we thought “the romance of the Cup” could have become a clichĂ© too far, the hope that football might truly remain the people’s game has been restored.

Whatever happens, and even if the famous trophy heads to the South Coast’s Premier boys, as everyone close to Fratton Park believes will happen, one of a set of teams who have not held that Cup aloft for at least 40 years will assuredly do so on 17 May. Barnsley last won in 1912, Cardiff in 1927, Portsmouth in1939 and West Bromwich Albion in 1968.

The stranglehold of the Capital and certain other outposts has also been broken, with the semi-finalists coming from the north, the Midlands, the non-London south and Wales – which for our purposes can be thought of in kinship with the southwest. Hey, the Cup could even head out of England for the first time in 61 years!

In a strange way, although Exeter’s interest in the competition ended disappointingly in a 1-0 defeat at Bury on 1 December, all this should matter to us, too. The Grecians know the excitement and heartbreak of Wembley, and as we are not going to win the Blue Square Premier outright in 2008, we are all rooting that we’ll have our day again in May via those play-offs – this time with a win propelling us back into League Two. First, of course, there’s the small matter of Droylsdon today, Kidderminster Harriers next week, an away trip to Weymouth, and then Halifax, before the critical April run in.

I’m not offering any predictions, but let’s put it this way – no Cup style upsets please, lads. You can do it.


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