The Cup Is Back! But The Magic Is Not

Who remembers FA Cup Final Saturday on the BBC?

Midday. Grandstand. Des Lynam, in a special dry-cleaned suit, perched in his studio above a quiet, empty Wembley stadium. “There’s nothing quite like Cup Final day in the calendar of sporting events. It has a mood and feel all of its own” said Des, as he turned towards his first feature of the day.

Team Bus
First up was a visit to two correspondents, each stationed at a hotel to gather the gossip as the two teams were about to leave for Wembley. Out came the tracksuited players as they passed reception, smiling at the camera, embarking the bus, suit bags being dragged out by the hanger, not an oversized set of headphones in sight.

Back to Des. A look back at the route to the final for the two teams followed by an interview at the family home of the unlucky full back who is out through injury. And still, there’s 3 hours to kick off. A while later, we stare in awe at the players as they tread the surface in their tidy pressed suits.

It was a marathon of build-up, much like their Grand National Saturday when they started in the morning and stopped just short of interviewing the horses.

Saturday Magic
Yet we loved every second of it. During the week other things had been going on. You’d been at work, where you were waiting patiently for the invention of e-mail and forced to actually speak to and forge relationships with the strange people who shared your floor space.

Or you were at school in a blazer that was too big, longing for the summer holidays and swapping football cards with your mates. I had about 10 Anders Limpars and tried to offload them in search of the elusive Clayton Blackmore.

With real life distractions midweek, when Saturday came it was time to get your football fix and it had to last you a whole week. That’s why every second of preview was cherished.

Even worse, after Cup Final Grandstand, you had to wait for 3 months for your next game.

When it arrived, it was a Charity Shield showdown that you placed the world of importance upon. Somehow in those barren summer months, you managed.

New Wembley
Of course it’s oh so different nowadays. OK, so I sound like a slipper-clad Grandad telling his bored Grandkids how it was so much better in his day. Well yes, I do remember when that Tesco you shop in used to be a field, but the passing of time is no excuse for the FA to sap the fun out of the oldest and most unique cup competition in football.

It started in the 90s. The semi-finals, traditionally staged at neutral venues were switched to Wembley. One unique feature was the Cup Final single, released by the finalists in the run up to the showpiece. Chas, Dave and Ossie Ardiles singing “Spurs are on their way to Wembley.” Nowadays, that only means you’ve made the last four. Not much to sing about.

In the noughties, the FA reverted to type and the semis were back at the likes of Villa Park, but then came the bill for the new Wembley. It’s back to London for the final four, whether you’re walking from Tottenham or getting the train from Wigan.

Even when you get there, those nets that Geoff Hurst hit twice in 1966 are gone. They were the same nets that Lawrie Sanchez headed into in ’88 and they remained until Euro ’96, when they were replaced by the international standard. It’s a small thing, but they made the Cup look different.

Now when the winning captain climbs the 39 steps, he still has another 68 to go. And when the winners return to the pitch, there’s ticker tape, flames and fireworks as they spray the Champagne, or beer as the case may be depending on what sponsor has latched on to the tournament that year. It’s Emirates this time I see. Last year the FA couldn’t even attract a sponsor.

Now we’re saturated with football from Monday to Sunday it makes Cup weekend that little less special.

Nobody REALLY wants football on a Friday night. Nobody wants razzmatazz draws being made in front of audiences. And Sheffield United fans certainly don’t want to pay £55 plus travel to watch Man United pass it sideways for 90 minutes on Saturday evening. It’s January! Are United aware we’ve had to fork out for 3 hoverboards for the kids last month?

Giant Killers
Yes, the giant killing aspect remains. This week, Exeter can join the likes of Sutton United and Wrexham when they attempt to throw a banana skin in front of Jurgen Klopp’s New Balance trainers. But on a Friday night? Sorry, I’ll be on the dancefloor plucking up the courage to speak to a girl.

Moreover, should any David slay a Goliath this weekend, the likelihood is that Goliath will have fielded a weakened squad with priority given to their bid to beat relegation or make the European places in the Premier League. To equate that to the folklore of Hereford beating Newcastle is madness, but it won’t stop the broadcasters trying to fool us with ‘the magic is back’ rhetoric.

When the Final arrives in May there will be a tussle for tickets, Corporate v Supporters’ Clubs. And as the dust settles, those lucky enough to have bagged a ticket may leave their flags at home. They may offend somebody, or better still be deemed a dangerous weapon.

5.30 Kick Off
For us at home there won’t be a Grandstand Special. Gary Lineker, the heir to Lynam’s throne, will present an hour’s worth of over-rated stats and analysis sprinkled with a few well prepared puns and quips. We’ll have the odd expert interruption from the touchline as Steve McManaman reminisces about the hideous suit he wore in ‘96. But most annoying of all, we’ll have to wait ‘til tea-time for kick off.

So as FA Cup 3rd round weekend approaches, let’s see what story emerges that allows the magic myth to be churned out yet again. But forgive me and my slippers if I switch over to the darts in the hope of seeing a 21-dart leg at the Lakeside.