‘Dave Sexton. Always Looks So Serious’
Not an especially iconic piece of commentary, but Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words about Chelsea’s splendidly inscrutable manager during the 1970 FA Cup Final are as evocative to me as his rather more memorable words in the World Cup Final 4 years before remain to the rest of the nation. Not that the rest of the nation was excluded on this occasion either. The match remains in the Top 10 most watched UK TV events of all time to this day, sandwiched neatly at no. 5 just behind the Apollo 13 splashdown of the same year & ahead of Charles & Diana’s wedding in 1981.
Shortly afterwards, a John Dempsey goal kick (taking them for Peter Bonetti after he had been crocked by one of Leeds happy band of talented thugs) hung in the air as the remarkably tolerant referee Eric Jennings blew the final whistle & Chelsea had won their first ever FA Cup. I was 8 years old. Chelsea & I were both invincible. Or so I thought.
Misty water-coloured memories. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Actually, Gladys Knight & Barbra Streisand, I rather think it can. As we walked home from school in Oxford during the 1970’s dozens of men would hurtle past on their bikes, having finished their shift at the British Leyland car plant. One of them was a tiny man called Frankie Kowalski, who on Saturday afternoons would be reborn as a dapper figure in a straw boater & black suit, its gold trimmings betraying his role as the mascot for Oxford United. He would offer his wares all around the stadium (primarily match programmes, badges & scratch cards) never once baulking at the journey past fans in the away end, eyes twinkling & a smile never far away from the lips immediately below his pencil moustache. My god he got some grief. He used to travel away too, & even got stabbed one night at Preston. In 1970 Oxford were drawn at home to Stoke & a large cut out replica of the FA Cup was prepared for Frankie to carry around the ground before the match. Sadly, he broke his arm & was denied his big moment, cutting a forlorn figure, arm in a sling, as someone else grabbed the glory. We all felt his pain.
It is appropriate that the FA Cup kicks off in earnest immediately after Christmas. A love for both relies on a large slice of suspended disbelief & constant referral to childhood memory, but so what? We need the break from winter gloom that Yuletide offers us all, regardless of how few practicing Christians remain or the fact that the enduring modern image of Santa was lifted from a major advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930’s. The difference is that we all buy into the conspiracy of lies that holds Christmas together. With the FA Cup it is more complex. Many of us still do believe in this fantastic tournament, it’s the administrators, TV companies &, sadly, many of its participants who increasingly strive to undermine it, & starve many younger fans of the true FA Cup experience that would ensure its continued survival as a competition of joy & wonder.
One match in last year’s tournament highlighted this. Fulham were drawn away at Cardiff in the 3rd round. On a Sunday morning. The game kicked off at 11.30 with a paltry 5,000 in attendance. How on earth were Fulham fans expected to make that trip? The answer is that they weren’t, the TV money doing the talking as usual. Furthermore, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock’s Linda Evangelista style post match comments underlined his clear disinterest in the process. He ‘struggled to get out of bed’ for the game apparently, the poor overfed, overpaid, pampered love. Fascinating that it is often the jowelly, boiled beef & carrots English managers, the self-styled keepers of the flame for the true spirit of British football, who are the first to sacrifice their club’s fans rights to dream of cup advancement at the altar of Premiership survival, rather than the foreign coaches who supposedly don’t understand the culture of our game. Not to mention that Cardiff aren’t even in The Premier League & the season still had 4 months to run. Does the usually ebullient Warnock secretly have so little belief in his own ability that he felt it such a burden to put out a competitive team in a tournament that Cardiff reached the final of not so long ago? This prannet is not alone though. There are dozens of notable managers who have treated the tournament & their own fans with similar contempt over the past 20 years. Sam Allardyce in his Bolton years was always prone to playing weakened teams, not to mention any number of Newcastle managers apparently indifferent to the hunger for glory that burns in their fans. When the miserable pragmatist wins out over the romance & fantasy traditionally surrounding the FA Cup then you know that modern football, for all the money sloshing around within it, is still getting a lot of things wrong.
Winning the FA Cup would have been the pinnacle for managers like Allardyce & Warnock once upon a time. The final was once the only live domestic club fixture on the footballing calendar, screened simultaneously by both BBC & ITV, their schedules cleared by both from early morning for hours of pre-match build up. This year it will play second fiddle to a royal wedding, kicking off to wide disinterest save for the fans of the two teams, & (the one thing that has remained constant since the tournament’s glory years) Wembley bound freeloaders, as ever indulged by the FA at the expense of true fans on the big day.
The decline in romance surrounding the tournament is borne out by the frequent suggestion that giving it the life support of a Champions’ league place for the winner is its only long-term hope. It is easy enough to understand. Saturation coverage of the sport has not generally broadened the mind of the modern fan, merely enabled them to insulate themselves against the backdrop of incessant social media driven venom spewed at them by rival teams’ supporters. They can watch their own teams’ games & switch off. I do it myself. More choice & easy access to matches appears to be slowly suffocating us all. The days are gone when we would let the story of the entire tournament breathe & unravel before us, happy to listen to radio commentaries & watch highlights of any ties because they were FA Cup games, the glory of the competition shining through regardless. I once got totally wrapped up in a series of matches between Arsenal & Sheffield Wednesday. I hate Arsenal & have no affiliation to Sheffield Wednesday but can vividly recall sitting in the bath with my radio on listening to them playing out a second replay at Leicester City’s Filbert Street. Now I would barely glance at the score online the following day, but the far less commercial world of football in the 1970’s succeeded in drawing me in & building a healthier interest in the game as a whole. I don’t want to go back there, & love knowing no Chelsea goal will ever be scored that I cannot get to see, but how strangely parochial this brash, gleaming new digital world has made us.
Ever since Rupert Murdoch slipped his first crisp tenner into the garter belt of the footballing authorities who used to run the game before people like him did, there has been a massive erosion of commitment to the wishes & desires of fans. For many of them, following & upholding the rituals & traditions of the game are vital components to a continued enjoyment & love of the sport. No football competition is as rich in ritual & tradition than the FA Cup, & until FIFA’s latest antics with the World Cup, no competition in the modern era has been abused & devalued by its supposed guardians so disgracefully. The turn of the century saw the processes leading to this devaluation of this fabulous tournament, that had, for over a century, provided innumerable moments of drama & brilliance on the road to supplying the end of season showpiece in the English footballing calendar. Attendance wise the FA Cup was the biggest show in town. In the season before the inception of the Premier League I left work early one Wednesday night to make the usual 100 mile round trip (plastic tourist!) to a rain-soaked Stamford Bridge to see a 1-1 draw with Southampton. There were 7,000 people there. 3 days later Chelsea entertained Sheffield United in the FA Cup 5th round. 35,000 turned up. At the turn of the century 8 years later the treble holding Man Utd were implored, in fairness ahead of their own better judgement, not even to enter the tournament. Convinced by a government lobby led by Chelsea supporting Tony Banks Man Utd did indeed pull out in 2000. The tournament has never truly recovered, with its spiritual home, the old Wembley Stadium, also staging its last final that season. Chelsea won that year but the unconfined joy which had followed victory over Middlesbrough 3 years earlier seemed absent. The match against Aston Villa was abysmal & the greatest pleasure seemed the rescuing of a EUFA Cup place after a disappointing league campaign, with the players thus avoiding an early return to pre-season training & a qualifying campaign via the dreaded Inter Toto Cup. In fairness the die was already cast prior to this, as the brave new world of the Premier League & Sky not only ushered us away from the horrors of the Heysel & Hillsborough era, but also caused a massive upheaval to a century of football watching habits. Previously tailored by the need to maximize attendances by playing matches at a time appropriate to the recreational requirements of the paying spectator, kick off times started, instead, to be guided by the advertising requirements of the companies targeting the armchair couch potato. It is difficult for this footballing Luddite not to feel pangs of nostalgia, or to wonder whether the baby has gone out with the bath water. Especially when faced with another season of the regimented sterility of the Champions’ League Group stages & the seemingly interminable Europa League, not to mention the once much vaunted international breaks. A little piece of me dies every time we lose another weekend of fixtures in order that England can concentrate on the arduous task of beating Malta 2-0.
Replays were once an essential part of the enduring appeal of the FA Cup, disrupting the fixture lists with a carefree anarchy which would cause wide-scale horror within football now. As a young man I played cricket with a non league legend called John Woodley. He had a few memorable FA Cup moments during his distinguished footballing career (903 games!) but perhaps most notably played in the longest FA Cup tie ever. His team, Oxford City eventually lost it, 1-0 to Alverchurch, in the 5th replay at Villa Park. In the 5th replay! What a fabulous thing to have been part of. Such games captured everybody’s imagination. In 1982 I was living in Hull & braved an unimaginably cold night to watch The Tigers draw 2-2 after extra time with Rochdale prior to an eventual second replay victory at Elland Road. This led to a 3rd round tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Having been postponed on the Saturday the two teams played out a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge on a Monday night. I beat the ban on Chelsea fans comfortably for the replay 3 days later (living in Hull may have helped!) to see brilliant goals from Alan Mayes & John Bumstead take The Blues through to play Wrexham in the next round. This took place a mere 2 days later. Another draw led to a replay 3 days after that. Which was also a draw! 11 days later Chelsea eventually went through in a second replay. Was it all worth it? Undoubtedly. Chelsea, then a mid-table second division team beat the European champions Liverpool in the 5th round. These are the things that dreams are made of as the then chart topping Human League would doubtless have informed us. All these replays would be considered commercial madness now. The Hull-Rochdale match at Elland Road attracted about 1600 people. All I would say is that sport extends beyond satisfied sponsors & bankers. These games sustained the cup dreams of the clubs involved. Lots of people call for 4 day Test matches now. They point to paltry fifth day crowds but millions are following around the country. I assume we don’t want to be denied future heroics like those of Ian Botham & Bob Willis at Headingley in 1981 by the grinding demands of commerce. Maybe my head is stuck firmly in the sand, but when fans talk as enthusiastically about Peter Kenyon building the Chelsea brand in 2003 as they do Peter Osgood breaking the Arsenal net in the FA Cup in 1973, I want to submerge it further.
Chelsea can actually hold their head up more than many of the bigger clubs when their recent FA Cup history is examined. There were a couple of limp exits at Newcastle & Man City under Mourinho, & an uncharacteristically appalling & arrogant performance at Oxford in the Vialli era, which could & should have seen them knocked out. When they have lost to lower division teams in recent times, they have been beaten fair & square, once at Barnsley & most famously at home to a vibrant Bradford City in 2015. Despite not having an English manager since 1996 Chelsea coaches & players have usually shown a proper level of respect & commitment in all domestic competitions. Chelsea fans have always loved the FA Cup too. However, nothing summed up confused, contrary modern attitudes towards the FA Cup more than the afternoon of January 31st, 2016. Chelsea played at MK Dons, taking over 7,000 reliably magnificent & very vocal away supporters with them. Just embarking on facilitating the slow recovery from the madness of the last days of the increasingly unstable Mourinho, coach Guus Hiddink chose a nicely balanced team of established stars mixed in with younger players like Bertrand Traore & Ruben Loftus-Cheek. They won the game 5-1. No arrogant disregard for the oldest & greatest knockout competition there. I used to keep an eye on online comment in those days. Twitter was very quiet. For once the Rupert’s & Toby’s of BBC Online couldn’t find a pithy quote from king of tweeting cretiny Danny Baker. They love him because you suspect many of them have never actually met a truly working class person before, & pandering to a grotesque apology for one like Baker is as close as they will ever get. In the last, not at all special days of King Jose, a mere two months earlier, Chelsea had lost at home to Bournemouth. Baker was in his element,spewing out bilious anti Chelsea tweets with relish. I lost count at 14. The happy, fez wearing, wine glass waving, fun-loving family man who writes ‘to make people happy’ apparently had nothing else to do on a Saturday night but dispense his pointless opinions & indulge his already grotesquely over inflated sense of self-worth. Time to climb into the Baker loft & dust down that Yahtzee box I reckon. The uncharacteristic silence during the MK Dons game did not last long of course, due to another bozo, who spoke for nobody but himself, calling in to talk to Ian Wright & claiming that Chelsea had grown too big for the FA Cup & should no longer enter it. According to Mr Baker this showed how far Chelsea still had to fall. The 5-1 win & the superb support of 7,000 proper Chelsea fans were promptly forgotten in favour of highlighting the gormless comments of one rent-a-quote gobshite (beamed in from the radio phone-in hell that our Danny helped popularize) as the moronic inferno of Twitter flared up once again. In the next round Chelsea also won 5-1, against a hopelessly limp & under strength Man City line up. Baker was off again. Chelsea were ‘clinging to the FA Cup like Keith Richard searching for the last shot of heroin in town’ apparently. Nice one Danny. Glad that 1978 joke book is still coming in handy. Had Chelsea made as pathetic & half-hearted attempt as Man City in this match, an insult to their supporters, opponents & the competition itself, the outcry would have carried on for weeks. Instead Chelsea made every effort to win the match & advance their chances of winning a trophy. How very dare they. Trying to win an FA Cup 5th Round tie these days apparently makes you the object of ridicule. Sad. The phone-in bozo was probably a kid. Others are old enough to know better. I have avoided Twitter & Danny Baker since that season. At least he hasn’t, as far as I know, publicly wished cancer on Chelsea supporters. Not yet anyway. He likes publicly wishing cancer on people. Just ‘trying to make people happy’ eh? Dick.
Even the low point of Bradford in 2015 highlighted how the FA Cup can still, even now, bring out the best in the unlikeliest of people, as Jose Mourinho, seemingly now a permanently spiteful, sour presence, went into the opposition dressing room & congratulated all their players & staff, before swiftly giving a gracious & endearing television interview. It seems a bit far-fetched to ever hope for a repeat of that now, but I like to think that the peppery old pillock was, however temporarily, imbued with the spirit of the true guardians of the competition. This includes dear, long departed Frankie Kowalski, who I like to think was looking on approvingly & finally getting to hold his replica trophy aloft in triumph. Because if even Jose still gets it, then maybe the FA Cup still has half a chance.
Let’s hope so.