Something very sad happened to me on Sunday 6th April. It was the day that I realised that the FA Cup had finally lost its ‘magic’.
I was watching the semi-final between Cardiff and Barnsley on the television and my fourteen year-old football mad son said, “I don’t care about this game,” and walked out of the room to go and play on his computer.
When I was fourteen there is no doubt that the FA Cup was the greatest competition in the world. It was 1975. West Ham played Fulham in the final and I was so excited because West Ham had Watford old boy Billy Jennings in their team. It was unbelievable. A player I had watched and cheered so many times at Vicarage Road was actually playing at Wembley in the FA Cup final. How good could things get?
Just nine years later I was at Wembley watching Watford in the final. I cried all the way through the singing of ‘Abide with me’ and I have never been more proud. (OK, we lost and played crap, but that’s not the point.)
Now, you have to remember that we are talking long before the twenty-four hour a day seven days a week coverage of football that we get now. In fact I think we might be talking about before the invention of electricity! All we had in those days was highlights of one or two matches on Match of the Day, a couple of games on ITVs ‘The Big Match’ and football focus on a Saturday lunchtime.
Everything else I knew about football I found out from reading newspapers and magazines, Shoot, Goal, Charles Buchan football monthly, talking to mates and going to watch Watford at fortress Vicarage Road.
FA Cup final day was different. There were cameras at the team hotels. You actually saw the players having their breakfast! You saw them interviewed and had the sort of access to the workings of a football club that was not possible at any other time in those days.
Then the camera went on the team coach and you got to see the teams heading to Wembley. I can’t tell you how exciting that was. In between items with the teams we would have ‘It’s a cup final knockout’ with supporters of both teams taking part in stupid games. We would have celebrity supporters of both teams crawling out of the woodwork to appear on Grandstand. There would be comedians from both towns or cities of the finalists battling it out to be the funniest.
It was the only day of the year that you watched television all day. It was the only day of the year that you got to see behind the scenes. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of every football fans year.
So for people as old as me the FA Cup will always be special. I don’t care if Liverpool only put half a team out against Barnsley or Reading declare that the FA Cup is unimportant. It will never be so in my eyes.
In the fourth round this year, my very own beloved Watford rested several players and we lost heavily at home to Wolves. The next week we played them in the league with a full team and beat them. For me, I would have swapped results. How can my Watford not take the cup seriously? It is sacrilege.
When my son said, “I don’t care about this game,” I wanted to tell him exactly what the FA Cup meant. I wanted him to share in the romance, excitement and sheer joy that the competition used to give me. Unfortunately there would be no point. He really doesn’t care. The Premier League and the Champions League is all he cares about. I can’t even get him to support Watford!
I can’t blame my son though. If you hear Ferguson, Wenger, Grant or Benitez talk about the FA Cup they pay lip service to its history, but they don’t care about it either. It is a competition that no longer matters and I find that very sad.
It was so refreshing to hear Harry Redknapp say yesterday that he would give up sixth place in the league and finish tenth if they could guarantee winning the cup. Barnsley fan Michael Parkinson said that he would accept relegation if they got to the final. Then I realised that these two men are even older than me. They have the same happy memories from childhood.
Whatever happens to the FA Cup from now on it will always be a special competition for people of my age. I shall watch the final between Portsmouth and Cardiff and I shall get a tear in my eye when ‘Abide with me’ comes on and when the teams walk out.
My kids will look at me in a pitying and condescending way and go and play Football Manager on the computer whilst I sit and watch the greatest final in World football. They will be trying to take Manchester United to World domination on a computer by spending millions of pounds on the best players in the world, whilst I remember some very special and exciting times when football, and particularly the FA Cup, were very different indeed.