Balls to it all

I’m angry. For nearly 24 hours over the weekend, all the way from 4:45pm on Saturday when the full time whistle went at The Lamex Stadium, right up to 3:45pm on Sunday, just before the holy numbered balls went from bag to drum, I was excited about the draw for The FA Cup fifth round. I always look forward to a draw, but this was a bit different. Tottenham had done the business on Friday evening, albeit in a very fortunate manner in a distinctly below-par display at Vicarage Road, and then Stevenage efficiently dispatched with Notts County on the Saturday to reach the fifth round for the first time in their history. Both my clubs were there in the hat for the first time ever at this stage of the season.

I sat there in rabid anticipation, hoping for a good draw. An away day in the North West would be nice; so far I had been unlucky on that front as Spurs had been dealt two home draws, and Stevenage had followed the Stourbridge match that I couldn’t get a ticket for with drawing Reading away and then Saturday’s home tie. I hoped for a ground I’d not been to before, or perhaps a distant and exotic location such as Liverpool, Bolton or Sheffield. And ideally, either an ultimately winnable set of fixtures, or at the very least, a glory tie for Stevenage.

Well, I got that part alright. As soon as Stevenage were drawn at home my heart sank a bit; I would have to wait until the sixth round now to get a chance at that elusive FA Cup away day. And then, the nightmare opponents, ball number 10. Tottenham Hotspur.

Talk about split loyalties. Technically, I should be rooting for Spurs, and let’s be honest, I probably will be. I’ve supported them as long as I can remember, ever since my cousin passed me down one of his old shirts. I’ve followed them through the good, the bad, the downright ugly, and Christian Gross. I’ve watched Ginola and Gascoigne, Saib and Vega. Modric and Klinsmann; Doherty and Slabber. I’ve sat through some absolute dreck through the years, one of the worst being a 0-3 loss at home to Middlesbrough a few years back when I was so mad I returned home and gave my Spurs shirt away to my landlady’s kid in disgust. I’ve suffered through it all, apart from (thankfully) a relegation, not that we haven’t come pretty close a couple of times. But then, the pay day: Champions League football and the first (whisper it) title challenge in my living memory. We’ll probably still fall away from the top come May, and being a Spurs fan I’m always expecting the wheels to come off in some unexpected and catastrophic manner anyway. But the past two or three seasons have been ridiculously entertaining at times, and all of a sudden people are talking about my club as one of the best in the country. Exciting times.

Little Stevenage have always had a little place in my heart too though, from the Conference-topping season in the mid-90s, only to be cruelly and controversially denied entry to the Football League, from winning the first ever trophy at the new Wembley when lifting the 2007 FA Trophy, and then returning two years later to win it again. And now, two successive promotions and knocking on the door of a third. I don’t think I can call them “little” Stevenage anymore. I can still remember going to most home games in the mid-90s when it was £3 quid on the terraces or £4 in the stands. I went to Rochdale away last week and it was £20. Christ I sound like my Dad.

Sunday 19th February then, and live on ITV will be my two clubs, slugging it out against each other for a place in the quarter finals. I can’t say I’m not disappointed with that. I know cup romantics are saying it’s a great draw, although perhaps not quite the same as the epic occasion in 1997 when Newcastle came to town and got taken to a replay, but I’m pretty sad that I definitely won’t get a chance to see both my clubs back in the hat again for the next round.

I’m an old cup romantic at heart though, and it is probably on the face of it the most interesting tie of the round. I bloody love the FA Cup. I get so mad when people go on saying it’s lost its magic. But then…supporters tend to stay away from the matches, most clubs field weakened teams. Finishing in the top four and the riches of the Champions League is now seen as more attractive than winning a genuine trophy. Thing is though, who in 20 years time is going to give a stuff if you finished third in the league? Give me a tinpot and an open top bus parade anyday.

But that’s the way its going, and I can’t think of many ways to stop the slide. Cutting tickets prices at cup games would be a start, so the grounds are actually full at the more apathetic clubs. Not playing matches on Sundays after the draw has been made would be another. Why on earth that has started happening I do not know. And, most important of all in my eyes, stop fucking about with the final. Having it the same weekend as Premier League fixtures is wrong on every level, and only serves to give the poor cup another kicking against the Premier League juggernaut. Manchester United sealing the Premier League title an hour or two before Manchester City won their first trophy in 35 years was a situation that should never have happened, although I’m sure the red half of Manchester would probably tell you otherwise. But, due to FA greed (with them getting two Champions League finals at Wembley in three years), and the fact that there are international tournaments this summer and in 2014, this will be the case for at least another three years. And just to cap it off, word is this year’s final may be on at 5:15pm to get a wider audience. Words fail me.

I suppose ranting against the increased commercialism of football is a bit of a pointless exercise though really, not to mention about ten years too late. I’ll still keep coming back for more, and I’ll probably continue to become increasingly disillusioned as I gradually turn into a bitter and twisted old man. But so long as the world’s oldest cup competition is still going in some way, the very trophy that Tottenham last lifted over 20 years ago now, then I’ll be happy. I just hope they never draw Stevenage again.

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