Storage Hunters. Seen it? It's a slightly preposterous US TV programme where unclaimed storage bins are auctioned off to the highest bidder, or more precisely to a small hand-picked cast of characters surrounded by extras. It's hokey old fun. It purports to be 'reality' but, for more reasons than I can trouble you with here, it clearly isn't. It's fake or at least it's faked to some large degree in order to craft a TV show. It's entertaining for a bit but every show is the same as the last and soon becomes predictable. It is the perfect analogy for the state of the FA Cup; it looks like the real thing but underneath it isn't.
What a tedious and impotent weekend of football we've just had. Some are ever keen to spew out that awful cliché, 'they say the magic of the FA Cup is dead but...' which in itself is the an illustration of just what a dead duck the FA Cup really is. Every year someone kicks the FA Cup corpse and tries to pretend they can still see it breathing but they can't really. It's all make-believe. It keeps happening but no-one really cares and no amount of 'look here's a non-League player and he's got a real job' TV packages will change that.
A typical experience was that utterly dispiriting 4-0 win for Everton at Stevenage. Magic of the cup, you say? Urgh. Watching Sheffield United taking on Fulham was another typical modern cup experience. The empty seats told its own story. A game neither side, given a choice, would have wanted to play as both are distracted by the threat of relegation. Of course, Fulham were worried that some of their awful first team players might get injured so played some even more awful reserves instead. If the Blades had won, it wouldn't have been by beating an actual Premier League team but a Premier League team's rubbish reserves which is just not the same sort of achievement that the 'giant-killing' tag implies. Yet annoyingly we're constantly asked to pretend when it happens, that it is.
Yes, it's a game of football and there's always something to be enjoyed in that but let's stop faking it. 'The shock is on,' said the commentator as Sheffield United went in to half-time 1-0 up, desperate for a story to make himself feel something, to make the whole thing have the pretence of worth. But it wasn't a shock was it? And can a shock be 'on'? Surely that negates it's actual shock value. The final result, a 1-1 draw will not be seen by both teams as a chance for another exciting game but as a burden or curse. TV won't be interested because once the Premier League side is at home what faux glamour there is supposed to be totally evaporates. The inevitable Fulham win will happen. They'll be sick to have to play another game and United pleased it's all over.
No-one wants the farce to continue, certainly not Mark Hughes' Stoke City side who were lacklustre enough to lose at Chelsea while expending the least amount of effort. It's not the same as throwing the game but in an instance like this the difference seems small enough to render the word competition irrelevant.
No replays, seeded draws, Premier League clubs being forced to be away from home, a Champions League place for the winners are just a few of the suggestions from those who want to go back in time and pretend it's still 1973. It's not. Give it up now. It's not worth it.
In a way the League Cup is a far more credible competition these days because at least no one lies about its importance and it tends to be played in a more open spirit. Everyone is faking a relationship with the FA Cup and that makes the whole thing especially cringe-worthy. The desperation amongst media outlets for a 'big tie' or more specifically a 'giant killing' is now such a cliché that even an actual giant killing feels more like an accidental death where the so-called giant was already terminally ill and, up close, wasn't even that big anyway. In so fervently praying for a lower league team to win, they've accidentally revealed just what a vacuous waste of time it all is.
When the FA Cup was big, the football media was small. The live game was a rare beast, footballers on TV were almost unheard of. The whole thing was special. The gap between the top and bottom of the league structure was, though still large, not as large as now. The pitches were often as bad in the top flights as in the fourth. It all helped to occasionally even things out. But now in football and in society more broadly, we live in thrall to an elitist culture, dedicated to over-rewarding a tiny minority and letting the masses fight it out for the crumbs from that elite's table. In that context the FA Cup seems a bit out of place as men paid anywhere from one to ten million pounds a year run alongside others paid 1% of that. Maybe subconsciously that's actually just very embarrassing for all concerned as it reveals the gross inequalities at the root of modern football culture. Certainly the disparity between the cup rhetoric and the commitment shown has never been more gaping.
And anyway, who wants to play in it when there is hanging on to 17th in the Premier League to play for, merely in order to afford to do so again next season and the next season after that in a downward spiral of pointlessness? That's the world we live in now. It would be nice if it wasn't the case but it is. Even Championship sides see it as a distraction to the business of getting into the play-offs.
For decades the FA Cup was great because everyone believed in it and wanted to win it and, in a small way, thought they might have an outside chance of success. But now that's not the case. Even Wigan's great win last year hasn't dislodged the notion that slowly but surely it has withered on the vine. As amazing as it might seem now, winning the cup was often seen as a bigger, more prestigious achievement than winning the league. That's how much things have changed.
Today it resembles a currency that everyone has stopped believing has any value and has inevitably become worthless. The grandiose words used to describe it have little meaning now, they are just echoes from history, as tired and overworked as the footage of Ronnie Radford's winning goal for Hereford against Newcastle. The FA Cup; like Storage Hunters - it's kind of real but also kind of fake.
Don't let Dave Whelan hear you talking like this, John; he'll come and break your leg! Just like he did, while playing for Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 FA Cup final.- ted, manchester