Before, United fans knew that even if Fergie messed up, it was OK because Fergie was there to clear it up. Now, uncertainty. Nothing is the same. Sh*t just got real...
You simply cannot fail to smile when watching Paul Lambert do his Paternal Overseer thing with some actual skipping down the touchline. It's all just a little bit Disney...
Every year, come the middle of February, the same charade. The nation comes together in the belief that meaning can be summoned into being by sheer effort of will. Romance can happen - will happen! - if we only tell ourselves loudly enough that it can, that it will. Magic and dreams are there for the taking. We can fall in love again.
All lies, of course, a curious confection of sales-pitch and self-delusion. But pretty lies. Good lies. The alternative is to admit that the entire business is rotten. The magic is gone, the romance is dead, and the world is a bleak and unforgiving place that cares not for your sentiment nor your happiness.
No, not Valentine's Day, you fools. The FA Cup.
Romance is a tricky thing, but as a general rule, the louder it's shouted, the less it's in evidence. If you've got to tell, you ain't showing. Which is fine when it comes to Valentine's Day, which can simply be ignored, but less so when it comes to the FA Cup. Squeezed between the glamorous and monied razzmatazz of the Premier League, and the cheerfully cynical Your Advertisement Here Cup, the oldest competition in the world looks with each passing year to be diminishing in both significance and worth. Because, beyond the romance and the magic and the dreams, what else is there to shout about?
There's history, yes, but ever since Sky gleefully severed the connection between the olden days and Football 2.0, harking back has begun to occasion not so much pride or interest as awkward embarrassment. It's like mentioning Clause IV to any recently-elected Labour MP: there'll be a shuffling of feet, some coughing, an awkward silence, and then things will just move on.
There's tradition, too. Cup football is football in its purest form: winner wins, loser loses, and nobody gets a chance to make up for it next week. A bad day at the office is your last day at the office. Not only that, there is something unique about the way the FA Cup reaches back through the season and down through the pyramids, tying together the entire sprawl of English football, summer through winter to spring, amateur to professional.
But lineage and tradition and history don't make games worth watching. When it comes to the most important thing - that the teams involved respect the competition enough to generate those moments of romance - the FA Cup is running on fumes. Any big-club upset is immediately swallowed back into the onrushing torrent of hunt-the-crisis; any run from the lower leagues is patronised rather than celebrated; any good draw away from home is hailed for its financial return.
The big beasts start to take it seriously only when they suddenly find themselves in the latter stages; and yet, as a faintly ironic counterpoint, it's never been so homogenous in its victors. It doesn't have even have primacy as an end-of-season showpiece any more; as amusing as it was for Manchester United fans, the bumping of the 2011 final to the penultimate weekend of the league season, the better to accommodate UEFA's travelling circus, was among the more depressing acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory.
There's nothing left but this mantra-like insistence on these vague and fuzzy concepts, as though magic could be summoned into being by saying "magic". The whole thing reeks of decay, like a marriage that found the conversations becoming arguments, the arguments becoming silences, and is now being held together by nothing but habit, weariness and negative equity.
Twelve red roses and a box of Milk Tray isn't going to solve anything. Romance travels up, not down. ESPN have been entreating us to watch the Cup of Dreams. Could you fall in love with anybody that dreamed of Budweiser?
@ delboy, good shout - notice the same thing happening with international football, too? Also I think the Cup Final has a lost a lot of its charm because, after 15 years of pointless moaning "magazine" articles about how overpaid footballers are, its only watched by partizan football fans, and people who live to tutt.- wheresmyhair77