Initial considerations

It’s very easy to over-romanticise the FA Cup. Worse culprits than ITV are hard to find, with the broadcaster assured of the similarity between it and the TARDIS, the game as a time-machine able to whip up mythical good-old-days of level playing fields and jumpers for goalposts.

(“Level playing fields never existed,” comments the cynical old friend of mine. “We’d struggle not to do our ankles on the molehills.”)

It is ten years after – this should be the only time I type this today – “magic of the Cup” was debated within a stitch of its life following Manchester United’s decision to fly half-way round the globe rather than take part. From fair-weather fans to utter fanatics, the future of the Cup and by extension English football was exhaustively debated and analysed, with my then boss at the time agreeing totally with “Brand Utd” sidestepping the competition “they have clearly outgrown”.

The discussion comes round again this season, related in that spooky-fate-and-fortune sort of way to Manchester United. Following the turning of Old Trafford into a holding bay for Texan debt, plans scrawled on the back of naan bread by disillusioned fans created FC United of Manchester, a protest club which would turn into something non-league football had not quite seen before. Fan-owned, eschewed of shirt sponsors, and now with share-save style promotions to raise money for a new ground, FCUM made an extra slice of history their own this week by beating Rochdale in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup.

(Remember for teams of the Pyramids, the Cup starts in August).

FCUM polarise and divide opinion to this day. Their reputation within the hitherto stuffy world of non-league is polarised. Frankly the atmosphere and attitude was long overdue for some clubs at the lower levels, whose grounds desperately needed the singing, chanting and enthusiasm of League football which FCUM almost always guarantee. The terraces of some provincial towns must thing the echoing choruses of football crowds have been missing for generations. When Burscough, the team I follow, played Boston some years ago, their supporters acted just as they would in the League, an attitude FC has maintained despite long years clawing their way through Leagues were polite applause can be sneered at…

The FCUM attitude to the FA Cup has been one of hyperactivity, giddyness and outright hunger for success. The jokes about meeting Manchester United in the Third Round are told with straight-faced seriousness…..

…..which reflects very differently to the attitude in the London Borough of Merton…..

Below are three Tweets sent to me in response to questions forwarded to those AFC fans suggesting their potential game with MK Dons could be boycotted or even forfeited:

@doktorb Not really. It justifies them. And they say we’re arch rivals, but we’re nothing of the sort.

@doktorb why? The idea of playing the franchise isn’t like playing rivals you realise. I don’t want rivals to go bust.

@doktorb i genuinely would not want to be there which is different from principled boycott stance

The extent of the disquiet – to put it mildly – amongst AFC Wimbledon fans against a potential match with MK Dons utterly stunned and silenced me. There is no charity, no olive branch, no eagerness for playing “rivals”. The two teams may appear to have been cut from the same protest movement cloth….It is only on closer inspection that the different patterns are discovered. Although a minority of AFC fans want the game to go ahead, there is no pounding-heart nostalgia amongst the majority. FA Cup or not – achievement of making the First Round Proper or not – “Franchise FC” would not be welcome at the “home of the Dons”.

(I highly recommend this WSC blog on the subject)

Such is the continuing problems at the heart of the oldest club cup competition. AFC fans are clearly principled – mayhaps too principled to the point of blindness. It is just as easy to over romanticise the fan-power teams as it is the Cup itself. How we all paint the game in the garish pop-art colours of the ITV title sequence, wrap every fault in scarves and wooly-hats. There are hooligan tendencies within the fan base of both AFC and FCUM, there are non-league fans unhappy at the perceived easy ride given the ‘novelty factor’. Nevertheless both sides have ultimately transformed the non-league organisation as much as the game.

There will always be exceptions to prove rules. FC fans are out there now sharpening defiance against ever playing Manchester United, and of course AFC Wimbledon fans who are excited by the prospect of playing Milton Keynes look forward to each respective replays. Ultimately, however, the Cup is only a symbol for the sides at their level, an icon too far to reach, the fervour amongst clubs and fans overblown and knowing. It has not been the Cup we’ve wanted it to be for years. Blame whoever you like for ‘reinventing the wheel’.

It keeps on spinning. AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester find themselves positioned on opposite sides…

playing on the right

Breathless, verbless news coverage met me this morning. BECKHAM INJURY SHOCK WORLD CUP LATEST.

I had assumed – expert on right-sided midfielders that I am not – that common consensus amongst front-room Fabios had agreed upon the notion of Beckham barely featuring in South Africa at all, almost to the point of inventing a Walcott/Wright-Phillips hybrid capable of combining pace with accuracy of crosses. Until such a splice actually exists – no, don’t think too much on that either – I will continue to largely sit out the 2010 equivalent of the mid-90s baroom discourse on “Why the left in English football is an almost impossible position to fill”.

If the sight of both Beckham and former England posterboy Michael Owen limping off with injuries on the cusp of middle age is not too much of a reality check for people (don’t….just don’t….), I found solace and reality all bundled together in a footballing context down at the humble setting of the Unibond Premier league. While my own club Burscough continue to suffer from successive poundings and High Court nail-biting, two places below the plucky stalwarts from Durham FC make things all the better to be alive.

In short, Durham beating FC United of Manchester 2-1 at Gigg Lane may not seem to much to make life seem nicer in a roundabout, barely tangible way. However the details really do shine a big light of reality on the hyperactive, hypereality of Premier League excess and showboating celebs. Durham barely have the right to exist, stripped of their sponsors and funding after an FA ruling against plastic pitches and “University teams”. With almost 30 games of this season gone, Durham had a goal difference of minus-120, not even a draw to their name, and the ignominy of a 6-point deduction for pulling the “Sunday League trick” of registering a player under a false name. That Durham won at all is worth celebrating; that their fans have stuck by them through cricket score drummings with Newcastle or Sunderland or Middlesbrough or even Conference side Gateshead on their doorstep is worth more than just a pint lifted to the skies. Durham sum up far more than a romantic notion of “real” football; they did what they could over a very hard season to brush themselves down, offering local teenagers the chance to play against semi-pro and ex-League players, and did so every week from Kendal in the north to King’s Lynn in the south with a good natured smile on their face every time.

King’s Lynn, of course, were wound up for debts far less than the hourly wage bill of Manchester United. That Durham got their first ever win against FC United of Manchester surely adds that extra line of black irony to the story. Long may Durham have success when the inevitable relegation occurs.

I am no more a football “purist” than I am a real-ale evangalist. It is just refreshing to have moments away from the big brands and tiresome Big 4 soap operas. Long may the lower leagues offer this break from the ‘norm’.

upsidedown

London – aim one. Maybe I could find the pub half-way up the Northern Line with the French “mathscore” band upstairs, the place from which I had to belt down towards the Underground station due to complete ignorance about matters relating to Night Buses. Many years ago now, thinking about it. My hotel was way out East, employing only – it seemed at the time – surly Spanish women and clearly bored West African men.

But any future plans could be turned upside down, they often are. Everything slots into place in my brain rather like the placings in school sports day races. Once such a thing and t’other things are done, only then can I do Activity C followed by subsequent pencilled-in ideas. There is a way through, most things are not always as complex as they seem.

Financial matters are quite another matter. Got the dreaded Television License letter through the post – for the first time in….ten years, now….I have to pay the whole thing rather than being one part of a shared household. Oh growing up, you never promised me so many outgoings when I was younger….

But you know things are going alright, really. Routines are easily returned too following holidays, after all. The same people are catching the same bus, just as ever, indeed the 126 retains the peculiar “arbitrary stop” half-way to Brig as though there’s some ritual among bus-drivers. Maybe there’s a reason.

Bury (football, for FC United. T’was good to see Burscough winning last night. It took me two-and-a-half-hours to get to Moorthorpe for Frickley on Saturday. Never thought West Yorkshire was quite so far away until I was in the arms of Northern Rail). Then London? What to do on pay-day weekend, if owt? There’s something that needs slotting in….what is it….Health Insurance, darn it, still not got that sorted. Or the gas meter people.

Right….until the next time….I’ve got more ad hoc diary preparing to sort out….