Saturday was a good day for The FA Cup. Wolves, victors at Anfield by a deceptively comfortable two goals to one, progressed at Liverpool’s expense, Lincoln toppled Championship-leaders Brighton, and Wycombe Wanderers gave Tottenham a mighty scare before succumbing at White Hart Lane.
All hail the underdog, then – viva la resurrection!
Well, not quite. Ironically, today provided sensual proof that FA Cup football has been mortally wounded. In the coming days and weeks, television executives and presenters will point to today as proof of the competition’s lasting appeal. Perhaps, as is typically the case, those same people will ask the sarcastic, quasi-rhetorical questions which appear at this time every year:
“Who said the romance has gone?”
Well…everybody. And they’re right.
The so-called “magic of the cup” doesn’t lie in the results themselves. The literal significance of one team beating another – and, by implication, defeating the odds – is little more than a superficial detail. The actual magic, the mysterious voodoo which gusts through the competition’s history, comes from the sense of triumph and the legends bred by the occasion. As a case in point, Ronnie Radford is more famous than the game which gave him that celebrity; supporters remember his name, his moment, and the chaotic muddiness of its context, but that Hereford beat Newcastle in 1972 is really just a consequence.
When the full-time whistle blew at Anfield, the travelling Wolves supporters swung their scarfs, sang their songs and made all the right noises and faces. Good for them: a victory they will remember forever. For the rest of us, though, it was a reminder that none of this feels as it used to – or even should. The schadenfreude wasn’t quite as acute, the glow of Wolves’ success wasn’t nearly as warm. The third and fourth-rounds of the FA Cup were once known as graveyards for the bigger sides, but in 2017 – and for many previous years – there’s no sense that anything has really died or that anybody has actually been slain.
Supporters of larger clubs will know what defeat used to mean. For children, teenagers and adults alike, a premature exit would mean both crushing disappointment and excruciating embarrassment. Once the sense of missed opportunity had begun to fade, the realisation of what Monday would bring started to loom: work places with their mocking laughter, playgrounds with their cruel snark. But while some of that still exists, it’s growing increasingly rare. When Chelsea were humiliated by Bradford City at Stamford Bridge in 2015, there was no great disgrace: social media tittered and pointed a bit and Jose Mourinho chewed wasps in front of the television cameras, but it was cheap currency for rival supporters. Chelsea and Mourinho would win the Premier League months later and, rather than a stain on their season, that Bradford loss was little more than something which had to be edited from the end of year DVD. It was a curious anomaly. Like watching a fluent, mechanical speech with a brief slip of the tongue, it wasn’t serious enough to create a prolonged distraction.
The reasons behind that need little explanation. The financial rewards for league and European progress, and the long-term consequences of promotion and relegation have altered perspectives. Moving between divisions has always been of significance but now, with great wealth at stake at the top of the pyramid and sheer survival on the line at the bottom, placing too much emphasis on cup competition seems laughably misguided. It’s very sad, but it’s still very true. David versus Goliath was no doubt an enthralling spectacle, but its appeal relied on both protoganists being equally intent on the other’s destruction. It wasn’t just something they did to fill time, but rather a contest with real, lasting repercussions. After all, Goliath didn’t simply trudge home with a mild sense of irritation and neither was he merely harassed with dozens of cry-laughing emojis.
In cup folklore, more upsets are supposed to translate to a better competition. An improbable result or an against-the-odds run through the rounds might, once upon a time, have attracted fun sponsorship deals for players or even a life-changing transfer up the divisions. Now, it’s a day out. A chance to swap shirts with a famous player and an opportunity to fill an Instagram account. Even success in these games, as Wolves experienced today, seems to be somehow incidental. The same highs may still exist, but that fleeting euphoria just can’t survive outside the confines of normal football life.
It’s a terrible realisation to reach, but even on its best days the FA Cup just doesn’t possess the emotional muscle to matter anymore.