Field of dreams

emirates-fa-cup-on-stand-on-pitch

One of my sons is a football fanatic (wonder where he got that from?) and in many ways, it is far easier for him to feed his addiction than it was for me when I was growing up.

Nowadays, with a season that lasts around 10 months of the year accompanied by blanket TV coverage, he can pretty much find a game to watch whenever he likes.

But one casualty from that relentless diet of top class games is the element of unpredictability.

Each summer, pundits make their forecasts for the year ahead and these generally contain few surprises as the big teams get bigger and the others make up the numbers.

It is rare that an unheralded team is able to muscle in on this unofficial cartel and if that does ever happen, it is generally only because they have been bankrolled by some oligarch somewhere, investing his billions in a new plaything to keep him amused.

Gradually any other elements that could upset the apple-cart have also become neutralised – boggy pitches, unfit referees, claustrophobic stadia….hey, we even have goal-line technology to overcome any risk of linesman’s myopia.

Premier League football is now a highly professional, top quality sporting ‘product’, offering a consistently excellent ‘consumer experience’. And as a result, it can charge top dollar for it.

But fear not, the romance of football is not completely dead.

This weekend is the time every year when the hopes of players and fans up and down the country are awakened.

When everyday folk dream of what just could happen.

I refer of course to the FA Cup 3rd round. The time when the big boys enter the ring and are potentially drawn against teams hundreds of places and millions of pounds below them in the footballing hierarchy.

It is here that pampered superstars earning £200k a week find themselves being marked by a part-time postman, a plumber or a used car salesman, their shirts bearing the name of a sponsor, generating unprecedented publicity for their local printing company.

As the superstars strut around the pitch, a bemused expression on their faces, every flex of their expensive limbs is scrutinised by a rabid crowd of locals, packed into the tiny stadium with old-school terraces, a tin roof and a van outside selling hamburgers.

Live camera crews do their best to cover the proceedings, without their usual high-tech facilities, while the Fleet Street reporters try to type up their match reports in gloves to keep their hands warm, whilst trying not to spill their half time Bovril.

On the pitch, the game usually follows the expected script as the big team’s professionalism gradually overcomes the energy and passion of the plucky minnows and a comfortable win is duly recorded.

But just occasionally, things don’t go according to plan.

Maybe it is a touch of complacency, maybe they don’t fancy the rawness of the challenge, maybe the closeness of the atmosphere spooks them, or maybe they just get unlucky, but every once in a while, we get a real underdog story.

Take a look at Ronnie Radford scoring a screamer for Hereford to help put mighty Newcastle out of the Cup, many years ago.

Just look at the state of the surface, how close the fans are to the touchline and how they invade the pitch after the goal. I dare say that any Hereford supporter present that day will remember the game for the rest of their lives.

And there have been plenty of other shocks over the years too – the BBC has conveniently packaged up ten of the best right here.

This year the draw has thrown up a choice selection of potential upsets – Yeovil v Man Utd, Dover v Crystal Palace, AFC Wimbledon v Liverpool, WBA v Gateshead, Stoke v Wrexham.

My head doubts that any of the big teams will slip up, but my heart is firmly with the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers having their one shot at glory.

Dream on fellas!

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