I`m not quite sure I have ever understood the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the perceived loss of importance or "romance" in the F.A. Cup over the last few years. Why is this a point people feel dutibound to pontificate upon ad nauseam? If, like me, it still holds an allure for you, why do you care whether others share that lustre or not? If it has lost all meaning to you, why talk about it at all? I think my attachment to it is because, without wishing to sound hackneyed, every game is still important to me. With the possible exception of Cup Finals or league title deciders, I don`t effectively give matches a pecking order in my mind. I fully understand Arsene`s answer, and it is always his answer, when anyone asks which fixtures he looks forward to the most and he replies, instantly, "the next one." I understand the excitement and hyperbole in the build up to a game like Barcelona, but I can say with 100% conviction that I am looking forward to Leyton Orient and Stoke with just as much vigour.
When you go to enough games you realise that every single one has the potential to be exciting and fraught and tense and even controversial. One of the most entertaining games I ever saw was a midweek away cup replay at Bolton in 2007. Two penalty misses, an open goal miss, a red card, a last minute equaliser and an extra time victory. Indeed, Newcastle away did not have the look of a potentially history making fixture on paper. However, the F.A. Cup still does hold that little bit of spark that no other competition holds and I can tell you exactly why. Ties like Sunday`s at Orient encapsulate it perfectly. Football is an enormous cultural phenomenon across the globe, one I have bought into passionately and whole heartedly. Despite that, I have always felt that I exist somewhat on the margins of the popular game, I have snaked somewhere into some comfortable nook or cranny in the sub culture of one of planet earth`s most unifying cultures. Early round cup draws always focus on minnows, television cameras are trained on local hostelries in provincial English towns as the next giant killer awaits Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal away in the next round of the cup and the chance for their big pay day. (Invariably, said minnow usually ends up with Colchester United at home).
I have no issue with this and this year it has been great to see Leyton Orient and Crawley Town drawing the big boys in the 5th Round of the competition. But I was very much struck by the subcultural allure of the F.A. Cup when I watched the 5th Round draw in the Bank of Friendship post Huddersfield. When the name "Leyton Orient" came out of the hat, all us pub dwellers urged, "Come ooooon! Come ooooon!" as though we were urging our horse to the finish line in the Grand National. "Will play Arsenal….." An eruption of joy. (Though it did strike me that most of the punters that celebrated the draw were unlikely to be able to land one of the 1,400 tickets). It`s understandable that cameras were trained on the pubs of Leytonstone and Crawley that day, but a story that is often not told, is that there are some of us that want to draw Leyton Orient away as much as they want to draw us.
My companions and I whom I travel to away matches with spend hours of conversation in an average season pontificating on prospective cup draws, giving us a new and unlikely ground to visit. (The catalyst for these conversations is almost always the sight of Coventry`s Ricoh Arena as we career up the M1. The Ricoh remains a frustration for those of us that went to Highfield Road and itch to be able to tick Coventry off of "the 92" again). Often we have been disappointed with cup draws over the last couple of years, but we are those nutters that desperately will Orient away to come out of the hat. I recall when we drew Carlisle away in 2001, Doncaster away in 2005 and Cardiff City away two years ago; that excitement, the prospect of a new ground in a different environment. Fans of "Sky 4" clubs are often characterised as frequent diners at dinner parties, eyeing up the dignitary`s daughter from across the table as we pick rocket and pesto from our teeth. But there are those of us that long for a change of scenery once in a while- for a crack at that girl from the estate that has a Saturday job in the greasy spoon. You know, it doesn`t have to be Led Zeppelin at Knebworth circa 1973 to be a great gig; the best music event I ever attended was with about 150 people to see People Under the Stairs in the Jazz Café in Camden. This Sunday, we break out of the stadium gig and get the chance to wipe the spittle of the lead singer from our eyes, as we writhe with a hundred or so other sweaty bodies upstairs in the Bull and Gate. I penned an article almost exactly a year ago about feeling like a member of football`s subculture- a sporting trainspotter if you will. There are many like me too; I will be one of 1,400 in the away section on Sunday, but realistically we could have easily taken 10,000 to this game. The demand wouldn`t be the same for West Ham away. Maybe it`s not the image that Sky Sports or Carling want to sell you; maybe it`s because I`m one of football`s stamp collectors, but whether you think it utterly insane or entirely reasonable; I am looking forward to visiting Orient for the first time on Sunday, every bit as much as I am looking forward to returning to the Nou Camp in March. That`s what the F.A. Cup can give you, that no other competition can.LD.
Tomorrow is football v. homophobia day, so please do look back for an article on homophobia in football to appear here tomorrow-LD.
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