Pompey fans: this is why I'm jealous of you '“Â Simon Carter
If you're a Pompey fan reading this, here's a confession - I'm jealous of you.Â
Not just a tad jealous, but REALLY jealous. I've used capital letters, just so you know how jealous I am.
Do you know why? The Welcome to PortsmouthÂ signs on Eastern Road and bottom of the M275 sum it up nicely. In nice big letters 'FA Cup winners 1939 and 2008'.
You've won the FA Cup and my team, Exeter City, haven't. That's why I'm jealous.
Portsmouth have been crowned champions of England, in 1949 and 1950. Twice the best team in the country, but no mention of that arguably more impressive achievementÂ on the 'welcome to Portsmouth' billboards. Unlike the FA Cup.
The 21st century media hype surrounding the Premier League and the Champions League sadly mean the competition has been stripped of some of the glamour it once possessed.
No longer is it every schoolboy's dream to score the cup winner at Wembley, no longer do all games kick off at 3pm on a Saturday, no longer do replays take place just a few days after the first game (in fact there are no replays from the quarter final onwards at all these days), and no longer do the top flight teams play their star names in the third round against lower division clubs. Indeed, most clubs enthusiastically seize the chance to make multiple changes.
Since 2008, both semi-finals have also been played at Wembley '“ thereby slicing a further layer of glamour off the final in a bid to make a bit more money. In 2011, scandalously, four Premier League games were played on the same day as the final.
Despite all that, though, the FA Cup remains '“ for those of us non-millennials, for those of us who grew up in an era before the introduction of Rupert Murdoch's wretched cash cow '“ the greatest club knockout tournament in world football. And bearing in mind football is the best game in the world '“ rugby fans, I'm telling the truth, get over it '“Â Â thereby it's the greatest club knockout competition in global sport.
And Pompey have won it, and my team haven't. And it's good to see, billboard-wise anyway, your civic chiefs are proud of that. No mention of FA Cup wins on the 'welcome to ...' Southampton, Coventry, Sunderland, Derby or Wigan civic signs. I'm glad Portsmouth City Council is aware of the perennial FA Cup magic.
Exeter have never been close. Twice we've reached the quarter finals, in 1931 and again 50 years later. In 1981, we beat Leicester (with a young Gary Lineker) 3-1 at home in a fourth round replay and Newcastle (with a young Chris Waddle) 4-0 at home in a fifth round replay. I was there, for both games. Aged 12, I mistakenly presumed '“ oh the innocence of youth! '“ that every couple of years we'd have such a run. Almost four decades on, we've never even reached the fourth round since.
We've had some moments in the spotlight, though '“ as a non league club we drew at Old Trafford in 2005. Fergie obviously fielded his fringe players for that one, but in the replay all the stars were there '“ Rooney, Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Neville (G) and Ronaldo. I've seen Cristiano Ronaldo in a competitive game at Exeter City! He was nutmegged by ex-Pompey defender Scott Hiley, a moment we still talk about at Exeter. Well, we haven't won the FA Cup have we, so we've got to talk about something.
Fast forward to January 2016 and, live on the Beeb, there was Lee Holmes (another ex-Pompey man) scoring direct from a corner to put us 2-1 up against Liverpool in a third round tie. We held that lead until 17 minutes from time. Fairly close, therefore, to trending worldwide...
I still love the FA Cup, even though I shouldn't '“ during my lifetime Exeter have suffered humiliating defeats at non leaguers Bognor Regis, Enfield, Maidstone, Curzon Ashton and Warrington. But this is why I love the cup '“ three seasons ago I travelled to Oxfordshire to watch Exeter at footballing minnows Didcot Town in the first round. A few weeks later, in the same competition, I was at Anfield. Didcot and Liverpool, a world apart in footballing terms but yoked together, just for one season, because of the FA Cup. That is why I love football.
Pompey have a wonderful tie next weekend, summing up the endearing appeal of the tournament. Maidenhead away. A non league team '“ thumped 6-0 and 7-0 in their last two league matches! '“ ground capacity about 4,000, hosting the club that won the tournament a decade ago. A full house guaranteed, the classic proverbial banana skin.Â
Stripped down to its essence, what is football? It's not the corporate hospitality at Old Trafford or the Emirates, it's not about pitches as smooth as a billiard table, it's not about obscene salaries of hundreds of thousands of pounds a week. No, it's autumnal days like next Saturday at a non league football ground in front of a few thousand supporters '“ one group fervently hoping for one of the greatest days of their club's life, the other equally desperately hoping to avoid a humiliating loss on national television.
That's the Football Association Challenge Cup for you. It has always done days like next Saturday and, fingers tightly crossed, it always will. Next Saturday will allow Maidenhead to dream, and if football fans cannot dream then we might as well give up and fry our brains while sitting on a sofa watching a non-stop diet of televised dross featuring D list celebs (or Mrs Brown's Boys).
Let's not forget, the FA Cup is the competition where a Portsmouth-based club like Moneyfields or Baffins Milton, with a ground capable of holding a few hundred spectators, could be drawn at home to Pompey. This sort of thing never happens in any sport, and for one good reason '“ it can't. In cricket, no longer are amateurs allowed to take on their first class cousins in the way they once did in the Gillette Cup or the Benson & Hedges Cup. Havant CC will never play Hampshire in a competitive game. Similarly, in rugby, clubs such as Havant, Portsmouth and Fareham Heathens don't enter the same cup as Saracens, Bath or Leicester. There is not much romance in those sports.
Unlike football. Despite the national media's best efforts, despite Sky's filthy lucre, despite the Premier League, despite the Champions League, despite it all ... there is STILL romance in Pele's beautiful game and the FA Cup still provides most of it.Â
Ask Maidenhead if there's no romance left in football. For that matter, ask Portsmouth fans. After all, in the past 23 seasons, only six clubs have won the FA Cup '“ Chelsea (sevenÂ times), Arsenal (seven), Manchester United (four), Liverpool (two), Manchester City (once), Wigan (once) and last '“ but by no means least '“ Pompey (once). Unbelievably, since 1996, three clubs have won the cup 18 times between them.Â
I used to work in Southampton, and needless to say their fans took delight in Pompey's post-FA Cup final demise. I have also been in the Milton End as fellow Exeter fans sang to the rest of Fratton Park 'Premier League and you ****** it up, Championship and you ***** it up etc'. Not me. Give me Pompey's recent history over Exeter's any day of the week.
OK, you've had three relegations since the turn of the millennium. But we've had two, and one of those was to non league football, and we've been in administration as well. Like Pompey, Exeter were taken over by a Supporters' Trust. In fact, we're still run by ours. Obviously there areÂ not too many former Disney employees to go round.Â You've seen your team humiliated by a non league team (Aldershot in 2014), but so have I (Warrington, the same year '“ and we were live on BBC as well). But I've never seen mine win world sport's greatest club knockout tournament. In all probability, I never will.Â
Pompey supporters, I'm not jealous of the fact you've watched your club in the Premier League. I couldn't care less if Exeter never reach that level. I'm only jealous because you can put 'FA Cup winners' on your 'welcome to ...' signs and we (Exeter) can only put 'the regional capital' on ours which, in all honesty, isn't half as impressive.
I used to tell Saints' fans I worked with 'at least Pompey have won the FA Cup in recent years '“ you've only won the Johnstone Paints Trophy.' Is one FA Cup final win and a plethora of disappointments '“ which in a nutshell was Pompey's form between 2008-2014 '“ better than no FA Cup wins and no relegations in the same time frame? Mediocrity, in other words?
The answer, in my eyes, is an unequivocal 'yes'. Ipswich have been in the same division since 2002 '“ no cup wins, no promotions, no relegations (though that might change this season). Where's the fun in that '“ the highs, the lows, the emotion? Given the choice of following either Pompey or Ipswich this century, I'd know which I'd choose for an emotional rollercoaster ride rather than a dull flatlining. Life is a journey of highs and lows, is it not, rather than decades of dullness?Â
The song on all our lips, for a few brief weeks back in the summer, was Three Lions. For a while, we recalled that tackle by Moore, Lineker scoring, Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing. A similar song about the FA Cup still gleaming, rather than the Jules Rimet, would contain lyrics celebrating Ronnie Radford's long-range stunner for non league Hereford against top flight Newcastle on a mudbath in 1972 followed by a pitch invasion of hundreds of parka-jacket wearing youngsters.
Life has changed immeasurably since then. We don't have mudbaths in football any more, and we don't have kids, all wearing coats with furry hoods, running all over the pitch celebrating 35-yard thunderbolts any more. But one thing hasn't changed '“ the FA Cup still allows all true football fans to dream. I dream one day my team will be on national television beating a Newcastle or a Leicester again, the talk of the country once more. I have no idea when that will be, obviously, but I have to dream it.
Same for you, Pompey fans. If you can't dream of a repeat of May 17, 2008 '“ and the dreaming must start again next Saturday lunchtime in a Berkshire market town live on BT Sport '“ then Geordie Shore and Made in Chelsea box-sets lie in wait ...