COMMENT: A cruel irony that those who care most about the FA Cup aren’t allowed to watch it this weekend

Once upon a time, when I was a young boy, the FA Cup mattered to our top clubs. It really mattered.

Friday, 2nd October 2020, 1:43 pm
Updated Friday, 2nd October 2020, 1:46 pm
Dreams can come true - Hawks fans at Anfield in 2008. Picture: David Nicholls.

In 1981, Liverpool hosted non-league Altrincham in a third round tie and manager Bob Paisley fielded pretty much his first-choice team - Kenny Dalglish, Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Ray Kennedy, Alan Kennedy, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case.

That was how football was back then, before Sky TV came along, before the Champions League replaced the European Cup.

Before football started to eat itself, before players were paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week.

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Last season's FA Cup dream makers - Chichester City applaud their fans after their second round defeat at Tranmere Rovers. Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images.

Before greed replaced romance.

Now, in the eyes of the mainstream media, it’s only the Premier League and the Champions League that matters.

England’s top clubs regularly field youth teams in FA Cup ties, certainly against lower division clubs, and staying in the Premier League is now far more important to everyone involved in the top flight than winning the FA Cup.

In recent years, lots of EFL clubs have also used the FA Cup to make sweeping changes.

The enduring magic of the FA Cup - the tournament that can take fans of non-league clubs to sporting cathedrals such as Anfield. Picture: Barry Zee.

Last season Championship club Brentford were drawn at home to Premier League Leicester. Once, and not that long ago, the Bees would have fielded a first choice XI in a bid to grab some headlines and to give their fans an FA Cup memory to treasure.

But no. Brentford had eyes on promotion and a chance to milk the Premier League cash cow, so rested a host of regulars. For those of us who still want a bit of romance in our football-watching lives, it was another sad moment.

But guess what? The FA Cup STILL matters to so many people, even if it’s a bit of a nuisance for a lot of clubs these days who prefer pound notes to memories created by the likes of Lawrie Sanchez, Ian Porterfield, Keith Houchen and Bobby Stokes.

For swathes of football fans, the FA Cup will ALWAYS matter because it remains the greatest knockout tournament in world sport, let alone world football.

Priceless memories - Hawks score their first goal at Anfield in their FA Cup fourth round tie, January 2008. Pic: Allan Hutchings.

It matters to non-league clubs, non-league players, non-league officials and non-league fans. And it matters for a variety of reasons.

One is, and you can’t escape this, the prize money on offer. But it also offers something far more important - the chance to dream.

This weekend Moneyfields host higher division Cray Wanderers in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup. Based on form, based on league tables, Moneys should lose.

But guess what? They might not. They might win. And if they do, they’re another round nearer drawing Portsmouth in the first round.

That might sound an impossible dream, but guess what? In the FA Cup, dreams can come true.

Last season Chichester City - a club who play at the same level of non-league football as Moneyfields - reached the second round proper.

Also last season Maldon & Tiptree - like Moneys, another club from the eighth tier of English football - went to League 2 club Leyton Orient, four leagues higher in the pyramid, and won 2-1.

Now let’s wind the clock back a few years, to January 2008. Remember the Hawks playing at Anfield in the fourth round of the FA Cup? I bet their fans do.

Havant & Waterlooville, from the sixth tier of English football, were winning at Liverpool, one of the most famous clubs in world sport. You can’t put a price on memories like that.

So it’s worth dreaming, isn’t it? And anyway, in football - as in life - if you can’t dream then really what’s the point? And no competition allows you to dream like the FA Cup.

Of course, there is a cruel irony to this weekend’s ties.

Due to the pandemic, many people who care passionately about the FA Cup - perhaps those who care the most - aren’t being allowed to watch the games.

Some non-league fans can go, of course - those supporting clubs at step 3 and below.

That means Gosport Borough fans can watch their club in FA Cup action this weekend, and so can Moneyfields’ supporters.

But, ridiculously, Hereford fans can’t travel to Gosport as all followers of step 2 clubs have been told they can’t even watch their team away from home in the FA Cup.

Due to the same ruling, not a single Hawks supporter can watch their team take on Horsham.

You can look at this from a variety of angles, but none of them make any sense.

I’m not sure, in my 40 years of watching and writing about the beautiful game, I have ever come across a more bonkers ruling than this.

I will be at Bognor Regis Town’s ground on Sunday covering Hawks’ tie for The News. I doubt very much I will enjoy it as much as I should because - as has regularly been said in recent months - football without fans is nothing.

Ok, you can still dream - but a dream of watching Hawks at Anfield again behind closed doors wouldn’t be the same as 2008 and no-one can pretend otherwise.

Speaking personally, my own club’s games matter a little less if I can’t go and watch them. And as I follow an EFL club (Exeter City) at present I can’t watch them.

Still, I have my memories and, for now, they will do.

If I close my eyes, I can still vividly picture myself on the terraces at St James’ Park in February 1981 when we thrashed Newcastle 4-0 in a fifth round replay. I was a 12-year-old lad in a crowd of over 17,000, and it was magical.

I have waited all my life for a similar experience, and every season we exit the FA Cup without remotely achieving one I am gutted.

Back in January 2016, though, I was close. Jurgen Klopp brought Liverpool to east Devon for a third round tie televised live on the Beeb, and with 20 minutes left we were winning 2-1. Sadly, we conceded an equaliser and lost the replay at Anfield. That might be as close as I ever get to 1981, but I live in hope. After all, that’s all I’ve got, that’s all any of us have got as football fans - hope.

Needless to say, we weren’t playing Klopp’s first team. Life has moved on since Altrincham visited Anfield (and more’s the pity, in some ways). Christian Benteke was the only first team squad player involved in either game, which drained a little bit of the glamour from the occasion.

A few weeks earlier I had driven up the A34 to Didcot Town to watch Exeter’s first round FA Cup tie. So the same competition that took me to the Loop Meadow, a non league ground in Oxfordshire, took me to Anfield, one of the great sporting cathedrals, in the same season.

Only the FA Cup can do that, which is why the tournament will always matter to me, and will always hold a special place in my football-supporting heart.

And if you care about the game, if you consider yourself a real football fan rather than someone with a Sky Sports subscription and no idea who Ronnie Radford is, if you still think romance is important in sport, you should feel the same as I do ...