Each round of the FA Cup has its own distinct character. Like Christmas, the first round is best viewed through Victorian sepia. The fixtures are smattered with names of northern works teams –Ilkinthorpe Trombones, towns that are famous for things which aren’t football – Melton Mowbray Bromwich Albion, and clubs that may well actually be the name of newly brewed real ale – Old Rumdungler.
The first round, in many ways, is the lower league Christmas Day. The weather turns wintery, the wind blows through ramshackle stadiums where ramshackle defences, and the occasional one-time successful striker, and Jamie Slabber, gain a national platform. As much as the Premier League hubris tries to overshadow the day, it singularly fails. Like a modern day high performance sports car sitting at a red light; it’ll burn us up when the light turns green, but it’s gauche and self-absorbed in comparison to our vintage Daimler.
The ITV coverage was better than my Twitter feed suggested. The trick for a good FA Cup highlights package is to station yourself at a Hereford ‘Lookathisfacejustlookathisface’ style giant killing. This means heading to some non-league shithole where the TV positions are on rickety scaffold or on the floor, away from the club’s only season ticket holder and his arthritic dog.
Modern thinking says you’ve got to cover every tie so morons like me will watch the whole programme for 13 seconds coverage of my team. The convention means spreading resources thinly – 15 ties were held at non-league grounds unlikely to have all the necessary TV gubbins in situ. In addition all the 37 ties have to fit into little more than an hour, broadcast four hours after the final whistle. That’s because advertisers say so and they’ve got some straight-to-DVD forgotten Goonies sequel on at 2.30am. You’re just not going to get the opening sequence from Saving Private Ryan.
One of the interesting things about the coverage is the adverts. Amidst makeweight promotions from the big brands –part of their Coronation Street and X Factor packages – are promotions for dating sites and criminal gangs offering short term money lending services to the infirm. Evidently horn-rimmed hipster advertising types who skateboard into work look at lower league football fans as lonely, socially incapable people.
My main beef with modern day highlights are twofold. In the past, crowd shots were of people looking disinterested smoking the arse end of a Marlboro light. Like proper football fans. Now, media-aware supporters punch the air, shout “C’mon!” and “Get in!” and kiss the badge on their shirt like practically nobody you’ve ever seen do at a game of football in your life.
My other beef is that highlights never contain kick-offs. Kick-offs are part of the game, but editors choose not to cover them. Now you know the first action you see will lead to something really important. If you do see a kick-off, then you know an early goal is coming. Similarly read: innocuous yellow cards are covered only when a red card will later be brandished to the player and substitutions are only covered when said substitute is going to score. The visual narrative of the game continually gives away its plot twists. But I digress.
We have no great tradition in the FA Cup. People older than you and I put together will talk of the Blackburn Game from a time when chicken conglomerates weren’t even invented, let alone owning football teams. Aside from the occasional upset – Leeds in 1994, and the occasional good day out – Highbury in 2002, we don’t have anything particularly thrilling to write home about.
Our first rounds are similarly lacking in thrills; being beaten by Marlow ranks as a particular low. Alongside the Saville-like investigation into Peter Rhodes-Brown’s duplicity playing for Marlow and the fact someone at the club gave Les Philips a massage as a favour before the game.
Even our wins have been tinged. When we played Morecambe in 1999, they weren’t the well run lower league ambitionless vacuum they are today; they were a collection of arc welders and candy floss salesmen, or whatever it is they do up there. We scrambled to a 3-2 win with a scrambled goal from a striker bought in a panic; Ben Abbey (a proto Manny Omoyimni who was a proto Yemi Odubade).
We go into the cup in hope more than expectation. Barnet away offered the potential for an ignominious exit leaving us, in years to come, to look at the record books and singularly fail to remember anything at all about the fixture.
But, we were uncharacteristically dominant. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised, we’re coming into some form and they are Barnet, an oscillating crisis magnet. OK, they had Edgar Davids, but there is a reason that Davids is playing for Barnet and not, well, the 91 clubs currently ranked higher than them in England. It seems unlikely that he’s joined the Bees in order to force his way back into the Champions League, or even to gain some traction in the management market. More likely, he fancies keeping fit and out of the way of the kids by running out for his local team on a Saturday afternoon.
If the first round is like Christmas, the 2nd round is like Easter. Nobody particularly looks forward to it, but they aren’t going to turn it down. The camera angles on the TV coverage gets higher, as do the stakes. Or so people would have you believe. A win promises a third round tie against one of the big boys, but, more likely, will result in a whimpering away defeat to Huddersfield. It is the fantasy that fate will eventually place us in the clutches of a 60,000 seater enormo-dome that makes the cup, as they say with eyeballs rolling to the back of their skulls as though in the clutches of Derren Brown the 21st Century Paul Daniels with a budget greater than the GDP of Mali, magic.