Seminal moments? Not really…

Man Utd shop

As he reflects on the withered romance of the FA Cup, the modest allure of the Carling Cup and the concentration of meaningful honours to a few brands that happen to be named after football clubs, Jeremy Robson puts Cristiano Ronaldo on the spot: “Were you as bored as me, watching on the box as United strolled to a 4-0 sixth round win at Fulham?” …

We’ve recently had the FA Cup 6th round. What a tedious and predictable affair it all was. The elimination of predictability was exactly what cup competitions were for. Not any more. The quota for shocks and surprises ran out last season.

It was not unusual during the 1970s to observe an FA Cup final manager field a couple of “ringers” the Saturday before the big day at Wembley to avoid his side being weakened through injury or suspension on the big day.

This was an offence which was punishable by the FA, which generally took a dim view and would fine the offending club for cheating.

It may sound rather like something from the Victorian era and indicative of the Corinthian spirit.

However, the rules clearly stated that the club is required “to field it’s strongest possible side”. While that spirit has been eroded to the point of anachronism, there does remain an occasional glimmer which suggests that there is at least a moral which should not be forgotten.

Most recently Martin O’Neill offered to take 300 disappointed Villa supporters out to dinner after they complained about travelling to an away fixture in the UEFA Cup, only to find that they were effectively watching their reserve side.

This was presumably something they could achieve on Wednesday nights for a couple of quid, or at no cost whatsoever if they were season ticket holders.

Well done to Mr O’Neill, although it’s doubtful whether the offended fans will be following Villa to European fields again with the UEFA Cup being so markedly reduced in value as a result of participating clubs not taking it seriously. There are bigger fish to fry, it seems, but where are these clubs fishing exactly?

The following events had me even more puzzled.

Harry Redknapp recently fielded a weakened Spurs team in a fixture prior to the League Cup Final which, had Spurs won, would have qualified them, most bizarrely for the UEFA Cup in which he had earlier in the season fielded a weakened team.

I don’t quite understand why you would devalue one competition, in the hope of winning a competition which would provide entry to a competition in which you have a record of fielding weakened teams!

It’s all becoming far too complex. At least we know that Man Utd’s reserves are probably capable of winning any one of the cup competitions.

It leaves a bitter taste however, as Wembley finals were once regarded as the pinnacle of a player’s career, a one time shot at glory for a lucky few. Their modern day collection of superstars didn’t even appear on the bench. If clubs don’t take Wembley finals seriously then what is the point of the competition? Indeed what is the point of football at all?

I’ve recently taken to turning off the television when Man Utd look set for yet another uneventful straighforward win. The FA Cup quarter final at Fulham was the latest casualty of my off button. At 2-0 up after 20 minutes away from home, I was sat there on the sofa wondering what the point of it all is. This is not a sport, a contest between two evenly matches sides. It’s a procession without even the carnival queen (if I can refer to the cheating, diving Ronaldo as a carnival queen). He was probably sat at home, quite possibly as bored as I was with the whole thing. I wonder if Ronaldo was pressing his off button at the same time as mine?

So cup finals, European football etc are events which would be regarded as seminal moments for most of us have become pedestrian for the elite of the game.

We won the FA Cup some 36 years ago, and we still talk about it even now. We arguably won’t win it within the next 36 years, in which time I’ll likely be dead and gone, or by which time the FA Cup will have been rendered completely worthless.

You can’t win all the time of course unless you were in a position to change the rules to ensure that you can and do win all the time. For most supporters of most football clubs they rarely if ever win anything no matter how hard or long they try.

So let’s take stock. When a football club such as ours has been in existence for over a century there are likely to be some seminal moments. Achieving promotion, or winning a cup, qualifying for Europe etc. These are the achievements that most supporters would be happy with. The exceptions are followers of those clubs who think that they have a divine right to win every trophy for which they compete, even if their management should elect to field a reserve team at various points in attempting to meet the challenge of silverware on all fronts.

The nature of a “seminal moment” depends to a great extent on who you are, and what your history has been about. For Rochdale fans the prospect of a promotion is a seminal moment, having only achieved one promotion in their entire history, which was unfortunately followed by relegation a few seasons later.

For Sunderland there have over the course of the last four decades been a number of seminal moments if we can call them that.

The obvious one of course, which is so profoundly and indelibly etched into the very psyche of every single Sunderland supporter over ever since, and in fact so bleeding obvious that I don’t even need to mention it.

Can you imagine how sick of it we would be had the Mags done it the other way around with us losing in 1973 and them winning it the following year? Yes, I know inconceivable given the sad statistic that they are even less successful than we are, having won nothing at all since the 1950s. Thirty six years have passed and we welcome any opportunity to bore the pants off anyone who’ll listen to stories about that day!

So, apart from the unbelievable cup run and victory in 1973 what other events could be described as seminal. Not a lot really, but quite a lot of semi seminal moments where the ultimate dream was not quite reached. Such as;

* The season in the early 80s when Allan Durban was sacked before he had finished building a very good team – what might have been had he been given time

* The appointment of Lawrie McMenemy as a manager – arguably a seminal moment, but for all the wrong reasons

* Peter Reid’s two seasons finishing 7th and for bringing together Mr Quinn and Superkev

OK, not exactly seminal moments then. That I’ll concede. Maybe these were just a few occasions over the course of history, when aside from our countless promotions (and seemingly inevitable relegations!) when we stopped just being the also rans.

Even the possibility of mediocrity was a wild fantasy. We felt that there was something to look forward to with the possibilities of better days ahead. A few bright spots when we were able to rise beyond the mundane for the briefest time.

So, what is the point in supporting a club like ours where even the competitions that we historically had some chance of winning have become devalued to the point that they are really worthless?

How delighted would the Spurs fans have been if their side had overcome Man Utd’s second string, or even third string in some cases?

The most successful clubs have devalued these competitions with their presence, but such is the disparity between the elite, the mega rich in terms of finance as well as resources that they can put out a scratch side and still come home with the cup.

What do their supporters think? If they gain any genuine satisfaction with the current state of affairs, they would have been delighted with the gladiatorial clashes of ancient Rome and the feeding of Christians. No wonder they turn up at Old Trafford to eat prawn sandwiches and gaze about.

Some time ago I heard a radio ad for Man Utd. It was encouraging fans to visit Old Trafford and take the stadium tour. See the trophy room, purchase a Ryan Giggs pyjama set, or and have a meal in some overpriced restaurant. (Can I have the Vidic burger please with Charlton chips?) Not once did it mention going to see a football match. Why bother with the football at all when associated product will sell on the basis of branding alone?

To some observers it must appear that they can’t win on this one because they always win. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The consequence is that it’s as dull as last night’s bath water.

I remember a story about Stephen Fry, who would frequently use a gent’s toilet as on his way to and from his local Tube station. After using the aforementioned gents for several months, he was stopped one day by a man in a uniform who asked him if he was a member. “A member of what exactly?” was Fry’s reply. “To the club sir, this is a gentleman’s club sir.”

Over the months that Fry had been using the facilities within this building he had failed to realise that the building was anything other than a toilet, a public convenience.

I wonder whether Man Utd fans, will ever reach some kind of consumerist nirvana where they become completely oblivious to the existence of football, where we no longer have Man Utd “fans” but Man Utd “shoppers” instead? Now that would be a seminal moment.

We live in an era where winning is the preserve of the carefully selected few in a self perpetuating extravaganza of increasingly meaningless competitions.

A top flight where there are only really three clubs with a squad that has a realistic chance of winning the title.

The rest of us are battling against the drop to a greater or lesser degree. Clubs field a weakened side so that they have a better chance of winning the cup that qualified them for that same competition in the first place.

During last season’s FA Cup runs by Cardiff and Barnsley there was a general uplifting of spirits in the wake of what appeared to be giantkilling acts.

Sadly it was more to do with the fact that the bigger clubs had become either offended by the consequence of their own arrogance or embarrassed at their own contempt for the world’s greatest knock out competition.

It took the history of the game to build what it was and the Premier League’s greed just a few short years to demolish the majority of what it stood for. With notable exceptions the bigger clubs have taken it more seriously than last season, with what appears to be some sort of “scorched earth” policy.

2 thoughts on “Seminal moments? Not really…”

  1. I think that modern football is an example of presentation being rewarded more than content. New stadia spawned new supporters. Quite why a change of venue has this impact I don’t know. You would have to ask them, but in my experience at Sunderland I have frequently found myself next to very different people to those that I had the incomparable pleasure of standing alongside at Roker Park.
    You are right about choosing winning things It smacks of contempt for the competition, your opponents, the fans and the whole principle on which the sport was (and sadly no longer) is based.

  2. And yet the crowds for the top 4 divisions are the highest for 40 years, and in the top division the highest since the post-war boom days of 1951. Could somebody explain this to me because I can’t work it out! Since playing a weakened UEFA team has so spectacularly backfired on Villa, and there is hardly any evidence that league form is boosted for anybody who does this, how long before the current fad ends?
    Incidentally, it might just have been that Redknapp wanted to win a cup, as Cloughie said, winning the Watney Cup in 76 gave Forest’s players a taste of success, however insignificant, and led on to bigger things. But it backfired on him too. Winning is a habit that you cannot just pick and choose when it happens.

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