Whatever happened to the FA Cup? Pete Sixsmith poses the question before bursting the romantic bubble enclosing Crawley Town and thanking heavens for two lowlier competitions in which not just Blyth but Gateshead, Dunston UTS and Whitley Bay are carrying the flag for the North East…
Well, there’s another Saturday gone without a Sunderland game kicking off at 3pm.
It looks like the next two at Everton and Arsenal should be at the usual time, but who can tell with Sky and ESPN?
No doubt many Sunderland fans spent their afternoons in the pub, with the approval of Niall Quinn.
This whole situation regarding folk watching on Greek or Albanian channels has been very interesting.
As someone who dislikes live football on TV I can empathise with Quinny and understand his frustration at not getting more people into the Stadium. Compared with the Reid era, our crowds are down and although we reach a healthy 40,000 average, the Stadium is rarely full these days.
That we have a decent team is beyond doubt, but there has been a change in culture in the past 10-15 years. The idea of there being a regular 3pm kick off on alternate Saturdays has been destroyed by the paymasters at Isleworth. The FA and Premier League have helped them by drawing up an FA Cup schedule that is so ludicrous that you would have thought that they were trying to kill off the competition.
This season we lost interest in it early on. That left us (and the likes of Newcastle, Liverpool and Blackpool) with three free Saturdays in January, February and March. Add an “International Weekend” to that and we have had four free weekends in the heart of the season, when interest should be building up as it reaches its peak.
Instead we have a lack of continuity for players and fans. No fixtures arranged for Fifth Round day (there always were in the past when the fixtures were worked out on paper with a very sharp pencil with a rubber on the end) and only a staggering TWO games in March – one away and one on a Sunday.
No wonder fans of all clubs are thinking long and hard about renewing season tickets and no wonder the FA Cup is in terminal decline.
We have Fourth Round replays taking place on the weekend of the Fifth round because of a meaningless round of International friendlies, so there is an unbelievably bitty feel to “the world’s greatest Cup competition”. There were two Fifth Round ties kicking off at 3pm on Saturday and six others going at various times over a three day period. The two that went at normal starting time were dull encounters between dreary Premier League teams and Division One outfits.
We have had TV coverage handed over to the dead hand of ITV and the lamentable Clive Tyldesley, a man who will never use one carefully prepared casual observation when 1,000 will do.
If there is a worse commentator I have yet to come across him. Every cliché in the book was rolled out in his observations on Manchester United v Crawley Town, from a lack of “postmen, painters and PE Teachers” (group of three and alliteration; GCSE English Level 4) to “which of theses are the real Red Devils?” – as if anyone cared.
Crawley, who are widely disliked in the non-league game for their er, “abrasive” manager, were given a smooth ride by the commentators and pundits. There are serious questions about their ownership and their ability to sustain a Football League place if they get one. They have been in administration twice in the last 15 years, have been an hour away from liquidation and have had points deducted for a variety of reasons. Whatever Crawley are, they are not typical of the non-league game.
They played well ( I sacrificed my principles and watched the game) and a Sunderland fan, Richard Brodie, was unfortunate not to equalise with a header that scraped the bar. But I would imagine that those who have battled away at Altrincham, Southport, Gateshead and the like would have been seething as they saw a deeply unloved club take the plaudits and vast amounts of cash from their trip to Old Trafford.
The frustrating thing is that whereas the FA Cup is like a much-loved old pet that is nearing the end of its days as it begins to throw up on the carpet, the two (relatively) new arrivals on the FA scene are in rude health and are really well organised.
The FA Trophy and FA Vase replaced the FA Amateur Cup in the 1970s and both competitions are major talking points in the North East.
Next week, in the quarter final of the Trophy, Blyth Spartans take on Gateshead and a week later, in the Vase, Dunston UTS have a wonderful home tie with holders Whitley Bay. Both will attract crowds in excess of 2,000, despite the Mags being at home and both should highlight the wisdom in having a competition where fans know that there will be a 3.00p.m. kick off. If you are not going to Everton or Arsenal, either of these two games are worth taking in.
I got my Saturday fix at West Auckland and witnessed a decent game with league leaders Consett. West had been well beaten 4-0 by Shildon on the Wednesday and they put up a far better performance, despite losing 2-1 to a Consett side that contained Jonjo Dickman, who had one game for us in the 19 point season. They are not an exciting side, but they are very well organised and know what they are supposed to do.
I passed on a trip to watch Shildon play bottom of the league Ryton, despite the promise of a couple of pints in the superb Ferry Boat at Wylam. My decision was justified as Shildon strolled to a non- competitive 7-0 win. It kept us in second place and it looks like a three way battle between Consett, Shildon and Spennymoor Town for the title.
The next two Saturdays are on the road, so I don’t expect much. By the end of March, we could be back in the pack and Northern League football on a Saturday will be a much more attractive proposition – certainly far better than the pub.