‘The greatest cup competition in the world’ is the usual tag line for The Football Association Challenge Cup, to give the competition it’s full name.
The FA Cup is an institution, with the first tournament held in 1871-72 The FA Cup holds claim to being the oldest football competition in the world. Long before the Premier League, the World Cup or the Champions League, winning The FA Cup was arguably the pinnacle of a footballer’s career.
Throughout its long history the FA Cup has held that mystique that is central to the love of the game for any football fan, ‘anything can happen’. Anyone you speak to at any football related event will likely have an FA Cup story, be it the time they witnessed their team come oh so close to knocking out higher division opposition, or the day they were on the receiving end of a giant killing from the lowly team they’d barely heard of. My FA Cup story took place on 04/04/04.
Supporting Millwall has never been an easy task. Whenever you tell someone this fact you’re met with the same look; a mixture of confusion, despair and fear, all contrived to ask the question, ‘Why?’ The answer to that question is the purest answer there is for the question of football loyalty; ‘They’re my local team, and who my dad took me to watch as a boy’. And so it went.
I don’t remember my first Millwall game, and when younger never thought to ask. It was just part of the routine. My first Millwall memory is pulling up at Meadow Lane to watch us away at Notts County sometime in the late 80s, being ever so proud I’d made it all the way without succumbing to my usual travel sickness, before promptly throwing up all over the driver’s seat while climbing out from the back.
If anything it set the tone for the usual disappointments that came with following Millwall. The playoff defeats, the relegations seemingly snatched from nowhere having been safe all season, the selling off of key players for small sums to keep the bailiffs from the door, the knowledge that since being formed in 1885 we’d spent a whole 2 years in the top flight of English football.
That day, that game, made it all worthwhile: Millwall 1 Sunderland 0. It’s not a particularly exciting scoreline. For the viewer it probably wasn’t a particularly exciting match, two First Division sides battling it out at Old Trafford, gripped by nerves and the fear of falling short given such a glorious opportunity to reach the promised land; The FA Cup final. The moment Tim Cahill converted that rebound from Paul Ifill’s shot, time stood still, and the next 65 minutes felt like 65 agonising days. The feeling and celebration at the final whistle is something I’d never experienced before, and have never experienced since. It was in essence the magic of the cup.
Since that day I’ve not really been as active as I once was. I moved away for university that summer, and aside from the two resultant “Europa League” matches the following season I didn’t get to many games. A move abroad followed, with my dad passing away while I was gone. The routine was no more, and getting back into the flow seemed harder with each year that passed.
What dragged me back in again, was the FA Cup. A Friday night game against Premiership Aston Villa, under The Den floodlights. What more of an emphasis could you need to get back into the swing of things? I went to the majority of the games left in the season after that, including ‘that’ FA Cup semi final versus Wigan, and bought a season ticket for the next year.
The rekindling didn’t last though, and while I made a concerted effort to get to as many games as possible during the season my attendance tailed off towards the end of the year and I was back following from afar via the internet and an iPhone.
Where was the spark? How can it be reignited? Is the secret really in the magic of the cup?
This season I intend to find out. I plan to attend a game in every round of the 2014/15 FA Cup, starting with the extra preliminary round in the early weeks of August, through to the final 13 rounds later in the middle of May. I have no preset plans on games to go to, or teams to follow, I’ll simply choose what appears to be an interesting tie in each round, and go where the football gods take me.
I hope to encapsulate that sense of excitement and wonder at every level of the game, which can only be created by the buzz of the FA Cup.
A lot is said about the relevance, or lack thereof, of the FA Cup in recent times, with teams accused of not giving the cherished competition the respect it deserves, and constant changes to appease the TV crowd seemingly upsetting that core of support. But on a game by game basis is that still the case? Would a 6 year old me in 2014 not feel the same excitement for an FA Cup 3rd Round Second Replay 6 year old me felt in 1989 when asked to write about what we’d done over the Christmas holidays?
I hope that isn’t true, and I hope my journey around the country visiting the cup throughout its winding journey to what was at one time the showpiece of the domestic football season is still full of the sense of wonder and anticipation I have always felt for such a magical competition.