by Alwyn Payne

“It’s not you, it’s me” I tried to reason, though knowing deep down I was fooling neither of us. She had put on weight, lost her sparkle; the ribbons that had once adorned her head now seemed less an affectation of style, and more a glum acceptance of responsibility. She didn’t mean as much to me as she once did – and oh how she did! – alas, I feared this union was in its dying days. The well of romance had run dry; the honeymoon period truly over, I had fallen out of love with the Cup.

But how did this come to be? Was it not a match made in football heaven? Were we not destined to ride off into the subset together on an open-top double decker bus, waving to crowds of faceless fans as balloons and streamers rained down on us like some sort of gay blitz? How many people did that offend, and has a paragraph ever been composed entirely of questions? A few, and probably.

‘Romance’ is an overused word in conjunction with association football’s oldest cup competition, staining the vast majority of match reports and analytical pieces alike. The word itself evokes emotion on a par with only the most exciting and traumatic events imaginable; the birth of a child, a long-awaited marriage proposal. Not Sheffield Wednesday versus West Ham United on a cold Sunday afternoon. The strongest feelings associated with that fixture are frostbite and misery.

I find it incredibly hard to feel any positive emotion for a competition that sees so many top clubs just, for want of a more emphatic phrase, going through the motions. Teams go to the trouble of assembling starting 11s just competitive enough to avoid criticism from pundits & journalists, yet impotent enough to ensure 90 minutes of regret.

Whereas once, all teams would treat cup ties with utmost respect and significance, these days the FA Cup seems more like an inevitable and annoying distraction from what is undoubtedly the most important consideration for any football league team – the league itself.

This is why the Cup can be special; it unites the nation’s focus and interest.

Football is a results-driven business, and particularly in the Premier League; ensuring a finish inside the top 17 places is infinitely preferable to a cup win and a relegation scrap. Therefore only the top teams with great squad depth can afford to put out competitive sides in the cup as the league approaches the run-in, and this leads to the usual suspects [the abstract concept, not the 1995 American neo-noir film written by Christopher McQuarrie] almost always populating the latter rounds. Most may see this as justifiable; evidence of the cream rising to the top, but it doesn’t really whiff of ‘romance’, in my opinion.

The spark may temporarily be revived; take Manchester City’s win last May – 35 whole years since they last won a significant trophy. There they were, having endured relegation and poor fortune aplenty, collecting their well-earned trophy from the Queen or whoever it was. It could have been the ageing rockers Queen, for all I know; I switched over once it was clear they were going to win. I’m a Manchester United fan and, whilst I didn’t watch the match or the players celebrating, I did phone up my best friend who happens to be a City fan, and congratulate him wholeheartedly whilst he cried down the phone. There isn’t really any intrinsic value in me telling you that; I just want you to know what a bloody nice guy I am.

My point about the spark or -shudder- the ‘romance’ making an appearance for this win is evidenced by even myself – a staunch opponent of all things Manchester City- [I don’t even drink blue water etc] feeling slightly glad that their beleaguered fans finally had something to brandish and wave about that wasn’t an inflatable banana. This is why the Cup can be special; it unites the nation’s focus and interest and is capable of producing outrageous outcomes against all the odds.

However, even the emotion that Manchester City’s historic win generates has only a very limited staying-power. The FA Cup was seen by the MCFC hierarchy as a stepping stone on their journey to better & bigger things; a mere means towards an altogether more ambitious end. This was, they hope, no flash in the pan success, but just a first trophy of a desired many. A Wikipedia footnote.

The odd year, I might still gaze upon her from afar, wondering what might have been, and the history we could have made.

I could be considered a cynic for my…frankly cynical view of this, but doesn’t the FA Cup deserve more than this? That’s my point – I don’t think that it does anymore. The glitz and glamour could be gone for good, the honour destined to be brandished as a below-par Top Trumps category in a club history willy-waving contest. “You’ve got 11 FA Cups? So what, we’ve been 2nd to top scorers in the Emirates Cup in 3 of the last 4 seasons.” Touché.

What can be done to resurrect this once great institute? Would it, like some prodigal battle-scarred cattle returning to the farmer from whence they came, benefit from a re-branding? Is there actually anything wrong with it at all, or has it just fallen victim to the ever evolving priorities and expectations of the modern day football club? The latter, I’d opt for.

It has reached the point now where I much prefer watching the youngsters being ‘blooded’ in the Carling Cup, to an FA Cup run of indeterminate length. The former being a welcome distraction from the industrious hustle and/or bustle of a league season, and the latter an inevitable and unwelcome chore. I’d actually go as far as to question the wisdom of having two domestic cups, anyway. An amalgamation of the two would be certain to increase the competitive nature; and perhaps go some way towards re-introducing that element of magic that currently deserts it.

I will carry on watching FA Cup football, so long as my eyes still function, but I doubt it will ever capture my imagination as much as the majority of other games in a football season. Its appeal once lay in its prestige, but that’s been slowly siphoned away for decades. To put this into context; I would honestly swap a Manchester United win this weekend at Anfield in the 4th round, for a win in the league versus Liverpool at Old Trafford, mere weeks later.

I don’t want it to be an acrimonious break-up, in the slightest. The odd year, I might still gaze upon her from afar, wondering what might have been, and the history we could have made. If she changes significantly, or in the far more likely event of me changing my mind, I may come crawling back; begging to be given another chance. However, if that were never to happen, my life would not lose the slightest bit of meaning. And I’m not just saying that because we haven’t won it for yonks.