Football: Newcastle's snub to tradition puts fascination of FA Cup at risk

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The Independent Online
You do not have to be much of a football historian to know that the FA Cup is best served by sensational happenings. Imperfect adaption is the essence of its tradition.

The plot remains as marvellously simple as it was in the fourth round 49 years ago when Sunderland, thrown out of their stride on a celebrated slope, were defeated 2-1 by Yeovil Town, who were sixth from the bottom of the old Southern League and 5,000-1 in the overall betting. Drawn away against Manchester United in the next round, Yeovil lost 8-0 in front of an 81,000 crowd.

Football has changed a great deal but despite years of devoted research no sovereign remedy has been found for the apprehension caused by unfamiliar terrain and the threat of being embarrassed by ambitious opponents who have no respect for reputations. Fight for the right (to prove superior status) is an instruction that springs immediately to mind, but coaches can never be sure that it will fully register.

In his The Official Illustrated History of the FA Cup, published last year, Bryon Butler writes: "Nothing is closer to the heart of the tournament than its giant- killers. They are lustrous proof that the impossible is always possible."

It was possible for Colchester United, who were positioned 75th in the Football League and included six free transfers when they defeated the First Division leaders and FA Cup favourites, Leeds United, at home in 1971.

The lingering memory of that and other such startling events - especially their own humiliation at Hereford United in 1972 - is possibly one of the reasons why Newcastle United want their fourth-round tie against non- League Stevenage Borough switched to St James' Park. The Football Association should insist that the match is played as drawn.

The moral uproar over this issue must not obscure the probability that Stevenage's chairman, Victor Green, would not be so resolutely opposed to giving up home advantage (as the Vauxhall Conference club did last year when drawn against Birmingham City) if he was not looking at the pounds 150,000 put up by Sky television.

Also, if Sky's involvement raises again the question of who is running football in this country - one to which everyone with the game at heart should pay serious attention - this is not what a number of people are understandably going on about.

If not entirely clear in their resentment against Newcastle's presumption, they may sense that the FA Cup's enduring fascination is being put at risk.

Nobody is entitled to overlook the effect Heysel and Hillsborough had on Kenny Dalglish, but for Newcastle to link those horrors with fears for the safety of spectators if Stevenage are allowed erect temporary seating insults the memory of those who died.

During all this, I expect that many people who seldom see top-class football other than on television have been thinking about what the FA Cup means to them. Their cause was taken up yesterday by Monica Hartland, who is the deputy chairman of the National Federation of Football Supporters' Clubs. "Newcastle are displaying an arrogance at best and at worst an almighty ignorance of public relations," she said.

Hartland spoke about romance, about clubs from different worlds meeting in circumstances that give hope to the humble, of providing supporters with a day they will remember for the rest of their lives, whatever the outcome. "Sadly, to Newcastle United, though hopefully not their embarrassed supporters, it appears to be all about money and self-interest," she added.

Sensibly, showing more respect for tradition than has been evident in their myopic employers, the Newcastle players, most notably John Barnes, do not appear to have been made nervous by the prospect of turning out at Stevenage.

"Nobody should stand in the way of their decision to play at home, for whatever reason," he said. "If that's what they want to do, and they are allowed to do it, then good luck to them."

Shortly before Colchester recorded that famous victory over Leeds, their manager, Dick Graham, spoke the following words to his players: "We, ourselves, little old Colchester, are taking on probably the greatest team in Europe. We may never see them again, but it's going to be something you will remember all your lives. And, you know what, I think we can win."

For the sake of the FA Cup and, assuming that Stevenage's ground is safe, Newcastle should be told to clear off and get on with what the draw served them.