Adrian Chiles: Clogs, cakes, whippets and cobbles: the FA Cup's clichéd magic

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The Independent Football

I warmly recommend recommending a book in a newspaper. I did it for the first time, in this column, last year. Not only did the authors take me to a pub and fill me with beer, they also put a quote from me on the front cover of a new edition of the book. I love being on the box and the radio and in this newspaper but I don't think anything's given me as much pleasure as seeing a quote from me on the front cover of a book. The front cover, mark you, not the back. It's like my opinion really matters. It feels great.

I warmly recommend recommending a book in a newspaper. I did it for the first time, in this column, last year. Not only did the authors take me to a pub and fill me with beer, they also put a quote from me on the front cover of a new edition of the book. I love being on the box and the radio and in this newspaper but I don't think anything's given me as much pleasure as seeing a quote from me on the front cover of a book. The front cover, mark you, not the back. It's like my opinion really matters. It feels great.

The book in question is Football Lexicon. It's a dictionary of football-speak, a fine collection of clichés. It comes to mind today because for some reason FA Cup third round weekend is to football clichés what bonfire night is to fireworks.

David Woodhouse, co-author of the book, thinks this might be because, "the Football Association Challenge Cup is regarded as a more chivalrous competition than those horrible neologisms the Premiership, the Championship, League One, etc". (No, I'm not sure what neologisms are either, but the theory seems plausible).

Entry number one in chapter one of a (non-alphabetical) cup cliché dictionary would be romance, as in "the romance of the cup". Until about 30 seconds ago I found this usage puzzling but upon looking it up I've found a definition which seems peculiarly apposite. Romance, in my dictionary, is "a series of unusual adventures".

Perhaps it's because cup adventures are so unusual - the form book goes out the window, don't forget - that a curiously standardised language has evolved to describe them. It's as though the media need to impose some kind of order where it can seem there is none.

This weekend this will most clearly manifest itself in coverage of the Chelsea-Scunthorpe match. By now television producers will have scoured Scunthorpe for stereotypes of the frozen north: a bloke in clogs; a lame whippet scavenging for discarded batter bits; anything cobbled; a cake in a baker's shop window with "Play Up Town!" scrawled across it in cheery icing.

There's probably more cobbles on the streets around the extravagantly expensive mews properties off the Fulham Road, but I doubt we'll see them. We'll be shown the swanky restaurants of the Kings Road and the chip shops of Scunthorpe. There are chip shops in Chelsea and restaurants in Scunthorpe, but cameras won't have pointed at either this week. All Chelsea fans will be portrayed as rich; all Scunthorpe fans as impoverished. It's easier that way.

And win or lose we'll be assured at some stage that Scunthorpe have enjoyed the "biggest day out of their lives". The implication being that they'll trudge back home to live out the rest of their grey lives very quietly, occasionally cheering themselves by getting the press cuttings out about the day they went to Chelsea.

I love the way a cup result is invariably portrayed as a positive outcome, win or lose. A win is "just the springboard we need to improve our form in the league which is, after all, our bread and butter." A defeat, on the other hand, "gives us the opportunity to concentrate on the league which is, after all, our bread and butter."

David Woodhouse, a Villa fan, thinks the timing of the third round is significant: "If we lose at Bramall Lane, the season is over for us. It's like a big New Year resolution that's broken irrevocably within a week - a heightened version of the usual fans' experience of hope turned to disappointment, often with a mild element of shame or embarrassment."

In my experience there's nothing mild about cup shame. Exactly fourteen years ago I had the misfortune to witness Woking's demolition of West Brom at The Hawthorns. That was a terrible day. Odd then that I'm often asked, entirely without malice, if I was there. This is a bit like asking if I was there the day my Grandad died: "Yes, I was at the Albion that day, it was absolutely awful. Thanks for asking." But ultimately it wasn't my misfortune to be there, it was a privilege. Because witnessing your club being giant-killed marks you out as a bigger fan than someone who has seen their club slay a giant - if only because every gutless fair-weather fan in the town turns up to see their David have a pop at a Goliath.

I love seeing fans of the defeated giant desperately join in the carnival atmosphere. It's as though having been stripped of every last shred of self-respect by their team all they can cling to is their essential goodness. At the end of that Woking match there was a pitch invasion by our fans. I swear that Tim Buzaglo, who scored many goals for the giant-killer that day, thought he was to be lynched. Not a bit of it; they lifted him on to their shoulders and carried him around the pitch. It's peculiar that fans only show this level of sportsmanship when their team has been totally, completely humiliated.

When our fans had finished being brilliant with Woking they expunged the pent-up poison in their bodies by mounting a demonstration calling for Brian Talbot to be sacked, which he was soon afterwards. Which only goes to show that in more ways than one the cup truly is, to use another cliché, a great leveller: Brian Talbot's back-to-back winner's medals with different clubs couldn't save him from a bloke from Woking called Buzaglo.

The FA Cup is like football used to be: underdogs welcome. Elsewhere, especially in the Premiership, the lesser teams are treated with ill-disguised contempt: go away, you're not wanted here. In the Cup, it's different. As evidence for this I cite the "cup usage" of the cliché about a team "not having read this script". In the league, if a hot favourite fails to win a game it is the lesser mortals who are said not to have read the script. This weekend the football world's turned on its head as, for once, the script has it that giants must be slain. Here's hoping that they dutifully play their part.

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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