Descending murk fails to hit the magic of the Cup

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The Independent Online

Last weekend the impending winter gloom really started to descend. After the glamour boys of the Premier League had had their moment on Match of the Day, it was the turn of the minnows, as non-League clubs scurried about in the murk trying to embarrass their higher-status opponents in the first round of the FA Cup.

Last weekend the impending winter gloom really started to descend. After the glamour boys of the Premier League had had their moment on Match of the Day, it was the turn of the minnows, as non-League clubs scurried about in the murk trying to embarrass their higher-status opponents in the first round of the FA Cup.

It has become the fashion to knock the Cup, or rather the Football Association, since it compounded existing difficulties by encouraging Manchester United, the holders, to withdraw from the competition last season in order to help the World Cup 2006 bid.

I will venture to suggest that fewer than one per cent of the crowds huddled together trying to keep out the chilling rain last weekend gave a damn about the alleged loss of the Cup's magic. This was their day, if not in the sun, at least in the spotlight of the temporary floodlights. Just two more wins - and some of the teams had already played four or five preliminary round matches since the end of August - and they could dream of being drawn against Premier League opposition in the third round.

I made the long trip to Barrow, as did 500 or so Leyton Orient supporters, many of whom were delayed by a rail problem at Preston, thus causing the kick off to be put back by 15 minutes. These unfortunates were summarily informed by tannoy that the coaches back to Lancaster would be departing 10 minutes before the final whistle whether they were on board or not.

By that time the outcome was no longer in doubt and the obedient fans who left Holker Street as instructed will have done so safe in the knowledge that, for all Barrow's earlier efforts, which had culminated in a couple of disallowed goals for offside and two more good chances going begging, the UniBond League outfit had little left in their locker by 4.50pm.

It was a shame, really. Though it would have been a little implausible to regard Orient as the toffs from the metropolis, Barrow have played Football League teams five times with absolutely no joy since the loss of their League status in 1972. The club have not had a lot of luck since. There were some shenanigans at Barrow a couple of years ago and they are still in liquidation, the Holker Street ground the subject of litigation.

Last year this little local difficulty resulted in the Conference throwing them out - fancy being voted out of both the Football League and the Conference! - and it was eight matches into the 1999-2000 season before the club started their campaign in the UniBond League.

Still, adversity has only enhanced the natural warmth of the people of Barrow and, in the tiny sponsors' lounge before the match, plastic coats were distributed to guests, which either said much about the prevailing climate on the exposed peninsula or little for the design of the stand. I stood near the corner flag and chatted to a life member of the club who had supported Barrow for 40 years.

Given the emotional pull (as a schoolboy I had played in a representative match on the ground), I wanted Barrow at least to put on a good show, which they did, though Match of the Day only had time for Orient's clinically-dispatched goals. But the football supporter's natural inclination for an upset was tempered by my experience as a director the previous night at Luton Town.

The Hatters had survived to draw Darlington away in the second round only because Rushden & Diamonds, those perpetual tilters at Football League windmills, had contrived to miss chance after chance. I know how I would have felt had Lil Fuccillo's team lost to non-League opposition in his first match in charge, so I could not bring myself to wish a similar fate in the interests of the greater glory of the FA Cup on those Leyton Orient supporters facing a long and uncertain trip home.

The occasion at Kenilworth Road was marred just a little bit by the custom of some spectators, who obviously did not feel they had had their money's worth unless the evening had been spent in hurling abuse at the opposing fans. I don't have to come here for this, I thought, I could stay at home and watch television. At least the goalmouth excitement will have made for compelling viewing by the Sky subscribers and the £75,000 fee accruing to each club could conceivably have meant more to the home side than to Max Griggs' non-League plutocrats, who took the reverse in sporting manner.

Millennium Stadium here we come.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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