Graham Kelly: Flawed magic but FA Cup still appeals

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The Independent Online

Despite the publicity attracted by overpaid footballers' extra-curricular activities and the proposition that the FA Cup wasn't what it used to be, I still looked forward to third round weekend with keen anticipation. As my team had forfeited the opportunity to earn some of the Football Association's increased prize money with a dire show at Southend back in the first round, I instead enjoyed Canvey Island's performance at Burnley, the Islanders having improved no end since I last saw them about seven years ago. They really belied their Ryman League status in worrying the high-flying Clarets for a spell.

A contributor to the Turf Moor programme was Burnley fan and Downing Street director of communications Alastair Campbell, who agrees that the Cup has lost its magic, tentatively blaming the surfeit of live television nowadays.

The FA had settled a row about admission prices. Burnley had wanted to reduce tickets to the £6 minimum allowed under FA Cup rules so as to fill the ground to its 22,500 capacity, but, after their opponents objected, a compromise ruling was made. In the event 11,496, well 11,495, paid just over £100,000. I did buy some lottery tickets in return for my free seat and plate of roast beef of which the former Burnley luminary, butcher Bob Lord, would have been truly proud. The Canvey people and their civic guests felt they had been royally treated by their Lancashire hosts and returned to Essex with 45 per cent of the net receipts to add to the £100,000 earned from live television in the previous round.

I understand that Cheltenham are considering raising prices for the fourth round tie against Burnley. This is surely wrong, for if the fans support the Robins through the hard times, they should not be robbed on special occasions.

The thaw came in time to eliminate any doubt about the Burnley tie, although the Turf Moor undersoil heating had previously failed to shift a particularly heavy frost that caused the Bradford City match to be postponed and failed also to avoid the strictures of the diligent Mr Nicholas Binns, a reader of four newspapers, all of which published letters from him urging the football authorities to insist upon pitch protection for clubs outside the Premier League.

Before you conclude that I should get a life, I should tell you I was out refereeing the local 17-year- olds, and missed Macclesfield earning their £265,000 from the televised match against West Ham United, courtesy of some hot air blankets.

I did, however, return in time to catch the hot air of Sam Hammam's "traditional" occupation of the perimeter behind the opponents' goal and David O'Leary's almost traditional disagreement with the referee's decision to send Alan Smith off. However, the crassness of Hammam's claims that pitch invasions and ritual taunting were normal and acceptable seems to have escaped censure, sadly.

By the time I had digested this stupidity I was beginning to wish I had stayed out longer with the kids, who do not need role models in professional football to teach them how to behave. If the welcome Professional Footballers' Association and League Managers Association initiative to use Tony Adams to demonstrate the dangers of alcohol-fuelled indiscipline is adopted at top level, it will only be the first step in football belatedly accepting it has a real educational problem here. Simply, if sadly, privileged young players forfeit the right to a normal life when they accept the riches. Like pop stars and young royals, top players no longer have the freedom to go unchaperoned into licensed premises where less fortunate youngsters gather to have fun.

The FA chief executive Adam Crozier firmly rejected the notion that the Cup's magic was waning after seeing Sir Alex Ferguson's mini-pitch invasion in the wake of United's dramatic recovery, and was then compelled to consider the thorny problem of reconciling the live television requirements with the police restrictions for the next round.

According to another contributor to a match programme I read at Kidderminster on Tuesday, Sky's Andy Gray, the whole Cardiff thing had been blown out of all proportion. "If the powers-that-be were sitting alongside me during the game there would be little talk of sanctions for the so-called pitch invasion", opined Andy – from the gantry.

The two ACs, Campbell and Crozier, were closest to reality between them. The Cup's magic is a cliché, its mystique dissolved by exposure. But its appeal is strong enough to withstand poor judgment of people in and out the game and still attract sufficient support from television to boost ambitious clubs at all levels.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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