Just when we least expected it, football has found its Olympic moment. The FA Cup has just restored our once strong link to the people who actually play the game, taking us right into the lives of Oldham Athletic's Matt Smith, Luton Town's Scott Rendell and young Sam Byram, a defender they were comparing to Paul Madeley in Leeds yesterday. It could just be the saving of the competition.
The experience touched different people in different ways. For journalists at Macclesfield Town, there was the novelty of a walk across real turf to the rickety press seats. For those at Oldham, the impromptu press conference with the manager was held at the top of the staircase (gently barracked by the old boys who sauntered up and down) because there has never been cause to create a press room up there. "Welcome to the Real World," said the note greeting those arriving to write about the game that brought Liverpool's eighth exit to lower-league opposition in 20 years.
Saturday afternoon radio was transformed. It was not just the fact that Radio 5 Live delivered half an hour of unscriptable radio which made the end of that afternoon's action so fine. There was also the brilliant John Murray and Phil Brown communicating the action as Macclesfield tackled Wigan Athletic. That match might have ended up on the margins of a historic weekend but as the game ran its course, Brown enthusing about five of the non-League players who could operate at a higher level, it was right up there with the best of the drama.
For those teams who flourished there was the money, of course – for Luton and Oldham, who will probably break even now – and also their very satisfying chance to remind the world that they're still here. One of the curiosities of the weekend's events was that the victors were all clubs who have plummeted from the top flight in modern times, deprived of the new football money. Leeds United, Oldham, Luton and the original manifestation of MK Dons have all been in England's top division within the past 21 years. Economists would liken their relationship with the FA Cup to that of settlers discovering marginal land, reaping the benefits of others who have no desire to till this soil.
You imagine the Football Association can hardly believe its good fortune. Before Budweiser came on board to sponsor the tournament, the governing body was scrabbling around for a backer. E.ON, the German energy company, signed a deal worth an estimated £8.3m to the FA and, having decided not to renew in 2009, only agreed to extend for another year, on the same terms, when no replacement could be found. It was when E.ON announced its departure that the FA desperately sought to renew the format and only when a sense of drift had set in around the Challenge Cup committee's plans for a switch of the competition to midweek, new technology and the scrapping of replays did Budweiser unexpectedly step in. "No one knew where that Budweiser deal came from. No one saw it coming," says Richard Gillis, of the sports business blog unofficialpartner.co.uk
What we now seem to have on our hands is a tournament that can be repositioned as the Cup of Cavaliers; a tournament of those who have more chance of delivering a bloody nose to the giants of the game than ever before – in part because today's Ronnie Radfords are faster, fitter and able to make up in toil what they lack in tricks.
The question is whether we can bring ourselves to embrace the "new" FA Cup. For so many it's still the "old trophy" – part of a nostalgia and, as Gillis observes, nostalgia is something we cling to particularly tightly when the future looks as uncertain as it is now. It's the nostalgia that makes us still punish it, even as it thrives. The ITV highlights show on Sunday night, for example, reflected on the fact that Tottenham Hotspur had bigger fish to fry than the FA Cup. "I wondered what Budweiser would have made of that," Gillis reflects.
The competition's future cannot be built on one good late January weekend. Analysis by Brian Sears for the sportingintelligence website yesterday compared attendances of the third round's home clubs with their average home league attendance. The league total of 560,000 supporters dropped to 433,000 fans in the Cup – a decline of 22 per cent, while in the replays the corresponding figures revealed a drop of 24.6 per cent. The average attendance for the weekend's fourth round (19,900) was down on the last two years.
When the minnows are up against the relative giants, the numbers inevitably soar and attendances at all-Premier League games also hold their own, but the rest versus the rest do not. There was a substantial fall-off at Middlesbrough's Riverside, for example, where seats were only £10. The figures point to some room for innovations, such as a seeded draw or a some gentle engineering to have Premier League sides playing away in the third round.
But we all have a part to play in embracing the new heroes. By having less obsession with weakened sides – when in Tottenham's case they were not all that much weakened at all and in Liverpool's they cost many millions more to assemble. And by more imagination from the TV schedulers whose companies, having bid for the trophy, might at least seek more from it than a re-run of the Premier League. Luton were the first non-League side to beat Premier League opposition and the first to beat a top-flight side away for 27 years. Arsenal's defeat of Brighton in a five-goal thriller was another nailed-on game for drama. Instead, ITV offered us Stoke v Manchester City and ESPN aired Manchester United v Fulham, two of Saturday's dud games.
The competition has shown us all of its old capacity to thrill so we need some scheduling imagination to match. Oldham v Everton, Luton v Millwall and Manchester City v Leeds, please, for fifth round weekend. And spare us the prospect of United playing their 39th consecutive televised FA Cup tie, against Reading.
Putting gloss on United's commercial juggernaut
Making money carries chores, like appearing at the announcement of a sponsorship deal with a paint supplier. Phil Jones wasn't the only one for whom it was probably like … well, watching paint dry. But the Manchester United commercial juggernaut has been driving on.
The share price was initially propped up by underwriters and struggling at $12 but the announcement of three-year deals with soft drinks manufacturer Wahaha and China Construction Bank, who will produce a United-branded credit card, has seen a rise to just under $17 which has now led Forbes to value the club as the top sports team in the world at $3bn (£1.9bn) . The share of next year's new £1bn TV deal has helped. Forbes puts United's enterprise value (equity plus debt) at $3.3 bn (£2.1bn), way ahead of the second most valuable sports team - NFL's Dallas Cowboys ($2.1bn.)
The Glazers, who have developed the apparatus to drive these deals at United, will be laughing and so, too, major investor George Soros. Sir Alex Ferguson may reflect, not for the first time, that his club should not be judged too soon. Forbes advised last year that "if you are planning to buy Manchester United stock, you may want to think again".
TV companies, having bid for the trophy, might at least seek more than a re-run of the premier league