James Lawton: Road to Wembley is no diversion from the Premier League's road to perdition
Saturday 16 February 2008
It should be one of those eternal, thrilling football days. It used to be so but it isn't any more because it is the FA Cup. It's a slowing of the pulse, a blurring of ambition.
This is sad for so many reasons – and intensely so because all of them are to do with the inadequacies of the men trusted to run the national game. The frustration is encapsulated easily enough: the outstanding collision of the weekend would have roughly 10 times more appeal if it was concerned with Premier League points rather than the irreversibly downgraded glory of the Road to Wembley.
Those who were thrilled a few weeks ago when Havant & Waterlooville did the unthinkable and forged into the lead at Anfield may want to dispute this, but then they would probably also argue that our problems of law enforcement might be swept away by the reappearance of Dixon of Dock Green.
No, we have to face it, even when boasting of a tie between the best two teams in the land, as it does today when Manchester United meet Arsenal at Old Trafford, the FA Cup is so far gone it can do not much more than offer consolation to the inconsolable. It is not longer a compelling tournament. It is a convenience store. You pop in and out of it, even if you are Reading or Norwich City, when you need something; a diversion, perhaps, or more likely, a big gate against the reserves of United or Arsenal or Chelsea.
What else could you say of the oldest knock-out tournament in the game after United didn't even bother to defend it when it was part of their historic treble of 1999 and went off like greedy urchins to a tawdry World Club championship in Brazil – and when at roughly the same time Arsenal's Arsène Wenger announced that it was infinitely more important to finish fourth in the Premier League than win the old bauble that transfixed the nation when the venerable and magical Sir Stanley Matthews won his only medal?
Wenger has given a lot more to English football than he has taken, but this wasn't one of the days of his benevolence. He might have been wearing a sharp suit and parking his Ferrari outside his City office.
However, perhaps we shouldn't get too depressed. We still have an authentic title race. It is just unfortunate that it took an alliance between the fans of England and the revolted leaders of football elsewhere in the world to effectively stop the latest piece of crass and myopic greed displayed by the owners and administrators of what has been described as the richest and most exciting league in the world.
Richest and most exciting? Rich maybe, but owners of what? Fool's gold, surely. With an astonishing, even heart-warming unanimity, the wider football community has agreed that the Premier League's idea of adding an extra fixture – one that could totally sabotage the home-and-away competitive integrity of any league – and hawking it from San Diego to Sydney as some over-priced trinket – is shockingly ill- advised at every level.
Indeed, it speaks of all those things that have undermined the FA Cup – the pursuit of profit for its own sake, the failure to understand the rich mix of football as it spreads itself across the nation from the richest club to the village cowpatch and, more than anything, an absolute lack of respect for an inheritance that apparently just cannot be seen as anything more than a commercial product.
It is not just greed we are complaining about here. It is incompetence, a fundamental failure to understand quite what is being sold with such unseemly and destructive haste. The more you make football a business the further you travel from its soul and its point, the more you lose touch with its original appeal.
The most serious misconception is that football is like oil and water and that its place in the market is immutable. It is not. It is dependent on intrigue and true competition, and a degree of love.
The FA Cup was a gem. They have made it an irrelevance barely cloaked by the odd local eruption provoked by the likes of Havant & Waterlooville and other heroes for a day.
Michel Platini, president of Uefa and in his time one of those footballers who unerringly reminded us of the game's beauty, has been particularly derisive. He points out that England, having divested itself of players and coaches, is now proposing to give up the foundation of its league. Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president who is maybe not everybody's idea of the game's guardian angel, has been equally withering.
The tide of opinion across the world has been unremitting.
For a quick-fix of profit, the Premier League was willing to put the family jewels in hock – and replace them with the uncongealing paste of appaling compromise.
What they didn't seem to grasp, for one hubris-free moment, was that they proposed to do to their own competition precisely what the Football Association did to theirs. Now, when they dwell on the fact that their league has become the only authentic show in town, they should not congratulate themselves but shudder at the reality that only a disapproving world, and outraged consumers, have steered them away – for the moment at least – from the same fate as the FA Cup.
It means that Premier League needs to hold what it has – and never forget how easily it can be squandered.
You might say that if they haven't learnt this over the last few days, they never will. But then why are we so little reassured? It is because of the scale of the error, the poverty of the thinking. It was so huge – and terrifying.
Belichick lays bare America's game
It now appears that Bill Belichick, so recently mooted as arguably the best NFL coach in history, had authorised the filming of the coaching signals of his opposition from the moment he stepped into his job at the New England Patriots.
The evidence is acknowledged by the League – along with the statement that they thought they were doing the "the best thing" when they burned the tapes and notes of the case which ended with the coach being fined $500,000. No doubt they were. But the best thing for whom?
All those who didn't want to have it spelled out that America's game could be dominated by a coach who believed it was fair and legal to know, by espionage, exactly what his opponents were going to do before they did it.
Marshall Foch once declared of the gridiron, "Mon Dieu, it has everything – it is just like war."
Precisely, mon general.
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