The Last Word: TV show sours FA Cup dream of Wembley

Dream On is just a publicity stunt that highlights the dangers of a sport selling itself to sponsors

Judging by the pseudo reality show due to be staged this afternoon in the humble surroundings of Honeycroft, home of Uxbridge Football Club, the devaluation of the FA Cup is complete. It is nothing more than a corporate trinket.

Uxbridge's first-preliminary-round tie against Wembley has been moved forward a day to accommodate live coverage on ESPN, a satellite channel who face a struggle to survive in the UK market on a diet of Russian League football and Little League baseball, following the imminent loss of live Premier League matches.

A minor indignity in an age of such concessions to TV ratings, but a damning insight into the dangers of a sport selling itself to a sponsor and allowing market forces to run unchecked. The FA's duty of care to what they blithely bill as the world's greatest cup competition has been abandoned.

The FA Cup has a strange alchemy. It crystallises dreams into enduring images: Bert Trautmann's broken neck, Stanley Matthews's medal. It softens nightmare moments such as Gordon Smith's miss and Gazza's self-destructive tackle.

We've become accustomed to the clichés, clinging to them for reassurance as times have become harsh. But the FA's implicit approval of one of the tackiest PR stunts of recent memory, the colonisation of a small club, Wembley FC, by competition sponsors Budweiser, distorts the nature of the competition.

Terry Venables, who increasingly resembles a cross between an Eldorado extra and Colonel Sanders's svelte cousin, has been recruited as Wembley's "technical advisor". This has inevitably compromised player/ manager Ian Bates, an unlikely figure with long, lank hair and the blissed-out air of a new-age traveller.

As goalkeeping coach, David Seaman is earmarked as mentor to Lee Pearce, the cabbie who has emerged as the most distinctive character in an eight-part documentary series which follows Wembley's progress and supposedly celebrates grass-roots football. He is Peter Shilton trapped inside the body of Eric Pickles.

His temporary team-mates include Claudio Cannigia, Graeme Le Saux, Brian McBride, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour. Cannigia, who scored in the extra-preliminary-round win over Langford, at least has the decency to admit: "I am not the guy I used to be". The refugees from the retirement home will be joined today by the former England defender Ugo Ehiogu.

Uxbridge, their opponents, are a proper football club. Formed on 3 February 1871, they have had difficulties sustaining the success of 1898, when they lost 2-0 to Middlesbrough in the final of the FA Amateur Cup. But they do set admirable standards. Tony Choules is only their fifth manager in 40 years.

Like many in non-League football, Choules is affronted by the circus encamped at Wembley, the club from the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League. He resents the perception of his players as cannon fodder for a bunch of fading stars.

Lighten up, I hear you say. This is just a bit of fun. Budweiser have just announced a £1 million scheme to help grass-roots clubs. But behind the spin-doctored stories, football and so-called "celebrity content" are being used to position beer to younger drinkers. Today's tie is an exercise in what the brewer's global vice-president, Jason Warner, calls "sticky engagement marketing".

The documentary series, conceived by an advertising agency and delivered by an Emmy-winning producer, is an extension of the sponsors' "wish fulfilment" strategy. This was launched at the 2010 World Cup, where 32 fans sat around, Big Brother style, drank beer and talked football in an online reality show.

The Wembley TV series, called Dream On, is based on the principle of The Big Time, an American initiative in which contestants are "mentored, tested and challenged" by sports stars, including Budweiser- sponsored Nascar drivers.

The first thing the football club did with their windfall was build a new bar for the cameras.

Rugby league has long lived a lie

Rugby league relished one of its state occasions yesterday, the Challenge Cup final. These matches have a compelling narrative. Clubs are close to their communities, and neutrals are embraced as an integral part of "the greatest game".

The athletes are relentless, resilient and unspoiled by their status as local heroes. The sport has a complementary commitment to innovation and tradition.

Yet all is not as it appears. Rugby league remains a prisoner of the M62 corridor. Its problems are profound. It is subservient to its paymasters at Sky. It earns nothing from the title sponsor of Super League.

The fate of Bradford Bulls, which will be decided next week, is an indication of the dangers of financial mismanagement.

Participation rates have plunged, from 82,000 adults playing once a week to a baseline figure of 44,100.

Yet in the current cycle rugby league has been given £29,408,341 by Sport England, the quango who oversee grass-roots sport.

That is a grotesque waste of public money, yet the former England star Jamie Peacock is calling for a national stadium.

I was weaned on league's legends by my father, a Whitehaven supporter. But it has lived a lie for too long.

Lance verdict

This column recently addressed the Lance Armstrong case with a single question: martyr or monster? I've made my mind up. If he really is guilty, then he is the most manipulative, mendacious cheat sport has produced.

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