I knew it wouldn’t end well when I saw Ian Wright on my television. The ice-cool forward, remembered by most of you for his goalscoring exploits for Crystal Palace and Arsenal, was making the draw for the third round of the FA Cup. He is, unfortunately, unforgettable to me now because he blocked me on Twitter for daring to contest his suggestion that the MK Dons were ‘a great community club’. It was all the more bewildering because the producer of his then Talksport phone-in had asked me on to discuss Fulham’s 5-0 win over Norwich City. If you are going to make silly statements, expect to be called out on them.
Wright was wearing a garish, ill-fitting jumper – I assume he blocked everybody who poked fun at it on social media – and guffawing alongside Steven Gerrard. Between the two of them, they pulled out a rather dour tie between Cardiff City and Fulham. Two fairly unfashionable Championship clubs. No romance there, I remember thinking to myself. With Manchester United taking up one of the television slots (they have had every FA Cup tie screened since their third round replay against Exeter City in 2005 – remarkably), I must confess I didn’t think too much about the possibility of the game being moved from a Saturday slot and consoled myself with the possibility of a weekend in Wales.
One of my mates, a long-suffering Fulham away traveller, even posted on Twitter that he would be booking his train tickets now, such was his certainty that the game wouldn’t be moved. And, then, the unthinkable happened. During a rather drowsy Monday lunchtime at work, the alert appeared on my phone. Fulham’s FA Cup tie had been selected by BBC Wales for live television coverage. It made me wonder which genius had decided this game would be good for their ratings. It was only when I clicked the link that the true horror set in – it was a Sunday kick-off. The next sentence needed to be read a few times. A Sunday morning kick-off at 11.30am.
I’ve been to Cardiff when games have kicked off on a Saturday lunchtime, either because Swansea were also at home or there was a Welsh rugby international at the Millennium Stadium. Those are justifiable reasons for altering the kick-off time. This was just a TV executive having a laugh. What possible reason could there be for showing the match at 11.30am? Were they worried people might get a bit too engrossed in Andrew Marr, the Sunday Politics or whatever that new Sunday morning show that Robert Peston presents on ITV is called? Perhaps I lived in a different universe where football was meant to be played in the afternoon.
The clubs had agreed reduced ticket prices, starting at £10 for adults, with further concessions for children and senior citizens, clearly because they recongised this wasn’t one of the third round’s glamour ties. That’s all well and good – but any effort to encourage people to make a rare trip to the football because it was Cup third round weekend will have been doomed by the kick off time. ‘You have to be at the ground for what time? 11.30am. You’re all right, mate, I’ll still be sleeping off Saturday’s excesses then’. Even for modern football this was particularly barking.
You see, it’s a shame, because the FA Cup still means something to me. I remember the frenzied build-up to Cup final day, the parties you’d have with your mates and how everyone would pile into the garden afterwards to try and re-enact the best bits. It might have been a while since Fulham have managed a significant Cup run, but even the Whites – with their aversion to playing at Wembley – have managed some memorable afternoons. Think of Kevin Keegan’s boys going to Aston Villa, then top of the Premiership, and winning. Or when they struggled to get past non-league Leigh RMI and David ‘fatty’ Felgate. The old competition can still throw up the odd tie you will marvel at years later, like when Roy Hodgson took his team to Kettering and flirted outrageously with a not-so-glorious exit, and you always see old faces you haven’t seen for years following the team on the road.
That’s the other thing. How on earth were people supposed to get there for a 11.30am kick off on a Sunday? The club, realising that this was probably going to be one of the toughest away games to draw a crowd to (even for Fulham), acted quickly and laid on free coaches, but you’d have to get yourself to Motspur Park or Craven Cottage at some ungodly hour in the morning. The first direct service from London Paddington arrives into Cardiff Central at 10:59 and, if by some miracle, you avoid all the tube engineering issues and GWR manages to dodge the delays and the electrification works and gets you there on time, there’s still a mad dash to what is now the Cardiff City Stadium so you can hear the first blast of the referee’s whistle.
The FA says that people still cherish the world’s oldest Cup competition. If only that were true. Clubs could play full strength sides instead of concentrating on the league campaign – and the punters could pack grounds to the rafters. An added by-product of the Cup’s past place on a English footballing pedestal was that no broadcaster would try something as insane as this. The decision, as the Fulham Supporters’ Trust wrote in a letter to BBC Wales shortly after the scheduling change was announced, just underlines how far down the pecking order the ordinary fan has fallen in the modern game.
It will be in spite of the modern magic of the Cup – not because of it – that I’ll be heading to Cardiff on Saturday afternoon, sleeping in a Premier Inn, and hauling myself out of bed and along to watch our reserves all likelihood get kicked up in the air by a Neil Warnock side the following morning. You see, I told my neighbour’s little boy – who doesn’t get to see much football – that I’d go with him to an away game and, kids being kids, he was quite taken with the idea of going to Cardiff. The next generation are the lifeblood of the game – or so they say.