When the magic fades

FA Cup 4th Round (27th – 29th Jan)

I feel melancholic writing about the FA cup: it has a faded glory akin to a once grand seafront hotel on the English Riviera. We talk of the fun of the seaside and the magic of the Cup, but these are empty words failing to hide years of neglect and diminishing interest.

The advent of the Premiership dealt the FA Cup a crippling blow, but the competition managed to linger on, coughing and spluttering on its deathbed, reminiscing about the good ol’ days. It was the end of Old Wembley that turned off the life-support machine.

A three-year sabbatical at a rugby ground before the much-pomped return to the gentrified stadium finished the old boy off. No twin towers, no pillars blocking the view from 80% of the seats – something was missing – the execrable novelty pop songs, dreadful suits parading on the turf ten hours before kick off, the glorious walk over the greyhound track, those green stanchioned nets so full of promise; all gone without a trace.

New Wembley was New Labour – a vanity project that disenfranchised its core supporters.

With the final showpiece corrupted, the infection spread to the rest of the competition as managers began to fret over such banalities as fixture congestion, league form and the 4th Europa cup spot.

In my other life as a design journalist, I spent the morning speaking to the director of a sports branding consultancy. He talked eloquently about sport in terms of ‘product experience’, ‘brand extension’, and ‘tone of voice’; I got the impression he hadn’t stood on the terraces at Bootham Crescent – itself a ground that flirted with branding spending a couple of seasons as the KitKat Crescent – where the only acceptable tone of voice is calling the referee a wanker in broad Yorkshire.

Bootham Crescent. You can actually see my then student digs in this picture

I have. I spent a season at that wonderful ground surrounded by terraced houses – a cliché of football past – while reading for an MA at the University of York. Throughout my academic career I’d always liked to cheat on the Baggies by following the side of whichever city I landed in. Like Nick Hornby, the lad-lit Gooner, I had, during my Cantab years, supported Cambridge United at the crumbling Abbey. People at the university liked to talk about the ‘Cambridge Bubble’ – the notion that the university represented another world as wonderful as it was oppressive. I knew the way to escape: all it entailed was cycling past the Grafton Centre and down the Newmarket Road at 2.30 on a Saturday.

Alternatively known as the 'Shabbey'

But back to York – the year I wrote my  thesis (isn’t it handy how academic years and football seasons coincide?), York City enjoyed a remarkable season that ended in disappointment at, suitably, New Wembley as the Minstermen lost out on promotion to the Football League at the hands of Oxford United.

Yet along the way I tasted it, that long-lost sensation: the Magic of the FA Cup. 2-1 down to League Two  Crewe with 5 minutes left, Richie Pacquette bundled in after a goalmouth scramble, great, a replay. But, with the game into stoppage time, Richard Brodie, enjoying somewhat of an annus mirabilis, picked up the ball on halfway, dribbled past what seemed like all 10 of Alexandra’s outfield players before slotting past the keeper, 3-2.

There it was, the Magic. I would have joined the pitch invasion but I was wearing new shoes. York drew Stoke in the next round and went ahead at the Brittania only to be thwarted by Rory Delap and his bloody long throws. But I’d tasted it, felt it, loved it, perhaps for the last time, the Magic of the cup.

Anyway enough sentiment, let’s take a look at the betting.

Sporting Index like to do their bit to pretend that the FA Cup is anything but an awkward break between league fixtures.

Their FA Cup ‘Jollies’ is a peculiar invented market: it depends, for some reason, on the combined supremacy make-up of three designated ‘favourites’. This round’s picks are (with favourites in caps):

BLACKPOOL vs Sheffield Weds

HULL vs Crawley

LEICESTER vs Swindon

Who said the Cup had no glamour! SpIn go 2.2 – 2.5; the combined individual supremacies add up to 2.05-2.65 – no change there then, the market makers can add up. Still, the spread is a bit tighter on the Jollies and, what the hell, it’s the FA Cup – time for a bit of fun.

It seems likely that at least one of these matches will end in an ‘upset’ and goals might be scarce in the others. Swindon, under mad Paulo, will be up for their visit to Leicester and have good cup form this season. Likewise, Hull could well take their eye off the ball against Crawley. I recommend selling Jollies, back the underdogs against these supposed ‘giants’ and hope for some Magic.

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