Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Manchester United Are Inadvertently Breathing New Life Into the FA Cup

 Source: Premier League FanHouse

 By Scott Murray

Way back in the midst of time at the start of the century – and God how painful it is to be able to be able to say that – Manchester United stood accused of attempting to murder the FA Cup. It was, in truth, an unfair charge. They had been press-ganged by the FA and the government into giving up their defence of the trophy they won as part of their 1999 treble, so they could go to take part in the World Club Championship, a tournament we must optimistically refer to as Sepp Blatter's brainchild.

The thinking behind the move was inherently flawed. It had been hoped that the presence of United, then the best team in Europe and standard bearers for English football, would help the FA curry favour with Fifa in their quest to land the 2006 World Cup. Problem was, the bid was doomed from the off, England having reneged on a gentlemen's agreement to stand aside and let Germany have a free run as Europe's representative in the hosting vote. United cocked up the World Club Championship, Germany were awarded the World Cup, and the FA were left bereft, with only a knackered old tarnished pot on their hands.

Poor United were left with the blame. Their only crime, arguably, was not having the stones to give the FA and Tony Blair the middle finger and defend their FA Cup. But this is where we all are, and rightly or wrongly, the perception remains to this day that Manchester United broke the cup. So it's to their eternal credit that now, a decade down the line, United are doing their level best to raise the venerable old competition's lustre, and breathe some new life into the tournament.

It's all rather inadvertent, of course, but it's better than nothing. The process started last January, when third division Leeds United
rocked up at Old Trafford and became the first team to put a Sir Alex Ferguson side out of the FA Cup at the third round stage, and the first lower-league club to sack United since Bournemouth managed to put the holders out in 1984. Leeds have not had the chance to give their hated rivals a bloody nose in any competition since their financial decline years previously, but it was by any measurement one of the most romantic shocks in the FA Cup's long history, right up there with non-league Yeovil's defeat of Bank of England club Sunderland in 1949, or Hereford's humiliation of Newcastle in 1972.

And now another big step has been taken by United. Not the United, admittedly, but FC United of Manchester, the independent fans collective founded in 2005 as a response to the ownership of Big United by Malcolm Glazer. With the Glazer regime putting up prices quicker than a shopkeeper during the Weimar Republic, and loading the sort of debt onto the club that makes former Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett look like a couple of pensioners asking you to get them a couple of halves of mild ahead of pension day, FC United was formed to get back to basics, to re-establish proper connections between fans and players, to make football fun and affordable again.

It's an experiment that's been working pretty much since the off – the club won three quick promotions to the upper reaches of the Northern Premier League – but last Friday was the best achievement yet. In a tumultuous FA Cup first round tie against Rochdale – who play in the same division Leeds did last season when they put Big United out – FCUM went two goals up only to throw away their lead. With players tiring, the jig looked up, but in the last seconds of injury time, Mike Norton became the latest player to write his way into legend by, er, outrageously kicking the ball out of the goalkeeper's hands to score. Still, a goal's a goal, and a famous tie – FC United's first-ever in the proper competition – was won.

ESPN's coverage was magnificent. Rochdale's Spotland ground was jumping, co-commentator Craig Burley so taken with the atmosphere – the best, he said, he'd experienced in years – that you could tell he'd have given anything to drop his microphone and pop off for a pint with the fans. The channel stayed with the celebrations for ages, from the peaceful pitch invasion by fans, to champagne-soaked shenanigans in the changing room. They afforded the post-match more time than ITV gave last season's European Cup final, by the way.

The celebrations have already been compared by more long-in-the-tooth supporters of Manchester United to that club's 1999 European Cup final win, and their famous Cup Winners' Cup victory over Barcelona in 1984. There were 95 places between the two clubs. And yet FC United's greatest move of the weekend came the morning after, when the club refused to speak to the Football Focus programme, in solidarity with BBC journalists out on strike over a pensions dispute. Andy Walsh, the club's chief executive and a committed trades unionist, told everyone involved with the club not to talk to the programme, and a dignified
silence was maintained.

Principles? In modern football?! It's a novel approach, we'll give them that. But the evidence is, it's one that just might work ...