Monday, March 25, 2013

The FA Cup: Modern Times


match text commentary

on the 3rd of april, 1982, west bromwich albion set a record that had taken 110 years to achieve. when they took to the pitch at the old highbury stadium in north london to play second division, queens park rangers, for the right to contest that year's FA CUP final at wembley stadium, they were doing so for the 19th time. no other side had appeared in as many FA CUP semi-finals as the baggies.

their first cup semi-final was a 4-0 victory over local rivals, small heath (who eventually became birmingham city) in 1886. the FA CUP itself had started in 1872 and is acknowledged as professional football's oldest competition.

of course, history tells us that they lost the match against QPR on a late goal, when ally robertson - for some reason known only to himself - played a risky clearance in order to avoid giving away a corner kick. not aware that rangers' stiker, clive allen, was tracking the ball and well positioned to close down the play, robertson's attempt to clear caromed off the onrushing allen and flew straight into the albion goal. as allen ran to the touchline in celebration, he really hadn't known much about it.

that is part of the nature of football.

the imminent replay that centre-half, john wyle, had been discussing with his defensive partner only moments earlier, never materialized and the albion would not advance this far in the competition again for another 27 years. by this time, of course, both domestic cup competitions had lost much of their significance and were hugely diminished in both their economic and cultural importance.

1982 was also the year that tottenham hotspur set an all-time record for number of FA CUP final wins with 8. the baggies were still among the top FA CUP winning sides, having won the competition 5 times - the most recent being in 1968 with a 1-0 extra-time win over everton.

west brom had also done well in the somewhat less prestigious LEAGUE CUP competition, having made 3 appearances in the final. the baggies had won the last competition where the final was played over two-legs, beating west ham united by an aggregate score of 5-3 in 1966. ironically, they had failed to hang on to their title, losing to third division side, QPR, in the competition's first single match final played at wembley the following year. the baggies' last major cup final appearance was in 1970 when they again lost the LEAGUE CUP final in extra-time to manchester city by a score of 2-1.


match text commentary

there are several statistics related to albion cup runs over the years that are historically note-worthy. for example, when the club's goal-scoring hero of the 1960s, jeff astle, netted the winning goal in that '68 final, he became only the fifth player in the history of the cup to have scored in every round. also, long before the league and cup "double" became an expectation for the country's biggest and richest sides, west bromwich albion won a unique double that has yet to be repeated. in 1931, they won the FA CUP and promotion from the second division. it is the one record that they still hold that is unlikely to ever be repeated.

west bromwich albion's twentieth FA CUP semi-final came in a year when only one PREMIER LEAGUE side had qualified for the final stages of the tournament, in the likes of eventual champions, portsmouth football club. the other two teams, like the baggies, were CHAMPIONSHIP sides, barnsley and cardiff city. unlike west brom, these other two had already performed unlikely feats of giant-killing and had dispensed with top-flight competition already. for the baggies, portsmouth was the first PREMIER LEAGUE side that they had had to face.

in their semi-final with pompey, the baggies undoubtedly had the better of the play and probably should have won. however, despite battering the PREMIER LEAGUE side for much of the game, the goal they were looking for never came and portsmouth were able to squeek through on a tap-in by veteran striker, kanu.

at the end of the day, it was a reminder that the baggies had always been a "cup team" and having a good cup run was once an important component of the club's identity.

of course, the creation of the PREMIER LEAGUE changed all that.

winning the league has, in fact, always been the true measure as to who gets to proclaim themselves "champions of england". but before the PREMIER LEAGUE realigned the relative importance of all things football, it was really only of concern to football "insiders" - the people who actually followed their local clubs, paid their entrance fee at the turnstiles and endured standing in crowded terraces each and every saturday afternoon. it was by-and-large not something that caught the imagination of the general public. that particular honour was reserved for the FA CUP. with its full-on, all day media coverage, "cup final day" was a time for heroics and glory and supplied a major cultural touch-stone for the entire nation. while not everyone could tell you who had won the league that year, everyone remembered who had won the FA CUP. in the early days of TV - and right through until 1992 - it was the public face of english football and the whole country tuned in.

it now seems more of an unwanted distraction... a worry for managers who are either trying to qualify for the CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, the promotion play-offs or merely trying to avoid relegation. postponed fixtures from earlier in the season are sometimes now played on the same day. this is something that would have been unthinkable on a day where the whole country used to come to a standstill as the cup final took centre stage in the cultural collective.

supporters of manchester united, manchester city, chelsea and arsenal expect what is very often their club's reserve side to get their preferred starting 11 to the final. however, they are not overly concerned for too long if they don't. for everyone else, it is simply maintaining their place in the league that trumps all other concerns.

it seems strange, in these modern times, to remember how much more disappointed and hurt the celebrated west brom team of the late 1970s were by the cup semi-final loss of 1978 than they were by the league title that escaped them in 1979. in fact, at the time, tony brown had called the 3-1 loss to eventual champions, ipswich town, "the worst day of my life".

when steve clarke took the job of head-coach, he was introduced to the press by stating that a cup run (among other things) would be one of the baggies' goals for the season. however, this was merely an acknowledgement of his understanding of the club's unique history and was never really going to be a priority. at least certainly not like reaching the 50+ point tally (and finishing somewhere in the top 8 or 9) in the league was going to be. after all, what can winning a mere trophy be worth when compared to the £30 million base payments that a team makes from the television contracts paid out to those clubs competing in the almighty, bloody PREMIER LEAGUE?

so, once again, the baggies encountered QPR in the cup and lost. after snatching a late equalizer in the first match at loftus road, they were beaten in the replay at the hawthorns by the excellent goalkeeping of rangers', robert green. even though it was a home fixture against a side that the baggies were expected to beat anyway, no one was too upset for very long. the standard logic of getting the cup competitions out of the way so they could concentrate on their currently slumping league form soon refocussed anyone who might have made the mistake of thinking it had been important in the first place.

sometime in the next 10-20 years, west brom will probably appear in yet another FA CUP semi-final, and for a little while, at least, some older supporters will briefly remember that it used to be something that was important to play for.

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