FA Cup 2010/11: Three – It’s the Magic Number

The great thing about January in the football calendar is the FA Cup 3rd Round. Some teams never make it this far and their fans are left to dream about what might have been. For those that have battled through the early rounds the adventure can take a further twist with a tie against a “big” club in the 3rd Round. Clubs coming into the Cup at this stage can view the competition as a distraction from their dismal League campaign or from the goal of attaining promotion. However you view it, like the Grand National, the FA Cup 3rd Round captures the attention of the nation.

Whether your club has won the Cup or not, fans have their own special memories. Fulham have never won the FA Cup, although did reach the Final in 1975 losing 2-0 to West Ham. Whilst the run to the Final had some highlights in a record breaking 11 game journey to The Twin Towers, my most memorable games don’t come from that season and may in fact seem strange choices. What makes them stick in the mind is that they both occur in a period of change and very much have a sense of foreboding, although for different reasons and in different circumstances.

The early 70’s in Britain was a time of economic strife and especially of rising inflation. One of the government’s methods of dealing with this was to cap pay rises. This measure caused unrest amongst trade unions in that wages were struggling to keep pace with spiralling prices. By mid 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had encouraged their members to work to rule, which resulted in coal stocks slowly diminishing. This, combined with the effects of the 1973 Oil Crisis, drove up the price of coal. The Tory government under Edward Heath entered into negotiations with the NUM, but were unable to strike a deal. Therefore in order to reduce electricity consumption, and so conserve coal stocks, a series of measures were announced on 13th December 1973 by the government, including the “Three-Day Work Order”, more commonly known as the Three-Day Week, which came into force at midnight on 31st December 1973. What it meant was that commercial use of electricity was limited to three consecutive days each week. In January 1974 as an eleven year old I was too young to understand any of this. In fact nights sat without power listening to the radio and playing family games by candlelight were more of an adventure than a hindrance. Although I’m sure my parents didn’t quite see it in the same way.

Just five days into the Three day Week, it was FA Cup 3rd Round day. Fulham drew then fellow Second Division rivals Preston. Incredibly given the situation in the country, football continued pretty much unaffected. There were some knock-on effects though. Fulham like other clubs had hired generators to aid their electrical supply and I clearly remember seeing and hearing the machinery situated at the back of the Cottage. Games were also brought forward to 2pm so that less time was required for putting on floodlights. Programmes too were affected, with a four page black and white edition on sale. Nearly 7,000 turned out that day and the Fulham faithful were rewarded with a 1-0 win and progress into the 4th Round and a home tie with First Division Leicester City later that month.

By 1986 Fulham had dropped into the old Third Division and there was an air of crisis around the club. The promising side that missed out on promotion to the First Division, losing 1–0 to Derby away on the last day of the 1982/83 season, had gradually been sold off as the club had debts to pay. By now I was in my early twenties and knew it was a club in turmoil. Not only was the team struggling on the pitch, crowds dropped lower and lower and the ground showed serious signs of neglect. Therefore the FA Cup 1st Round in November 1986 came as a blessed relief from the doom and gloom of life in Division Three and crisis off the pitch. After a draw at Edgar Street a 4-0 win in front of just 3,562 at the Cottage over the Bulls saw Fulham progress to Round Two. By the time Newport County visited London in December 1986 for the 2nd Round fixture, the club was in dire straits. However, a 2-0 win over the Welshmen was secured and a glamour tie was hoped for in the next Round. Lady Luck had a chuckle as she sent Swindon Town to Fulham in January 1987 for the 3rd Round game and the visitors went away with 1-0 win. By this time with the club “gagged” as part of a property development deal to build on the ground, rumours about the future of the club became wilder. The reality was that in 1987 the club was perilously close to going out of business. However, this didn’t come to pass or thankfully did the ill-advised merger attempt with QPR.

Whilst today the club is not facing the crisis of that 1986/87 season, in 2011 all is not well at the Cottage as the team start the New Year hovering around the Premier League relegation zone. Thank goodness for the FA Cup 3rd Round….Bugger! Peterborough United at home – could be a banana skin! Whatever you team, try and enjoy this weekend…

1974/75: Bridge Over Troubled Water

My match day experience is not complete unless I am able to get a programme. Over the years there have been just four games when this has happened. Thanks to the Internet the ability to try and get hold of those missing programmes has become easier. Just this week I managed to track down one of the missing four. The game in question was an FA Cup 4th Round game between Chelsea and Birmingham City at Stamford Bridge in 1975. One of the things about programmes for me is the memories that they evoke, in the same way songs, smells or photographs do for other people. They are in their own way a piece of social history. But it is also for me about being there, the shared experience and a confirming of your existence.

So it was a real joy to get my hands on the programme and get the nostalgic juices flowing. The cost of admission that day for standing was 50p (adults) and 25p (juniors), with the programme 10p and seats ranging from 80p to £2.00 – that seems incomprehensible when you consider that a programme alone currently at many Premier League and Championship clubs is at least £3.00.

Looking inside I found the results section and details of the game from the previous Saturday (details below):

Division One – Saturday 18th January 1975 (Attendance: 34,733)

Chelsea: Phillips, Locke, Harris, Hollins, Hinton, Hay, Kember, Wilkins, Garland, Hutchinson, Cooke. Substitute (Did not play): Stanley

Leeds United: Harvey, Reaney, Gray (F), Bremner, McQueen, Madeley, McKenzie, Clarke (Yorath), Lorimer, Giles, Gray (E).

On a near waterlogged pitch and in incessant rain, Chelsea contributed to a fine match, but conceded the season’s double to the reigning Champions. Harvey made magnificent saves from Hollins and Wilkins in the first half. When Leeds were opened wide by Kember’s brilliant free-kick, scooped over the “wall” to Hay, he pulled his shot wide. McKenzie shot the first goal after 32 minutes, when Clarke headed down Eddie Grays’s cross. Clarke (pulled hamstring) was substituted early second half by Yorath, who from close range, netted Leeds’ second ten minutes from the end, when Philips pushed up Frank Gray’s cross-shot.

I realised that I had been at that game and had gone along with a friend from school. It was the first time I had seen Leeds United “in the flesh” – the reigning Champions. I was in awe of the Leeds names on display in what was a traumatic season for the club. For Leeds United 1974/75 started with the rather less than glorious 44 day stewardship of Brian Clough and ended with the great rock and roll swindle that was the European Cup Final in Paris. For Chelsea it was no better either as the season ended in relegation.

Elsewhere in the programme for the Chelsea v Birmingham games were details of the other FA Cup games taking place. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t meant to be at Stamford Bridge at all. There in black and white was listed Fulham v Nottingham Forest (then managed by Brian Clough). However, the rain has put pay to us attending that game and so the short journey to Chelsea was made instead. My other abiding memory of the day relates to the end of the game. Birmingham had secured a 1-0 win and as my dad and I left the ground, somebody in front with a radio was relaying the action from Elland Road where Leeds United had been awarded a penalty against Wimbledon. We all stopped in our tracks and waited for the spot kick to be taken and gasped as we shared the news that Dickie Guy had saved Peter Lorimer’s penalty.

Interestingly I was to watch Birmingham City in action later that season. Quite incredibly it was again in the FA Cup at Hillsborough, as a Fulham side containing Alan Mullery and Bobby Moore drew 1-1 with the Midlands team, before winning the replay and getting to their only FA Cup to date. Like Leeds in Paris, Fulham succumbed to a 2-0 nil defeat, although not in such controversial manner.

Finally, just as I was putting the programme away, my eye caught the date the Chelsea match took place. Saturday 25th January 1975. The relevance of that date? 20 years later my son Liam was born. One date, so many memories.

2010/11: Football – where did the romance go?

The sixteen Third Round ties this week will feature six all Premier League pairings. However, my bet is that none of the teams lining up on Tuesday and Wednesday this week will resemble those that take the field when the respective fixtures take place in the League. For instance at White Hart Lane, the fixture might be better titled as Spurs Reserves v Arsenal Youth. At the Britannia Stadium, tickets are available at £12, testament to the lack of drawing power of Fulham and a major hint at the selection policy of Tony Pulis for his Stoke line-up.

At Stamford Bridge, ticket prices for the League Cup have been slashed to £20 and Chelsea have been rewarded with a full-house. Newcastle will be concerned about the Blues fire power and the number of goals visiting teams have conceded at The Bridge this season, but may also be questioning that if reduced ticket prices are de rigueur, will post match meal prices also be reduced after Blackpool passed on the £15.50 plus VAT a head, lasagne offered to them after Sunday’s League fixture?

There are possible banana skins fixtures for Everton (away at Brentford), Liverpool (home to Northampton), Manchester United (away at Scunthorpe) and Wolves (home to Notts County). However, these days it is less likely as even teams outside the top flight, look to “focus” on the League. Presumably The Iron will care more about ensuring their Championship status rather than victory over Manchester United?

Is it time the competition was discarded or can it be saved? As a passing thought, what about making it a joint League Cup with teams from Scotland? It may for a couple of seasons create a novelty value around the competition (and some nervous police forces both here and North of the border), but little sustainable interest in the long-term. The reality is that in England clubs are only interested in money and that is generated through participation in the Premier League and the Champions League. Both the FA Cup and League Cup have been reduced to “nice to haves”, mere trinkets, because of their lack of financial clout.

Clubs strive to finish in the Champions League places at all cost. It is a curious fact that teams will battle all season to finish in a European spot, but then some of those who earn Europa League places, proceed in the following season to treat the competition with disdain.

Regrettably cash is king….will the romance of the Cup ever live again?

2010/11: My Guilty Football Mistresses

We all have one team that we follow – our team – that team that when they lose, the result ruins your weekend – the team we defend in any situation – the team we spend so much time, money and emotion in watching. How we come to support that team is a very individual thing. Mine is a simple philosophy –  you support your local team, the place of your birth. So in terms of my family, my dad is an Arsenal fan, although he never tried to make them my team, even on the occasional trips to Highbury with him. I was born in Parsons Green in Fulham and therefore the men in white from Craven Cottage are my team. Liam, Leeds born, now has his own team in white to follow.

But I have a guilty secret in that there a number of other teams results that I look for. I want to be clear though, it’s not teams I support, Fulham are my team always were, always will be  – my “other” teams, I have a “soft spot” for. So how have I come to this situation? For the most part, there is a good reason (well for me anyway!).

Where to begin? Well in the Premier League there is Arsenal. Quite simply because they are my dad’s team and I really did enjoy the trips to Highbury. With Fulham languishing in the lower reaches of the Football League, trips to see the Gunners meant First Division and European football during my teenage years. In recent seasons I marveled at their unbeaten Premier League season in 2003/04, admired the manner of their play and more recently because of their sensible financial approach within the Premier League that puts other “big” clubs to shame.

In the Championship, there is Leeds United. The City I came to in 1991 and the place of my sons birth. Without realising it, I’ve been attending games at Elland Road for 19 years. I’ve shared in the Premier League days, the European nights, the dark days of League One, but hopefully will see the re-emergence and return to the top-flight. I can never be a Yorkshireman, I can never be a Leeds supporter, but I do care about what happens to the club. It is one of my pleasures to be able to go to Elland Road with Liam – and all that that means in terms of sharing the experience that is a matchday.

The rest of my “mistresses” are either non-league or European teams. Stade Malherbe Caen FC (also known as SM Caen or just Caen) are a French team based in Normandy. For the 2010/11 they will play in the Ligue 1 having last season been promoted. They have no great history and my “following” of them is because I spend my 30th birthday in this area of France. I didn’t get to see them play, but fell in love with their previous slightly ramshackle ground Stade de Venoix.

Spain is the next destination and here I have two teams within my “establo”, who exist at the two extremes of the football spectrum. Firstly there is Barcelona, a team I am fortunate to have watched at the Nou Camp on a couple of occasions. This came about due to a mate who I was best-man to, moving out to the Catalan City. The stadium itself is nothing in terms of design, but the history of the place and the famous teams that have played on the hallowed turf, resonate within the great bowl that the Nou Camp is. At the other end of my Spanish rainbow is UCD Lanzarote FC. A team who play (unsurprisingly) on the island of Lanzarote. Given the volcanic nature of the island, the team play on a synthetic (FIFA approved) pitch. Los Rojillos unfortunately got relegated last season and now find themselves in the fourth tier of Spanish football. This season entrance to a game is five euros and I look forward to getting to see them in action this November when I go out there on holiday.

So finally, to my non-league favourites. As a kid, I was allowed to get the bus to Plough Lane on my own to watch Wimbledon FC in their Southern League days. It was a sign of growing up, of being trusted and being responsible. It’s where my affection for non-league football comes from. For that reason I’ve followed the Dons fortunes ever since and from afar enjoyed their rise to the top-flight and  the FA Cup victory. I also despaired at their move to Selhurst Park and the hideous creation of MK Dons. A manufactured team in a manufactured town. No history, no place in it for football. The FA should hang their heads in shame that this location is part of the England 2018 World Cup Bid. A big play has been made about the England Bid because of the history of football in this country. Milton Keynes has none – it’s a disgrace. So from all that, you might have guessed that AFC Wimbledon is the team that I recognise from my days on the terraces at Plough Lane. I hope that one day (soon) that AFC Wimbledon get into the Football League and that MK Dons drop into non-league. How much appetite will there be for the club then?

That’s it then, I’ve come clean – made it public – my conscience is now clear. I can now check the scores without feeling like it’s a betrayal. Can you say the same?

Kicking and Screaming

25th January 1995. Football fans will remember the date due to a certain Frenchman, the once-upon-a-time Leeds favourite Eric Cantona, demonstrating his appreciation of Jackie Chan movies to the front row fans at Selhurst Park. In snowbound Leeds, there was kicking and screaming of a different kind as my son Liam joined the biggest team of all, Human Race FC.

I must be honest and say that my son’s football allegiance didn’t immediately spring to mind as I tearfully held him for the first time. However, the fact is that wherever Liam finds himself in later life, he’ll always be a Leeds lad and therefore a Leeds United fan. It’s his birthright.

My philosophy is that you support your local team. My dad is an Arsenal fan, but he never tried to make them my team, even on the occasional trips to Highbury with him. I was born in Parsons Green in Fulham and therefore the men in white from Craven Cottage are my team. Liam, Leeds born, now has his own team in white to follow. Like my early days watching Fulham, Liam has seen the early years of his support dogged by relegation and to his credit has remained loyal which is not always easy when he is bombarded by the hyper-inflated Sky ideal that no football exists outside the world of the Premier League.

What of loyalty? In Leeds last Premier League season, whilst Liam desperately asked each week, “…are we going down dad?…”, an icon of Leeds at the time, the badge kissing Alan Smith, stole across the Pennines, like Cantona before him. Despite his young years, Liam knew this to be an act of disloyalty and so down came the Smith posters, as did his previously prized possession of a timesheet signed “…To Liam, Best Wishes, Alan Smith…”. Liam echoed the words of so many others with memorabilia from the departed No:17, when he asked, “…What shall I do with this now?…”

Through his time as a Leeds supporter this will no doubt happen again. He shouldn’t be surprised, because he’ll remember he was born the day another player lacking loyalty kicked up a fuss.

Sharing the Love: From Fulham to Leeds

 There are times when your faith in what football is all about is restored. What we are talking about is that 90 minutes of activity that takes place on the pitch. Forget all the hype, the punditry………just solid focus……….22 men………the right result………out there, in front of you. For that duration all the issues surrounding your club are put to one side. You can just focus as the events unfold before your eyes……..the raw emotion. That time was last night. Fulham FC v Hamburg SV…The biggest game in the clubs history. A capacity crowd, vociferous away fans and a palpable tension. The nervousness of the home fans seemed to translate to the players, or was it the other way round? Movement and noise……..missed tackles……close shaves…….great saves. The ebb and flow is ceaseless, and then time stands still….you suddenly look up at the scoreboard…..where did that first 22 minutes go. They get a free kick; you just know they are going to score. You and the rest of the home crowd hold their breath……….and your worst fear is confirmed. You see the ball bulge in the net……..an explosion of sound from the away fans………your losing and your dream is shattered. The home team and fans respond……..but it is all too brief……..a lull develops……..it’s half-time.

The break reduces noise levels to a hum………an uneasy, restless sound. Conversations exchanged about what the manager should do…….some nod, others disagree.

And so it’s “shit or bust” as the second half begins. “Stand up if you still believe” rings out amongst the home faithful. The first challenge of the second half leaves the home leading goal scorer limping…..you fear the worst. On 57 minutes the inevitable happens and he has to be substituted…..it seems to have no impact. Nervous glances at the scoreboard clock become more frequent……..and like drifting sand, time is slipping ever quicker away. Whispers start to surface that perhaps there is no escape this time……the last 20 minutes looms. Just when the belief is on the wane……a flick, a turn, a shot……..it’s one all……….the tension bursts…. “Stand up if you still believe” is the refrain once more. Can we do this? Can we really? Suddenly the bouncing, buoyant away fans are silent and still. Do they feel it? Do they know what is coming? And it does……….just seven minutes later…….a scrappy goalmouth melee and then suddenly there’s a chance and it’s in……2-1! Pandemonium…….delirious, riotous joy. Is time now friend or foe? 14 minutes and you’ve done it. But you know another goal for them and it’s all over again……that’s how fragile that your dream is. And so you live every second of that last 14 minutes. It is a blur, but you sense the frantic events of the away team as they desperately try to claw their way back. Three minutes of added time…….the agony is extended. Wasted possession……..loose passes………just steady it!

Then it happens…………..the final whistle. Joy, so much joy. Tears, hugs, handshakes, clapping, screaming, waving, chanting……disbelief, relief. A collective orgasm of satisfaction. A warm feeling that leaves you smiling.

It’s what we all dream of from our 90 minutes each week. I hope that this sensation applies to the games that Leeds have to come. Unless you’re a fan, you just don’t get it…………it’s our games, our team, our passion and our love. Are you listening Ken?