The Paul Ansorge column appears each month in Rant Monthly.
Once upon a time the magic of the Cup was a term with very different usage. 2012’s FA Cup will see that phrase used by television marketers to add glamour to ties that see the elite clubs of the land field third string midfielders away to League Two sides, or used sarcastically by those for whom the cup is a distraction from the business of staying in the top flight, or qualifying for the Europa League, or making an extra couple of hundred grand by finishing 11th rather than 12th in the Premier League. Once upon a time, though, the magic of the Cup was real.
In the 1980s, the FA Cup was really the only football I ever saw on television, outside of major international competitions. I was too young to stay up late and watch Match of the Day, and anyway, I didn’t care who won the league. The league was boring – it went on forever and then at the end of the season, Liverpool won it. The cup though, that made sense to my small brain. You won a game, then you got to play another one, until May when you’d play a really, really fancy game, and get to release a pop song.
United were a great FA Cup side. I learned that we had won it a lot, almost as many times as Tottenham! My first memory of watching football is Norman Whiteside scoring the winner in the ‘85 cup final. If I close my eyes now I can see exactly where I was. I was eight years old and immediately after the game I phoned the editor of this esteemed publication. He told me of how he had jumped up and down and cheered when the goal went in, and I told him I had done a backflip.
This was not true, I had been watching perched at the bottom of my dad’s bed and had jumped and flopped backwards. For some reason, I felt justified in calling that a backflip. I can see the goal now, from years of seeing it on VHS (that’s like youtube for old people) but I know that I didn’t understand how it was scored at the time, I just remember who scored, the net bulging and the celebrations.
I remember nothing about the game at all, except the feeling of relief and elation that “my” team had won. Winning the double was an incredible achievement – only the best teams had ever done it. United are often accused of devaluing the Cup because of pulling out to play in the World Club Cup in ’99/00 (as I’m sure most United fans know, this was at the request of the FA, hoping to drum up support for a bid for England to host the World Cup – how did that one turn out?).
However, I think that one of the reasons the Cup has been devalued is that we won the double three times in a span of six years – it just started to look easy. Of the three years we didn’t during that spell, Arsenal did. The FA Cup became a sort of appendage to a league win.
It has played an absolutely crucial role in the Ferguson era. Much is talked about the Mark Robins goal which kept Fergie his job. We went on to win that cup, then the Cup Winners Cup, and the era of success was born.
There is a goal, however, which felt like even more of a turning point – Mark Hughes’ staggering volley, an equaliser just moments from the end of the ’93/94 semi-final against Oldham Athletic. It is another moment in time I remember every detail of. I watched the game at a friend’s parents house and it felt incredibly important. It was such a wonderful goal – Lee Sharpe chips the ball towards the box, it’s headed out by the Oldham defence, Nicky Butt heads the ball towards to Brian McClair who hooks an absolutely perfect pass to Hughes. Hughes’ volley, under significant pressure from the defence, was just vintage Sparky.
The Red Issue caricature of Sparky, even, attempting flying volleys given the slightest opportunity to do so. Although we finished the season eight points clear of Blackburn Rovers, the era in which we just assumed we would win anything had not yet begun and I remember so clearly, as soon as that Hughes goal went in, that was it, we would win the lot. It showed incredible spirit, the spirit that became our hallmark in the decade that followed.
My memories of football are by and large formed of a collection of moments – any coherent narrative super structure is added later, further up the cognitive process tree, away from the buried subconscious collection of individual passages of play and heightened moments in time. I think that’s why I loved the FA Cup so much – those moments were so simple and vital.
“Score now or you’re out”. “Score now and you get to put the top of the trophy on your head during the lap of honour.” Of course it isn’t the same any more, it can’t be. The magic of the Cup is associated with other things of childhood – people and places and a time long passed.
I didn’t pretend to anyone that I did a backflip when Ronaldo scored just before half-time when we beat Millwall 3-0. It’s much more perfunctory nowadays. But one of these days, I would like to see the Da Silva brothers putting the lid of the trophy on their heads and dancing around on the lap of honour.
None of us will ever be a kid again, and the FA Cup won’t ever be really important again, but sometimes it’s nice to remember that stuff, and add to that collection of moments.
Paul Ansorge is co-host of Rant Cast, and he can be found at Twitter – twitter.com/utdrantcast