It’s another football themed post today, largely comprised of something I wrote three years ago, the day after seeing Stoke take on Newcastle in the FA Cup and narrowly fail to cause an upset. The topic is a fitting one to revisit – today marks the start of this season’s FA Cup fifth round weekend, and Stoke take on Brighton. Unlike that January weekend in 2008, Stoke are now an established Premier League team. Though they are the home team again, that doesn’t mean League 1 Brighton won’t be making the long journey believing they can win.
As for Newcastle, they of course suffered the ignominy of relegation in 2009 before returning to the Premier League for the current campaign. Irony of ironies, they went to Stevenage this January for a third round tie and were promptly beaten. Funny how things work out...
“Maybe it was the balmy twilight as late afternoon became early evening on a winter’s Sunday. Or – more likely – it was that most English of sporting traditions; the peculiar illness known as ‘cup fever’ on the weekend of the FA Cup third round. Both are as romantic as one another, albeit for different reasons, but only one brings 22,000 people together to watch 22 men play football.
Which is why, two hours before each of those men carries the hopes of a thousand others, you pitch up in the fading light with your box of 360 scarves. You wonder how you’ll sell them all, really, because surely everyone comes prepared for a cold night in the stands? Surely the die-hards will already have their symbols of support? Doesn’t matter how limited edition the things are – we won’t shift all these.
Slowly, though, the people start to drift past, and every once in a while someone stops to offer some money. They’ve paid to get here, they’ve paid for their ticket to get in; they’ll pay for a programme, and a pie and a hot drink at half time. But this is their club, and if paying £4 for a scarf is what’ll spur their team on to something they might not truly believe, deep down, is possible … then dammit, I’ll take two.
Even Mike Ashley, a man worth more money than most of us can conceive of (never mind dream of possessing), gives us a second glance as we good-naturedly offer him a memento of the occasion. He just happens to own the visiting team; it’s worth a try though, ain’t it?
With time the drift becomes a flow, and the flow becomes something akin to a tidal wave. You get the guy who wants to buy one but is cajoled out of it by his mate; you get the guys who are cajoled into it by their kids. You get the people who ask the price despite having it shouted at them moments before; and you find yourself in between two opposing fans whose sole intent, seemingly, is to kick the shit out of each other. Sometimes you just know when not to offer someone their own piece of merchandise…
The displays of ‘macho-ness’ in all its forms, the banter from the dads; the ‘youth of today’ – so often maligned – who buy their little pieces of history (potential or otherwise) and then stand to the side and do their bit to cajole other people into following suit; and the mild mannered Geordie who hands over his money and then has to find the best way of concealing his new possession.
Human nature is a remarkable thing, its capacity for being able to manifest itself in ways you didn’t expect (or weren’t willing to believe) never ceasing to amaze. What is the point of it all? There isn’t one. Why do we do it – idolise this small group of people who can kick a ball better than we can? Because it’s what we do! If the selling of scarves was the measure for levels of anticipation and expectation and – most importantly – belief then there was no way the home side could lose. How can you not get caught up in that?
It continues inside the ground, of course. One man gets himself arrested sitting amongst the group of supporters to which he belongs; countless individuals turn the bits of the card stuck to their seats into paper aeroplanes and direct them toward the pitch. None of it is big or clever – quite fundamentally stupid, really! – but somehow it feels right.
Because it’s more than just an occasion; it’s what the occasion represents. Yes, it’s the underdog team at home, but the underdog aspires to playing this opposition every week. More so, the opposition aspires to these matches being a formality, which is why you get swept up in the singing and standing and shouting of the people who come every week. And you join in, even with the barracking of the players in black and white.
They may be wearing those colours, but sport is so much more than such a common phrase. If the capacity of human nature to amaze is boundless then it’s not difficult to understand the fervent support you offer to a team that ordinarily warrants no thought except at ten-to-five on a Saturday afternoon. And it’s not difficult to understand why you offer slight (but somewhat grudging) praise to the opposition for continuing to do their jobs when thousands of people are insisting they’re crap.
So hurrah for the FA Cup. Such a unique and intensely satisfying experience left me with a warm feeling. Or maybe that was just the scarf around my neck.”