As a fan of both Crystal Palace and the FA Cup, nothing would be sweeter in my eyes than to see the Eagles lift the famous old trophy on May 21st at Wembley.
Yet following this season’s third round, an impassioned debate continues to rage around the country as questions are raised about the status of football’s oldest knockout competition.
“It’s hardly surprising that staying in the top flight, or striving to join it, is seen as more important by many clubs”
Teams fielding weakened line-ups and fans staying away support the rhetoric that the FA Cup is some way down the list of priorities among the nation’s footballing elite.
With the financial gain of winning the trophy a mere drop in the ocean compared to the vast riches of the Premier League, it’s hardly surprising that staying in the top flight, or striving to join it, is seen as more important by many clubs.
Among fans of my own, Twitter polls posing the question ‘Finishing 8th vs. Winning the Cup’ come close to asking us to choose financial gain and top-flight consolidation over making history.
It’s surely a sad endictment of the nation’s changing attitudes towards the game, when fans are prepared to put business strategies before the chance to create folklore for future generations
Essence of the Cup
Almost six years ago, debt-ridden Palace took on Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers in a fourth-round FA Cup tie that truly captured what the competition has been about in its long history.
“The night will live long in the memory of Eagles fans as, despite the odds, their team came away with an impressive 3-1 victory”
Palace, recently put into administration, could have been forgiven for focusing on keeping their heads above water in the Championship after a 10-point deduction left them perilously close to the drop.
On the night, however, then-manager Neil Warnock fielded the best available team possible to him, although squad was considerably depleted with injuries.
The night will live long in the memory of Eagles fans as, despite the odds, their team came away with an impressive 3-1 victory, with a seven-minute hat-trick from makeshift Striker Danny Butterfield – a right back who hadn’t scored in over two years.
Those fans can, in some ways, be forgiven for losing that same devotion to the Cup that brought some much-needed respite in a time of peril.
It’s unlikely that with their new-found status among the giants, any Palace fan could enjoy the same ecstasy of a club on its knees, fighting against the odds to come out on top.
The globalisation and growth of the Premier League has created a division so exhilarating and competitive, the FA Cup’s allure and drama is being matched by its fixtures week-in week-out.
“The celebrations did not speak of a team who have fallen out of love with the FA Cup”
And yet… The 5,000 strong, raucous support provided by Palace at Southampton shows the appetite for Cup success remains strong among the fans.
Twitter polls are obsolete in comparison to a sold-out away end on third round weekend between competitors in the same division. The spectators that day needed no respite from the league, where Palace sit prettily in seventh, and provided a ferocious backing.
Not to let the South London contingent down, manager Alan Pardew, himself remembered for a 1990 FA Cup goal by the Palace faithful, named a full-strength side, something he says he will continue to do.
His desire to win the Cup may come from a career that ties him to the competition in Palace legend, or even pressure from the top.
Fan-turned-chairman Steve Parish is as much concerned about the financial well-being of the club as creating a legacy for him to leave behind – and FA Cup success is very much in synch with his vision.
“You don’t even have to look farther back than the previous weekend to see that the FA Cup is alive and kicking”
The hunger of the players was there for all to see at St Mary’s as Palace displayed the same grit, determination and character that has brought them so far in recent years.
It was the fourth time this season they have been pegged back after being 1-0 up and gone on to win the match 2-1.
The celebrations did not speak of a team who have fallen out of love with the FA Cup – this was only the third round, yet the passion demonstrated showed what this meant to them.
It’s not just Palace where this magic is still strong. Arsenal’s exploits in the last two seasons have provided unbridled euphoria for a club who, so used to winning, had failed to attain any silverware for the previous nine years. It would have been the first time some young supporters saw their club lift a trophy.
In fact, you don’t even have to look farther back than the previous weekend to see that the FA Cup is alive and kicking. Wycombe held Aston Villa to a draw, bringing about a replay that will ease their financial worries.
Exeter played superbly against a young Liverpool side in a 2-2 draw, non-league Eastleigh’s fairytale continued as they played out a 1-1 stalemate with Championship strugglers Bolton.
And Oxford United stole the headlines with a performance good enough to grace any ground in the country, turning over Premier League Swansea City 3-2.
That is where the magic lies. In many walks of life, those lower down the pyramid do not get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best of their industry. It’s like seeing a local rock band grace the same stage as the Guns N’ Roses.
From Arsenal to Palace to Oxford, the beauty of the FA Cup is still there for all to see. Is the magic gone? Like hell it is.
Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons