This weekend, England’s FA Cup competition was in full swing – it snowed, it got sunny, goals were scored and crowds roared (if only to keep themselves warm on those north-facing grandstands).
The FA Cup is the oldest knock-out football competition of its type in the world and the attractive part for sportswriters, mythmakers and fans, is that the competition format ensures that the biggest teams in the land will likely play the smallest. Premier League behemoths travel in their blacked-out battle buses through the damp and cobbled streets of tiny towns to play teams of amateurs on muddy pitches edged by tin-roofed stands. It’s where the prawn sandwich brigade (that ilk coined by Manchester United’s former rough-hewn talisman Roy Keane) and the pie-lovers (whom the millionaire Keane presumably felt keen kinship with) rub shoulders.
There’s a lot of talk on TV, radio and in the fattened-up Saturday sports supplements of the history of the Cup, the pluck of the little teams, the sea of statistics, the disparity of weekly wages between, say wealthy Liverpool and comparatively poor Oldham Athletic, a team 56 places below them in the League but who knocked the wealthier team out of the competition on Sunday. This is the “magic of the Cup”.
“Magic” is an inexact but nicely emotive word to describe most neutral supporters’ desire to see big clubs beaten by small ones, for superstars to turn up and sign autographs before being taken down a peg or two by the courageous underdogs. The press habitually call the little-clubs-that-could, “minnows”, often in response to the big teams being described as “giants”. It’s a size war that reflects the class war in a game that used to only be working class.
On-pitch action aside, one of the best bits about these matches are the grounds; you can see streets surrounding the stands where the team’s fans doubtless live and the advertisement hoardings are for companies and services you’ve never heard of. They’re not used to being on the TV. Most Premiership teams are sponsored by huge, international brands. Some stadiums have been renamed for major sponsors in the US style of Wrigley Field – Emirates Stadium, the Etihad, the Sports Direct Arena. But at Oldham on Sunday there were boards up for A-C Tyres, Buffalo uPVC, PP O’Connor Demolition, Ashworths Pies. These local and regional firms seem impossibly exotic in a world where the US’s biggest beer, Budweiser, sponsors the FA Cup and an international bank, Barclays, sponsors the Premier League.
And it’s these commercial minnows, these Oldham tyre-fitting centres and Pennines-area demolition contractors that melt the heart and make me think of grit and skill as much as plucky non-league Luton beating Norwich or Oldham teaching Liverpool a lesson. Ashworths Pies? Now that’s magic.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.