The fairytale Cup

Luton Town players celebrate after defeating Norwich City in a FA Cup match.-AP

The FA Cup has for generations been famed for its shocks and surprises and its so called giant-killing. This year too there have been many surprises. By Brian Glanville.

It was Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s long term, hugely successful manager, who strongly endorsed the FA Cup and its future on the day his team, though lacking the likes of Robin van Persie and Rio Ferdinand, brushed Fulham aside 4-1 at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the current FA Cup. “This trophy is very important to us this season,” he said. “That’s why I put a strong team out. I hope there is a desire here to get it.” It was he said ten years — actually since 2004 — that United had won the trophy.

And he has hardly forgotten the painful fact that after their penultimate success in 1999, they were shamefully bullied by the Football Association, whose historic competition it has always been, to withdraw from the tournament in order to compete on the so called Club World Cup, a half baked competition then newly minted in which teams of widely disparate merits and strengths take part.

The reason for this FA pressure was that they in turn had been subjected to agitation from the British Government which wanted England to stage the incipient World Cup and were afraid that were United to eschew the new, dubious competition, resentment at FIFA would ensure that the English World Cup bid would be dismissed. Well, United gave up the FA Cup which they held, and England did not come near to being assigned the World Cup that they wanted.

Founded in 1872 and dominated for its first decade by teams made up of former public school boys, amateur in their essence, the competition was the essential driving force in the development of English soccer. Blackburn Olympic broke the domination of the public school alumni when they beat Old Etonians in the final of 1883. The next three years saw their city rivals Blackburn Rovers win the Cup each time. It was a competition which had roused huge enthusiasm all over England and it would in turn give birth to the Football League and overt professionalism as opposed to the so called “shamateur” make up of the provincial clubs, where players came over the Scottish border in numbers, to find, in the ironic saying of the time, “money in their boots.”

It is a tournament which has for generations been famed for its shocks and surprises, its so called giant-killing and in this fourth round we had a classical example of this in the astonishing victory of Luton Town, FA Cup finalists themselves in 1959 when they lost to Nottingham Forest, over Norwich City of the Premiership in Norwich itself. At a time when Luton, surely excessively punished for certain financial improprieties, were forced out of the Football League; and condemned as they still are to non-League football.

It would have been astonishing had Luton beaten Norwich a far from negligible Premier League side, at their own Kenilworth Road stadium. To go to Carrow Road and beat them there was almost beyond fable and fantasy. In 2008, poor Luton reeled under a deduction of 30 points seemingly for malfeasance, much of which could be ascribed to incompetent and reckless employees.

Not since 1989 when another inspired non League club — though one which had never even figured in the Football League — in Sutton United knocked Coventry City out of the Cup had a non League side beaten top division opponents.

How ironic that when Sutton ended their Cup run it was with an 8-0 thrashing at Norwich. True Luton had luck when the ball was shown on television to have crossed the line of their goal, with no goal given. But overall they merited their 1-0 win, with a goal crisply scored by the substitute striker, Scott Rendell.

This remarkable victory came hot on the heels of the achievement by Bradford City of the lowest League division in knocking Aston Villa out of the League Cup, on aggregate of goals, winning dramatically at home and losing 2-1 away. The League Cup which was initiated long ago by the late Alan Hardaker embattled secretary of the Football League who wanted it to rival the FA Cup and he managed to switch its final to Wembley where the FA Cup final had taken place since 1923. But the League Cup has never had the same allure.

But with the endless accumulation of fixtures it has to be faced that certain senior clubs are not taking the FA Cup seriously. Such as Queens Park Rangers clinging desperately to Premiership status whom I saw beaten comprehensively at home in the FA Cup that same Saturday by MK Dons from two divisions below them. 4-0 behind at one time and eventually well beaten 4-2. Harry Redknapp, the QPR manager, admitted that he would put out a team with nine second choice players declaring afterwards that they had “blown” their chance. Avoiding relegation being his priority. Elsewhere, it was surprising to see Derby County, once such notable Cup contenders, drawing a mere 15,000 to their game with Blackburn Rovers. Half what might have been expected. Just too much soccer?

There were other Cup shocks and surprises. Liverpool beaten at humble Oldham, struggling to keep a place in lowly League 1, what used to be called the third division.

Chelsea narrowly forcing a draw in the London derby at Brentford, another team from modest League 1. Chelsea’s face saving late equaliser being powerfully swept home by none other than Fernando Torres who has been faltering for so long. And neither Liverpool nor Chelsea fielded weakened teams.