Up for the Cup

Henrik Larsson (right) of Manchester United celebrates with his team-mates after scoring the opening goal on debut in the FA Cup match against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. The match was watched by around 75,000 spectators.-AP Henrik Larsson (right) of Manchester United celebrates with his team-mates after scoring the opening goal on debut in the FA Cup match against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. The match was watched by around 75,000 spectators.

If we look a little more closely at the various FA Cup third round attendances, the picture is somewhat less encouraging than the FA would have us believe.

After the weekend of the third round of this season's FA Cup, when the bigger clubs enter the competition, the Football Association announced their satisfaction that the average of 17,000 plus spectators per game was the best for some years. Yet, when one looked rather more closely into the figures, and the facts, the picture looked a good deal less reassuring. What would those statistics have seemed like, one had to ask oneself, had Manchester United not been playing at home at Old Trafford, and drawing one of their habitually colossal crowds to a stadium which has been hugely and steadily enlarged? Some 75,000 saw United beat Aston Villa. No other stadium in the country can contain so many fans, evoking memories of the pre-War, pre-all-seater stadia, when such massive all standing crowds were not rare.

Today, Arsenal, having recently moved to their Emirates Stadium, can take over 60,000 spectators, far above the mere 38,000 which was their ultimate capacity at nearby Arsenal Stadium, which pre-War could, on occasion, hold up to 72,000. Overall, however, Old Trafford's capacity dwarfs that of the great majority even of Premiership clubs.

But if we look a little more closely at the various third round attendances, the picture is somewhat less encouraging than the FA would have us believe. Thus, Steve Bruce, manager of Birmingham City, and once the resilient centre-half of Manchester United's Cup fighting teams, deplored the fact that a mere 16,444 watched his team's game at St. Andrews in a potentially attractive tie against Newcastle. This he attributed to the high prices. Yet, the club pointed out that the prices that day were by no means exceptional or excessive. It may be that, given the high, sometimes vast, prices, charged by certain Premiership clubs, and the general inflation to be found, season ticket holders who find they have to pay separately for Cup ties prefer to absent themselves.

South East London's Crystal Palace, though now in the second division alias the Championship, are usually pretty well supported. But their home Cup tie against Swindon Town drew a mere 10,238. And Sheffield United of the Premiership, humiliated at home by Swansea City, two divisions beneath them, 3-0, were watched at Bramall Lane by 15,896. But thereby hangs a tale. Neil Warnock, United's ever-explosive manager, castigated his team for their inadequacy and in his view their inability to seize the chance he gave to a bunch of reserve players. A more objective view might be that it served him right for not taking the competition seriously. Alas, he is not alone.

The following week, Reading, a buoyant surprise this season, the first ever in their long history in the top division, put out a virtual reserve team at home to Burnley, and managed to scrape through against the "Championship" team, 3-2. Though to be fair, Chelsea, drawn at Stamford Bridge against one of the lowest teams in the Football League in the shape of Macclesfield, drew a full house of 41,434.

Yet, there is no doubt that the FA Cup is the mother of all competitions. It began way back in 1872, nine years after the foundation of the FA and in 1880 began the Football League. Thus the major clubs, which by then had become professional, and needed better guarantee of receipts than merely a Cup competition which could always see them eliminated early, and the meaningless friendlies they were then obliged to play.

But in truth the FA have done pathetically little to help the case of their Cup. It might even be argued that their actions have harmed it. It was all too recently that at the behest of a misguided Government and that of the abrasive little cockney Sports Minister, the late Tony Banks, they brought heavy pressure on Manchester United, the then holders of the trophy, to desert it completely and instead to go out to Brazil to take part in a farcical non-competition called the Club World Cup, one of those misbegotten ideas to spring from the mind of FIFA's Sepp (51 bad ideas a day) Blatter.

Behind this deplorable pressure was a fear shared by the FA and the Government that England would not be allotted the finals of the 2006 World Cup. Yet, there was every reason to believe that the late Bert "The Inert" Millichip, when Chairman of the FA, had promised the Germans to stand aside and help them get the 2006 tournament in exchange for England being allowed to stage the finals of the 1996 European Championship. Which they duly did.

Huge sums of money were spent sending a team of propagandists led by the ineffable Banks himself — would you buy a second hand World Cup from this man? one wondered — and including Bobby Charlton. All totally in vain. Indeed it looked alarmingly that South Africa, with all its appalling violence and lack of facilities, would get the tournament, as it is now supposed to do. But thanks to an elderly New Zealand delegate who refused to follow his brief, Germany did indeed stage the tournament, which it duly did with predictable efficiency.

Most damningly of all however, the FA have blatantly and cravenly failed to implement their own regulation 15 (a) which runs: "Each team participating in a match shall represent the full available strength of each competing club." There can be no excuse for such self-destructive feebleness. Even if it's clear that the competition was undermined when the European Cupwinners Cup, once so attractive a competition, fell foul of the greed of the major clubs and weakness of UEFA, allowing as many as four teams per country to compete in the so-called Euro Champions Cup.