The magic of the cup returns

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.  Photo: Philip Currie

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.
Photo: Philip Currie

There’s no doubt that the FA Cup has lost some of the lustre and prestige that it once had. The big teams no longer seem to care as much as they used to; the riches offered by the Premier League make that the priority alongside the Champions League for the elite.

Of course the tournament that first undermined the FA Cup was the World Club Cup. Manchester United’s hugely controversial (and utterly misguided) decision to withdraw from the FA Cup for a season (1999/2000) in order to play in the inaugural World Club Cup showed that they, and more incredibly the FA, were prepared to dump the FA Cup for what they thought was a better offer.

Manchester United failed to become World Club Champions in 2000 and the FA failed in their bid to host the 2006 World Cup – the reason that they had encouraged the English champions to participate – so the cunning little plan turned out to be a little lacking in the cunning department.

With the FA prepared to treat their own tournament with such contempt it is little wonder that others started to follow suit. The thread running from that decision all the way through to Manchester City’s decision to return from their winter training camp in Abu Dhabi the night before their FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough last week does not take much unravelling.

No sooner had City bid farewell to the Middle East than their performance went south as they also bid farewell to the FA Cup as Boro recorded a 2-0 win at the Etihad. After the game, Pellegrini said: “I think there are a lot of football reasons rather than Abu Dhabi. They are different things.” Did his players not play any football while in Abu Dhabi? Perhaps not.

City were far from the only big club to be on the receiving end of an FA Cup shock in what was an electric weekend of football. Chelsea were dumped out at home 4-2 by Bradford despite having led 2-0. In the build up to the match Mourinho said that it would be a ‘disgrace’ if his side lost the tie and to be fair he labelled them exactly that afterwards and spoke of being ashamed. Disgrace remained rather a theme at Stamford Bridge for the rest of the week thanks to the efforts of Diego Costa.

Elsewhere in the tournament, Manchester United’s millionaires headed to Cambridge and received a scholarly and humbling lesson. A goalless draw meant that they remain in the competition and Cambridge can celebrate a replay at Old Trafford.

It’s a game that’s not bringing too much cheer to Manchester United fans. As a result of some fans complaints I’ve just discovered Manchester United’s extraordinary season ticket policy: apparently season ticket holders are all required to buy a ticket for home FA Cup matches and if they don’t then their season ticket will be suspended for one league game.

The report I read suggested that ticket prices for the replay against Cambridge would cost up to £50. Some season ticket holders have indicated that they will boycott the Cambridge game. You could hardly blame them and indeed I would urge them to. If Manchester United can’t beat fourth tier opposition away, then they’ve got some cheek in demanding that their most loyal supporters pay to watch the replay.

As football supporters, if we allow clubs to carry on treating us like that then who knows how far they’ll be tempted to go. Sometimes you just have to take a stand; or in this case a seat on the sofa and watch the game on TV instead.

With so many top flight teams eliminated, the few left in the competition (including Manchester United) will really fancy their chances of winning it. Hopefully that might mean that they approach the tournament a bit differently. Nigel Clough argues that the upsets of last weekend are simply “down to the Premier League lads not taking the cups as seriously as the other players.”

It would be great for the FA Cup if they did. The FA would surely welcome such a change in attitude among the Premier League clubs but it is the FA themselves who must bear considerable responsibility for their flagship cup competition becoming a pale imitation of its former self.

There’s some way still to go to restore the credibility of the tournament (and whoever came up with the idea of using pink balls for the FA Cup cannot be considered credibility-restorer–in-chief) but I hope that last weekend marks a turning point. As the big boys produced a disappearing act, something of the magic of the cup returned.

Ronaldo d’Or Messi?

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton

Last night I watched Getafe v Real Madrid including the recent recipient of Fifa’s Ballon d’Or award Cristiano Ronaldo. Real won 3-0 and Ronaldo helped himself to a couple of goals bringing his tally to 36 already for the 2014-15 season. A few hours later Messi scored a hat-trick (incredibly, the 30th of his Barcelona career) as Barcelona won 4-0 at Deportivo La Coruna.

Separating these two great players is generally not very easy but the Ballon d’Or voters seemed to find it quite straightforward as Ronaldo won with a convincing 37.66% of the vote compared to Messi’s 15.76% (putting him just a tiny margin ahead of Neuer who polled 15.72%).

I think Ronaldo was a worthy winner but I’ve no doubt that Messi would have triumphed if Argentina had won the World Cup. Ronaldo’s World Cup was a very disappointing one but there’s no doubting how brightly he’s lit up the world stage with Real Madrid – almost as bright in fact as the suit that Messi wore to the award ceremony, the choice of which merits some considerable doubting.

Perhaps shaken by Messi’s sartorial selection, Ronaldo emitted a very strange screech towards the end of his acceptance speech. Quizzed about it later, he said: “The scream? The players know I always do that shout when I score a goal or when we win – it’s our team shout.” It may have a place as part of a goal celebration (although personally I’ve always favoured more understated approaches) but in the acceptance speech context it was quite ridiculous.

It was of course very Ronaldo – a man that’s already built a museum dedicated to himself and someone who removes his shirt almost as readily as Matthew McConaughey. Yes, Cristiano, you have a six-pack and rippling muscular physique but then you’re one of the world’s highest paid athletes, surrounded by trainers and dieticians, so maybe that’s what should reasonably be expected.

As Balotelli (another of football’s vain brigade) once asked: “when a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?” Next time you score or win an award Cristiano, try just smiling and raising your hand in the way that Alan Shearer used to.

Accepting his award, Ronaldo said: “It has been an unforgettable year. To win this trophy at the end of it is something incredibly unique.” Well, not that unique in all honesty since he won the same trophy last year.

There were a few other interesting things to emerge out of the Ballon d’Or voting. Roy Hodgson opted for Mascherano, Lahm and Neuer, somehow overlooking both Ronaldo and Messi. Perhaps this was part of some new FA diversity scheme to promote inclusion for midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. Jamie Carragher tweeted: ‘love Roy Hodgson going for a clean sheet with his Ballon D’or picks.’

Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, a former winger, opted for Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Arjen Robben while Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s picks (Ronaldo, Lahm, and Muller) weren’t counted after his football association failed to submit the documents on time.

The Fifa team of the year for 2014 was also announced and there weren’t too many surprises other than the inclusion of David Luiz at centre half. Luiz is actually quite a decent footballer; the problem is that he plays in defence despite displaying little aptitude for defending. In my first blog post I crowned him the ‘defender who absolutely refuses to accept that he’s not a striker’ and I suspect that being picked in defence for the Fifa XI will not prompt him to think differently.

There’s no World Cup this year so the 2015 winner is likely to be judged almost solely on domestic performances. Just two and half weeks into the new year, who would bet against it being a two horse race again? Perhaps only Roy Hodgson.

Dundee derby delight

Brothers United

Brothers United

Happy New Year all. This is my first post of 2015 and I hope and intend that it marks the start of a productive blogging year. 2015 got off to a very happy start for me when my brother and I went to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (I’m the handsome one pictured above).

We nearly didn’t make it though. My brother was tasked with getting us tickets and as December wore on he kept insisting that yes ‘today, I’ll definitely sort it out.’ When the day of his ‘sorting it’ finally arrived the match had already sold out. He texted me in panic: ‘em, I’ve been a bit of a plonker about the derby tickets, they’re now sold out. I’ve enquired about hospitality tickets and sent a pleading email.’

A plonker indeed. In his defence, his wife had just given birth to their first child (my beautiful nephew) a few weeks before so he did have one or two other things to concern himself with. His email to the Dundee United ticket office informed them that both he and I used to be season ticket holders but having both moved away from Scotland we now very rarely get to games. He also informed them that I was travelling all the way from Malaysia.

20 minutes later his phone rang. It was the ticket office offering him two tickets that had been returned. Merry Christmas and relief all round.

With tickets secured we arrived at Tannadice at 11.30 am on New Year’s Day to pick them up ahead of the 12.15 pm kick-off. It was a wet and windy day in Dundee but mercifully not quite as cold as we’d been expecting. In the days before there had been some tentative discussion of investing in long johns but in the end they remained unpurchased as we manfully opted to do without them. Asked how I would ward off the cold, I suggested that I’d pursue a regime of vigorous rubbing as required.

Such a regime turned out not to be needed as we basked in the warmth of a great performance by our side in a quite remarkable game. No sooner had we sat down than we were back on our feet to celebrate the opening goal as Stuart Armstrong gave us the lead after about 40 seconds. He didn’t know too much about it, the ball deflecting in off his back from an Erskine volley. Dundee’s goalkeeper, Schenk, was making his debut and his first task was to pick the ball out of the net.

After scoring so early United then sat back and became rather complacent. Dundee recovered well and by 10 or 15 minutes into the game they had become the more dominant of the two sides. Much of their attacking threat was being carried by Harkins a man of some considerable skill and some equally considerable heft. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a professional footballer look so unathletic. The question of ‘who ate all the pies’ went unasked since the answer was so obvious.

Dundee deservedly equalised on 24 minutes when Stewart curled a magnificent free kick into the top corner. We United fans, who had hitherto been in excellent voice, fell rather quiet. The equaliser had also upset our pre-match predictions: I had predicted that we would win 2-0; my brother, almost always more confident than me in such matters, had gone for 3-0.

It took a mere three minutes for us to find our voices again however as Mackay-Steven restored our lead with a dipping curling effort from out wide on the right. At the time I wasn’t sure if he had meant to shoot or was just aiming a cross towards the far post and I’m not much clearer after watching the highlights of the match and seeing several replays of the goal. I’m sure he’ll claim he meant it and I’m not going to argue.

Four minutes later it was 3-1 as Erskine cut inside from the right and finished low into the far corner. All our attacks were coming down our right wing at this stage and Dundee’s left back, Dyer, was living up to his name. I was amazed that his manager didn’t invite him to take an early bath at half-time.

There was still time for another goal before half-time and again it came from the same area as Mackay-Steven ran on to a great through ball from Armstrong before applying a cool finish. Schenk in the Dundee goal picked the ball out of his net for the fourth time in the first half of his debut for the club. Happy New Year!

I suspect it was a slightly different message that Dundee manager Paul Hartley had for his players at the interval. The early stages of the second half were more even and it wasn’t until the 64th minute that we scored again: Fojut rose highest to nod home from a corner. This was the cue for many Dundee fans to make their exit. “Why on earth are you still here?” (or words to that effect) we politely enquired of those that remained.

It was a question they were probably asking themselves by the 83rd minute when young Charlie Telfer casually stroked in a 6th for us. Those Dundee fans that did remain to the bitter end were at least rewarded with a 90th minute consolation, cleverly converted by Tankulic.

The ref took pity on the visitors and played just a minute of stoppage time before blowing the final whistle. We rejoiced and silently thanked whoever it was who had returned their tickets. It doesn’t get much better than being there for a 6-2 derby victory to start the new year. Paul Hartley trudged off dejectedly while United boss Jackie McNamara strolled down the touchline beaming and offered a pumped fist above his head as he disappeared down the tunnel.

Hartley and McNamara were two of the most composed and elegant Scottish players from the mid-1990s until they both retired about four years ago. Now as young bosses managing in the top flight (Hartley is 38 and McNamara is 41) they are instilling similar qualities in their teams. Both sides tried to play decent football in what were quite difficult weather conditions and succeeded to a commendable extent.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom surrounding Scottish football at the moment and some of it is understandable but I came away from Tannadice feeling positive about the future. The game in Scotland is in good hands with the likes of Hartley and McNamara (and of course Gordon Strachan with the national team) and hopefully there’s a lot to look forward to in the rest of 2015.