Wednesday 17 December ~
Over the past two days the sports pages have carried several pictures of excited young football fans. Yesterday there were Japanese children in Ronaldo replica shirts greeting Manchester United when they arrived in Tokyo for the Club World Cup. (United officials will have been discreetly checking that they all had official merchandise.) Today it was Blyth Spartans fans celebrating their team's FA Cup second round defeat of Bournemouth last night. It's unlikely that their green-and-white shirts are available anywhere other than the club shop and a couple of stores in Blyth town centre.
Spartans now face Blackburn, and their new manager, in just over a fortnight. It's the first time they have reached the third round of the FA Cup since 1977-78 when they took Wrexham to a fifth-round replay, played in front of 42,000 at St James' Park. Indeed Spartans would have won the first match at the Racecourse Ground had they not be required to retake the corner kick that produced their last minute goal because the corner flag had blown over. Other non-League sides have matched Blyth in upsetting League opponents over the last 30 years, but there have been far fewer such occasions over the past decade as the big four tightened their stranglehold on the tournament. Hence Barnsley's victories over Liverpool and Chelsea last season were heralded as giant-killings even though there was only one division between the victors and their victims.
Last season's FA Cup was altogether remarkable with three of the four semi-finalists coming from below the top level. While no one should expect that to be replicated in 2008-09, this season's competition has already produced several memorable matches with eight non-League teams through to the third round and a ninth still playing their second round match. Another aspect of the pre-modern FA Cup has been revived this season, with an interminable tie between Chesterfield and Droylsden who have now had three attempts to resolve their fixture, accompanied by fog, a disrupted goal that caused a mass brawl and now a floodlight failure.
While Manchester United are attempting to become "club world champions" by dint of defeating opponents from Japan and either Ecuador or Mexico, the big cheeses of England's 2018 World Cup bid are also in Tokyo, slapping backs, buying meals and listening attentively to every bland platitude uttered by the 24 members of FIFA's executive committee. This weekend FIFA will decide whether the bids for 2018 and 2022 should run concurrently. If they do, that is expected to enhance the prospects of a European host for 2018. It will be a while yet before Lord Triesman and his team settle on a theme for the promotional DVD but you can bet that it will incorporate the white cliffs of Dover, Big Ben and Shakespeare. There might even be a mention for the world's oldest cup competition, even if the major clubs have by then abandoned it in favour of mid-season exhibition games in Abu Dhabi.