Saturday 3 January ~
This weekend we point football’s moral compass towards the FA Cup, at a time when the preservation of the year’s first Saturday being dominated by a raft of third-round fixtures pitting big against small and featuring half a dozen non-League names feels like a minor triumph in itself. Never mind Harry Redknapp moaning that there are too many cups and too many games - the loveable boss probably draped his hangdog chops across last season’s FA Cup and said to his players: “All very well, but it’s not the bloody Premier League, is it.” Before leaving for Tottenham. Already this season’s competition has thrown up Histon’s gratifying win over Leeds and Droylesden’s story-laden second-round series of games with Chesterfield. The broadcasters’ laments about the lack of an obvious Big Game to blandly hype means little to those of us looking forward to a traditional Saturday of Cup football that will inevitably throw up a surprise or two.
On top of that, this year’s best non-League story has not, so far, been a snotty-voiced focus on the postman, the fletcher, the teacher and the bank teller making up the back four of Backwoods Town as they face their day of a lifetime tapping the ankles of a heavily insured second choice Premier League line-up. Instead we embrace the unprecedented phenomenon of Kettering Town, a team whose shirt sponsor, Interpal, is a charity that sends aid to the Palestinian territories, and whose chairman, Imraan Ladak, talks incongruous sense for someone involved in both football and the jargon-led, parasitic world of recruitment consultancy. “Quite a few people have asked questions, and rightly so,” he said of the sponsorship. “Debate and people asking questions are part of it because it increases awareness of different situations. We're trying to promote the fact that regardless of anything else, human life's really important and we need to do everything we can to bring this to public attention.”
But are you going to be playing two up front against Eastwood Town? You can almost hear the football world’s massed bums of discomfort shifting about on their cold plastic seats. It’s all very well Barcelona making grand humanitarian gestures by “donating“ their shirt sponsorship to UNICEF, but Kettering Town? Where is Kettering, anyway? It’s one of those places you’ve heard of, like Wantage or Uttoxeter, but it wouldn’t occur to you to bother looking it up on the map, let alone actually go there. And here they are not just knocking teams like Lincoln and Notts County out of the Cup, they’re threatening the game’s heavily fenced-in apolitical zone, where reminders that there are more important matters than the linesman’s failure to flag for an offside are viewed with mute, heavy suspicion.
We can then point our compass at the Cup’s other big story in the build-up to the third round – Steven Gerrard’s possible inclusion in the Liverpool team to face Preston North End. It’s probably unfair to view the player’s arrest for assault occasioning actual bodily harm against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Kettering’s sponsorship of Interpal makes the contrast irresistible. While a no-name non-League team sacrifices income to bring attention to the plight of suffering in one of the world’s geo-political hotspots, the captain of the Premier League leaders, earning uncountable thousands of pounds per week, allegedly gets into a banal barroom brawl in the early hours of the morning because, the legend already goes, the DJ wouldn’t play Phil Collins. Put like that, the moral odds are so stacked against the player that you almost feel sorry for him. Never mind Barrow and Blyth Spartans – the third round’s biggest underdog is a man who’s captained England. Justice for Stevie G T-shirts are available at all righteous Merseyside retail outlets. Ian Plenderleith