7 November 2009 ~ One of the benefits of supporting what modern football euphemistically calls the “less fashionable” teams is that, generally, you can go and see them whenever you like. In fact, I can still remember the last time I couldn’t get a ticket to see my team play because up until very recently it was the only time it had ever happened. It was March 1987, a fifth round FA Cup second replay and I can vividly recall my horror on returning from Scout camp to be told that the game was sold out. I also remember grumpily listening to the game on the radio, something I’ll be repeating today because, after a gap of almost 22 years, it’s happened again.
My team are playing and, even though none of the traditional barriers are preventing my attendance (money, distance, a really good film on channel Five), I can’t get a ticket. The conventional wisdom is that the FA Cup has “lost its magic”. But try telling that to the thousand or so Walsall fans who started queuing at 6am on Saturday for the 490 tickets available for our first round tie at Stourbridge today. Walsall’s entire allocation was snapped up in just 20 minutes, leaving many supporters disappointed. Yet with the club attracting some of the lowest attendances in League One it is worth analysing why this match has captured the imagination of fans to such a degree. After all, it’s only five years since the Saddlers lost a first round FA Cup tie at Slough in one of the darkest days of Paul Merson’s blessedly brief career in management. Why such excitement over another potential humiliation?
There’s no doubt that geography is a factor. When Walsall flirted with establishing themselves in the second tier a decade ago they regularly played their more illustrious neighbours, as well as Coventry. Even when we weren’t in the Championship we could often count on a visit from a Birmingham or a West Brom fallen on hard times. But we haven’t had a local derby in over five years and this season Walsall’s closest League rivals are, er, Stockport County. The 20-mile journey to Stourbridge’s War Memorial Athletic Ground seems like nipping to the corner shop in comparison and while it may not be the Black Country derby it’s a Black Country derby and that’s good enough for many fans.
But if a lack of games against local teams was the sole reason for so much interest then presumably a lot more punters would turn up for our Birmingham Senior Cup games against the likes of Rushall Olympic and Solihull Moors. Could it be that some fans are still seduced by – wait for it – the romance of the FA Cup? For followers of Walsall – and many other lower division teams – the answer has to be a resounding yes, if only because these are clubs where honours are not measured in terms of trophies but in cup runs and famous scalps. Many Walsall supporters would struggle to remember the year we won the first of our two Fourth Division titles (1960) but the date of our legendary win over Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal in 1933 is readily recalled by even the youngest fan.
Quite simply, the FA Cup matters because it still means something. Its history is our history and no amount of Premier League reserve teams or hackneyed ITV advertising campaigns can break that bond. Since we said farewell to the much loved but utterly ramshackle Fellows Park recalling these memories has somehow become even more important and if we can catch a fleeting whiff of past glories at Stourbridge today then by God we’re going to do our best to be a part of it.
We want our fix of crumbling terraces, scalding beef tea and sloping pitches. We want ballboys wearing balaclavas, wayward shots slapping off full-backs’ thighs and half a dozen inaudible raffle numbers for our half-time entertainment. We want respite from another predictably underwhelming League campaign. And yes, we want a chance to dream, because one club’s irritating distraction is another’s blessed escapism. The excitement of the FA Cup may be lost to clubs bloated with Champions League cash or terrified of relegation from the promised land, but down here at ground level it seems that its death has been greatly exaggerated. For the first few rounds at least. Tom Lines