It was a weekend of clichés. The FA Cup was restored to its place at the top of English football and in the hearts of millions of fans. Thousands poured forth from homes not usually filled with the sounds of football chatter to watch David vs. Goliath encounters. Communities came together and embarked on quests to places suddenly rendered exotic wonderlands. Who would have thought Manchester could seem such a distant, unattainable paradise?
There were shocks across the board. Even in an all Premiership tie in London, eye brows were raised as the holders Chelsea were dumped out. But the novelty attractions lay elsewhere in the form of so called minnows taking on the swaggering, mega-bucks big boys. Leyton Orient snatched a replay with Arsenal. And of course there was the tie of the round.
It was the dream draw on everyone’s speculative lips as the balls were swirled and plucked. No one quite expected it to really happen, despite the FA Cup’s notoriety for such things. Non-league Crawley Town, netted a huge financial windfall from the grandest theatre of football in the land, not to mention an unforgettable “day out”.
I say “day out” because it was always going to be more than that. United’s FA Cup jitters have become commonplace in recent years and Crawley were up for the occasion. They’re also a team studded with players that could play at a higher level, bought for sizeable sums in non-league terms. Crawley are now reaping rewards that are not merely financial. Thanks to holding the Premier League leaders and the world’s most famous team to a mere 1-0 win, they have secured a place in the hearts of countless neutrals and established themselves on the football map. Many would say they deserve the plaudits for a fearless second half display in which they dominated a team far above their standing.
I am reluctant to praise Crawley and refuse to join in the enthusiastic congratulations. Yes they played well at Old Trafford and reasserted the reality that the so called stars of football can be little better than a well organised, galvanised lower league team in a one-off match. Yes they gave hope to other small teams hoping for a break and injected life into the dreams of youngsters. Yes they hinted at the FA Cup’s ongoing ability to charm and surprise. But the manner in which they progressed from the previous round tarnished the innocence of their fairytale moment for me.
Until they burst onto the scene courtesy of an FA Cup run, I’d not heard of Crawley, the so called “car park for Gatwick” of the non-league. I don’t follow non-league football so I have no bitterness about their supposed Manchester City like spending to propel themselves towards the football league like an unfeeling big stack bully. But I saw the highlights of their triumph over Torquay.
The behaviour of the Crawley players in that game was nothing short of shameful. There was talk of the squad showing disrespect by warming up in the home side’s goalmouth prior to kick-off and of spats between the managers behind the scenes. On the pitch Crawley displayed evidence of dirty tackling and unsporting tactics alongside promising bouts of impressive football. Worst of all were the school boy tantrums surrounding two missed penalties.
Crawley players literally fought each other in fits of moody rage for control of the ball and the right to have a go from the spot. They tugged at each other’s shirts and unmistakeably swore. They abused the referee and demanded cards for their opponents. It was an ill tempered match and Torquay also had a sending off, but those two petty squabbles over penalties highlighted Crawley’s immaturity, arrogance and disrespect.
There’s been all the usual talk about the “magic” of the FA Cup surrounding Crawley’s tie with Manchester United. But for me if there is such a thing as FA Cup magic a key ingredient of it is the good behaviour and pure innocence behind the lowly sides’ valiant and courageous displays. There’s an assumption these days that it’s the money at the top of the game that breeds the bad side of football. I didn’t believe this to be entirely true. But the arrogance and disgraceful behaviour demonstrated by Crawley against Torquay, that sets such an unsporting example for watching youngsters, seems to suggest that even an injection of cash lower down the leagues can lead to behavioural problems and dissent in the dressing room.
It’s a worrying trend of excessive wealth tainting all corners of the game, given greater weight by Leyton Orient’s chairman Barry Hearn’s plans to fly his squad to Las Vegas as a reward for securing a replay with Arsenal. On the surface this is far more acceptable than Crawley’s shocking antics on the pitch and simply a part of another cup fairytale. But why isn’t a replay with one of the country’s greatest teams reward enough? It seems football in itself isn’t enough anymore. After the ludicrous transfer window the last bastion of pure football, the FA Cup, appears under threat too. Cup glory is becoming a trendy badge, an accessory or piece of bling, rather than something honourable, innocent and valuable all by itself.