On The Hunt For Football’s Heart And SoulDownload the full PDF
Matt Blake goes behind the scenes with the BBC at the FA Cup to find out if the world’s oldest football competition is still relevant in the billionaire era.
To truly understand what the FA Cup means to an ex-professional footballer with three winners’ medals, try telling him that he only has two. It is no laughing matter. At least, Martin Keown is not laughing. Not one bit. FHM has, by a rather unfortunate slip of the tongue, just done exactly that. The former Arsenal talismanturned- BBC pundit looks at us as if we’ve kidnapped one of his children. “I think you need to do your research,” he whispers chillingly, leaning in. “Then you’ll find I’ve actually won it three times, not two.”
We try to hold his stare, unsure of whether we should beg his forgiveness or flee before he smashes us in with his walnut forehead. “Now,” he growls, “if you’d have said that to me live on air, you’d be spending the rest of the night lying awake in bed thinking about what you’ve just done.” We assure him that we probably will anyway, and he breaks into a hearty laugh. “The 1974 FA Cup final is what inspired me to become a footballer, full stop.”
We are lounging in Match Of The Day’s makeshift “green room” backstage at the 4,850-capacity Kingsmeadow stadium, where League Two side AFC Wimbledon are about to host Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup. It’s more of a converted children’s play centre – it certainly doesn’t feel very BBC. Colourful crayon drawings and glitter paintings festoon every wall. There’s a kitchen at the back, a pool table at its centre and a basketball court through a side door.
On the way in, there’s a sign instructing us to “keep area tidy at all times”, to stay away from the internet cables and to not use the oven.
Not that Gary Lineker needs telling, mind you: he’s sitting at a colouring-in table laden with empty packets of cheese-and-onion crisps (no prizes here for guessing which brand), feverishly swiping at his iPhone. Danny Murphy is sprawled across the pool table in jeans and trainers talking tactics with presenter Mark Chapman, while Martin Keown has now ditched us in order to chat to Conor McNamara, his co-commentator for tonight’s BBC Radio 5 Live coverage. However, if all of that wasn’t enough to suggest that tonight is no ordinary night for MOTD, there is another glaring incongruity: Alan Shearer is wearing a jacket and tie – and his nipples are nowhere to be seen. “We don’t have to wear a tie in the studio, but tonight is a special occasion,” he tells us. “We’re on someone else’s ground and I think it’s right to show them that respect. And also, this is the FA Cup – the oldest football tournament in the world.”
Undoubtedly, the Cup has changed since it’s inaugural final that pitted Wanderers against the Royal Engineers in 1872. Then, there were no crossbars, nets, penalties or free kicks; teams changed ends after each goal, and throw-ins were given to whoever got hold of the ball first. The Engineers’s Lieutenant Edmund Creswell broke his collarbone early in the game, but refused to leave the pitch. It was a classic underdog story. Wanderers, the rank-outsiders, won 1-0 thanks to a goal by Morton Betts, set up after a scything run by the Rev Walpole Vidal, aka “the prince of dribblers”. Cue 150 years of 6-0 drubbings, giant killings and the unending search for the Magic of the Cup – MotC, for short.
Yet the Cup has taken a drubbing of its own in recent decades, mainly by the lucrative financial incentives of Premier League survival and, of course, the UEFA Champions League. In December, QPR boss Harry Redknapp reiterated his 2011 claim that it has been “devalued” by top teams fielding half-strength squads. And in 2012, then-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson echoed his old foe: “I don’t think it’s got the same magic as it had when I first came down [to England in 1986].”
Has the FA Cup lost its magic? Surely, if it is to be found anywhere, it’s here, where supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon seek to shock Liverpool despite 71 league places between them. It’s a rematch of the 1988 Wembley final, in which Lawrie Sanchez’s goal and Dave Beasant’s penalty save provided two of the biggest upsets in the FA Cup’s history. The League Two club has already forged an underdog story as “fairytale” as any in English football. After Wimbledon FC was relocated by its owners to the apparently untapped football goldmine of Milton Keynes in 2002, the fans defiantly formed their own team, holding open trials on Wimbledon Common. Starting out in the Combined Counties league, the phoenix club won five promotions to return to the Football League in 2011.
And tonight, nearly 27 seasons after that memorable triumph over Kenny Dalglish’s stellar Reds, they meet again in a match that is being beamed live into homes around the world by the BBC. This, we are assured by everyone we speak to backstage, is a big deal for the Corporation, as it’s the first time in six years that it has broadcast FA Cup matches as they happen. The BBC has gone big on the world’s oldest tournament this year: live broadcasting of the draws, splashy coverage of the early rounds and, in the build-up to third round, breathless mining of the Cup’s glorious moments from the past. And at every turn, the search for the Magic of the Cup.
The play-centre green room has now emptied out since Gary Lineker and co. drifted off to take position for the main event. But outside, the stadium is rocking. “Crowd-surf the Womble, we’re gonna crowd-surf the Womble,” is the most ear-catching chant to echo across the ground. Intrigued, we head pitch-side just in time to witness Wimbledon’s cuddly seven-foot mascot, Haydon the Womble, being passed across the heads of fans on the Nongshim Stand before he is promptly dropped on his face.
“We’ve endured nine years of coming up through the leagues, and here we can see Gerrard on our pitch,” beaming fan Spencer Green tells us from the stand. “That’s taking the Mickey. I’m used to seeing Exeter or Torquay play. I don’t expect to see these people six feet in front of me. It is a dream.”
At 7.55pm, the game kicks off. After some effort, we had persuaded the BBC to let us roam free across tonight’s entire broadcast operation – and what a massive operation it is. At least half a dozen lorries and trucks are parked in the field behind the stadium’s main stand, churning the ground into a quagmire of ankle-deep mud. Miles of coloured cables worm out the back of each, tangling in the sludge like spilt spaghetti. A few stressed-out production assistants scurry about, all in a terrible hurry. The atmosphere is frenetic and tense. What’s the worst that can happen?
“My worst nightmare is something technical going wrong,” says Mark Cole, 38, head of football for the BBC. “We’ve had the odd blackout before, but there’s always a plan B.”
Machines break: it’s what they do. Failsafes fix those problems. But there is no reboot button for when pundits malfunction, as Alan Hansen did in 2003. “It was during the build-up to an FA Cup game between Wolves and Rochdale at Molineaux,” says Mark. “Despite having just gone live, Alan thought we were still rehearsing. There he was calling his wife at home, asking if she had the front-door keys – and it all went out. The whole conversation. Then Gary asked him a question, to which he gave a one-word answer, and went back to reading his programme. Gary then looked at the camera and went, ‘Are we on air?’ I shouted through the mic that we most definitely were, and Alan automatically launched into a one-minute monologue about something – to compensate, I think – like a true pro!”
If something similar is to happen tonight, we want to be there when it does. So we head to the Production Truck at half-time to find Richard Hughes, 39, MOTD’s editor and puppetmaster-in chief, pulling the strings of Lineker, Shearer and former Wimbledon keeper Dave Beasant as they discuss the first half’s action. He is surrounded by a team of producers in front of a wall of glaring monitors. If he thinks of a relevant fact or observation, he barks it through the mic system and they say it, which is surprisingly often. This is how they discuss Steven Gerrard’s opening goal:
Gary Lineker: “Well it all started nicely for Liverpool, and especially Steven Gerrard, didn’t it?
Dave Beasant: “It’s written in the stars, isn’t it? (continues talking) …”
Producer 1: “Cutting to goal replay.”
Richard Hughes: “Get in that it came from a cross, Dave. Dave! You need to explain that’s it’s a cross first. Al, help him out here.”
Alan Shearer (cuts in): “He’s got to get that ball in there. Look, there! He’s got to cross that ball (continues) …”
RH: “Well done, Al.”
DB: “Gerrard’s bravery, his desire (continues) …”
RH: “Someone – he’s Liverpool’s top scorer this season.”
AL: “He’s Liverpool’s top scorer this season (continues) …”
Producer 2 (holding a stopwatch): “Three minutes left, guys. Three minutes.”
Producer 1: “Stand by, Chappers [Mark Chapman], you’re up next …
RH: “Let’s hear from two Wimbledon legends.”
GL: “We can now hear from two former Wimbledon legends. Lawrie Sanchez and Marcus Gayle are with Mark Chapman.”
And so it goes. The game finished 2-1 to Liverpool, thus ending AFC Wimbledon’s FA Cup dream for another season. Much to the relief of Cole, there are no major cock-ups, technical meltdowns or pundit malfunctions. In fact, it is impressively slick.
One of MOTD’s funniest blooper moments came when Pelé graced the lighted coffee table several years ago. Evidently moved by his presence, Gary Lineker gushed about what an honour it was to have him on the show.
“And an honour for me, too,” Pelé replied. “To be here with the great Linneck.”
He is a curiously elusive creature, the Great Linneck, rarely in one place for more than a moment. Every time we think we’ve cornered him for an interview, he gives us the slip and dissolves into the night. Then we hear that he’s left. But this is the FA Cup, where anything can happen – can it not? And sure enough, as we are about to call it a night, the phone rings. At first he seems weary, as if he’d been put up to this interview by a mate.
“I wouldn’t say I love [presenting MOTD],” he tells us. “I certainly like it, but ‘loving it’ is maybe putting it a bit strong. I love football, obviously.”
It is a strange admission – you’d think he’d be more enthusiastic given that his employer will probably read these words. But this is Gary Lineker, the post-match sofa king and ageless giant of the small screen. He can say whatever he likes. Get him on to the subject of the FA Cup, however, and his voice lights up with nostalgia.
“The FA Cup used to be the only circus in town,” he tells us. “Winning it (in 1991, when he played for Tottenham) was the pinnacle of my playing career. I won the Cup Winners’ Cup and Spanish Cup with Barcelona but there was something special about the FA Cup. Would players say that now? I’m not sure; they would if it was the only cup they won.”
The final used to cause so much excitement that teams would even release a single during the build-up: who could forget Anfield Rap? But in an era of packed fixture lists and high financial rewards for finishing well in the league, the FA Cup has recently threatened to fall by the wayside. In January, West Brom’s Saido Berahino didn’t celebrate four goals in a 7-0 thrashing of Gateshead. Does anyone care about the FA Cup anymore?
With Gary gone, gone, we head to the Kingsmeadow bar where Wimbledon’s fans are sure to be drowning their sorrows in plastic cups. But we find that the place is pumping. Up to 300 fans are drinking, singing and laughing. Some are even dancing. It’s far from the funereal atmosphere you’d expect of a team who have just crashed out of a major tournament. Then we notice something else – something that would be unheard of at any top-tier club. In the corner, surrounded by a platoon of admirers, is Adebayo Akinfenwa, aka ‘The Beast’ – Wimbledon’s man-mountain star striker who scored the team’s only goal an hour ago. He isn’t drinking like everyone else, but signing autographs, posing for pictures clutching Steven Gerrard’s Number 8 shirt, and grinning from ear to ear.
“I’ve been a Liverpool fan all my life, so to be able to play against them – the likes of Gerrard, Škrtel and Coutinho – was a dream,” he says. “On top of that, to score against them and to push them like we did… it was a magical night.”
Our conversation turns to his cherished prize, on which you can still catch a whiff of Gerrard’s sweat.
“I told the boys that if anyone gets Gerrard’s shirt before me, we are going to have a problem,” he laughs. “He signed it for me, too. Look.” You wouldn’t want a problem with this player. He is 5ft 10in tall and tips the scales at 16 stone. It’s not just for show, though: in the game FIFA 15, he is recognised as the strongest player in the world. And at this very moment, he might just be one of the sweetest.
“This is not an everyday occurrence for us, to play Liverpool at home,” he continues. “We are a League Two team used to playing League Two teams, and the attention we got before the game and the plaudits we are getting after is a magical feeling. I mean, we had a press day leading up to this. We never have a press day.”
Surely this, then, is where the Magic of the Cup lives on – in the dressing rooms, puddly pitches and sticky-carpeted clubhouses of teams outside the top two divisions. It’s here minnows don’t necessarily even have to beat sharks; they just have to fight them fin to fin for that taste, no matter how fleeting, of the Big Time.
As we are leaving, we spot Spencer, the fan we spoke to in the stand before kick-off. “I am so happy,” he says. “Yeah, we lost, but we expected to get trounced: 2-1 doesn’t feel like a loss. The FA Cup is surely the only competition in the world where the little sides who start in August, with a little luck, can draw Liverpool at home at Christmas. Isn’t that what the FA Cup is all about?”