It probably doesn’t take me to point out that these are confusing times – dark and dystopian, or different and disorienting, depending on your political perspective. Divisive is the ‘d’ word that sits between the two.
All of us are adrift in wave after endless wave of bewildering events. The nausea induced is enough, even, to cause a sports industry editor to regurgitate chunks of a column seen first in another format.
But here in London, the winter murk is finally dissipating and it turns out that the sun, rather than engulfing the Earth and everything within it, is actually still doing its normal job of lighting and warming the place. Unfortunately, the political climate and the weather are not the same thing, but a little vitamin D is enough, at least, to elicit a more upbeat perspective on some things.
It really isn’t that long ago since English soccer’s FA Cup was a truly major trophy, only half a step down in importance from the league championship, but then recent events have shown just how relative the experience of time is. In the age of the Uefa Champions League, the diamond-heeled Premier League, and whatever Wang Jianlin is cooking up for the decade ahead, it seems like aeons since it mattered that much to those taking part.
The world’s oldest living soccer tournament is still something of a TV and commercial draw – as evidenced by a bumper six-year TV deal last autumn – but the sense of insecurity around its status is inescapable. It is heightened at this time of year, where wintry stadiums are bare and playing XIs have that night shift kind of feel about them.
All of that brings cloying reminiscences about the ‘magic of the cup’, yoked to a small collection of approved memories. Then there are well-meaning attempts to reach young fans that often only emphasise the divide, like a suburban mum buying her kids the wrong Playstation game at Christmas.
All of which is a shame because, at its core, the cup concept is rock-solid – and never more so than when it basks in its anachronistic capacity for the unscripted. Its defiantly open-ended, random draw turns up its share of duds, but at its best it produces ties like those that litter this weekend’s fifth round. For those unaware: two semi-professional sides will play Premier League opposition in the last 16. Lincoln City head to Burnley on Saturday lunchtime. Even more brilliantly, Arsenal will travel south through London on Monday to play Sutton United; a team of international superstars teleporting in from another dimension – albeit one where from which they have dispatched in a 5-1 hiding by Bayern Munich.
Given that one of the themes of the FA Cup story is the erosion of tradition and the propriety of fans by unfeeling commercial interests, there is a redemptive angle for the industry in all this. Cup runs have always given the littlest teams a welcome source of additional income – particularly, alas, for those drawn away from home.
There is, as ever in these cases, plenty of talk of fixing leaky roofs and paying down debt. But a team in Sutton’s position can now avail themselves of a battery of innovations thrown up by the sports business: from the artificial playing surface at their tiny 5,000-seater home, which prevents fixture loss due to poor weather and allows community and youth teams use of the pitch, to social media tools by which to keep all their new friends, to internal communications platforms and better access to sports science. Running a small club is really, really, really hard, but the means to foster a community around it have never been more accessible.
The debate will continue across the English game about how best to apply a competitive Brillo pad to the famous old trophy™ and restore some of its former lustre, and the reality is that any effective solutions will involve money, ways of making money, and access to ways of making money. Still, this weekend might be a good place to start thinking about how the story of these early rounds can be told. It could spark a conversation about the role of teams – and of sport – within communities, not just as a warming concept but a tangible, ongoing, participative presence.
Strong roots for long winters.