Sport - Jason Cowley isn't up for the Cup

The thrill has gone from the FA Cup. Now it's an unwelcome distraction

Whenever I reflect on my early boyhood in an Essex new town in the 1970s, I invariably think of the FA Cup and of how on the afternoon of the final a strange hush would descend on the small, introverted cul-de-sac in which I lived. There were no rattling lawnmowers, or balls bouncing on the hard-paved streets. Everyone, it seemed, who might have been outside was inside - watching the football.

In those days, the FA Cup meant everything to me, not least because there were so few games, apart from the final itself and England internationals, that were ever shown live on television. The competition was a source of endless fascination and surprise; why, my local team (humble, "non-league" Harlow Town) even had their own cup run, beating Southend and Leicester on their way to the fourth round. They were beaten 4-3 at Watford, in a thrilling game that was shown on Match of the Day. I was there in the crowd at Vicarage Road, watching one game while listening out for the results of so many others.

My most vivid memories are of the three consecutive finals my own team, Arsenal, contested from 1978 to 1980, losing twice, to Ipswich Town and West Ham, and winning once, against Manchester United, in one of the most dramatic matches I have seen, either live or on television. Whenever I think of those games, I think, too, of the people who watched them with me, gathered around our television set in boisterous communion. Some of these people are now dead - including my father, a lifelong West Ham fan, who, in an uncharacteristic expression of exuberance and agility, did a head-over-heels when Trevor Brooking stooped low to head the goal that would win the cup for West Ham; and my friend Salvatore, the son of Sicilian migrants, who was one of the few Arsenal fans at my school (I was brought up in West Ham and Spurs territory) and who died at the age of 31 from a congenital heart defect.

Today when I think of the FA Cup, the tournament as it is now rather than what it once was, nothing occurs to me. I can scarcely be bothered to listen out for the results. For who today cares much about the FA Cup? Who believes either in its capacity to unify or surprise? Who believes a team from outside the top division can win the competition, as Sunderland (1973), Southampton (1976) and West Ham (1980) did in the era before money was the true arbiter of the modern game?

No matter how much the BBC exaggerates the appeal of the FA Cup, the empty terraces at so many recent cup ties more accurately reflect the truth about a competition that is withering into irrelevance.

The recent fourth-round matches, dribbling across several days rather than being played on a single Saturday afternoon, were a complete non-event. There were no surprise results; the plutocrats of the Premiership - Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea - all won through with ease; and even the commentators on Sky and the BBC sounded bored. The whole thing was a tedious slog, an unwelcome distraction from the Premiership, which, in truth, is rapidly becoming as grimly predictable as the Scottish Premier League.

Yet there was one moment to savour over that recent cup weekend: the moment when David Bentley, a young man from Peterborough, emerged from the Arsenal bench to score an exquisite, chipped goal in the closing minutes of their game against Middlesbrough.

"Who is this Bentley?" some asked. "And why hasn't he played more for Arsenal?" Perhaps here, at last, was a local hero, an Englishman no less, to compete with the best of the foreigners now resident at Highbury.

"We must let Bentley mature," Arsene Wenger said, when he was asked why the 19-year-old had never appeared in the Premiership. A couple of days later, he signed a young Spanish forward, Jose Antonio Reyes, for a club record £20m from Seville. Reyes is 20 - and, at that price, mature enough for a place in the first team, no doubt. Bad news for Bentley and bad news for the English game. But at least there is always the consolation for Bentley of a run out in the FA Cup.

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