Friday, 24 January 2014

Huddersfield, and the 'Magic' of The FA Cup

The greatest trophy in football.
How often have we heard that the FA Cup is 'magical? This is not to suggest it isn't, merely that it has been seized upon by everyone's favourite media outlets and branded as such a special competition. In a football world dominated by the TV revenue in the top division, the attempt to label the Cup as magical is rather defeated by the selection of games, which end up being regulation Premier League matches. Chelsea can Stoke is being televised this weekend. Thrilling. The media are telling us he Cup is magical, whilst televising run-of-the-mill games involving big clubs. It's no wonder people will start to question the competition.

With regard to this magical nature of the FA Cup, Jonathan Liew in the Daily Telegraph wrote that 'the more you have to keep saying it, the less it is probably true'. It was a light-hearted article suggesting that all it is seen as these days is an obstruction to the Premier League campaign, or a means by which you can kick-start a run of form. But the constant attempts to suggest the Cup is magical contributes to undermining it. What's magical about watching the reserve teams of top clubs play a mid-table opponent? ITV and BT pick these sorts of fixture because they gain access to the large audiences that clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea bring with them. Are these games what the Cup is about? Not for the majority of men on the street.

The FA Cup has always been a competition in which small clubs can randomly be drawn against the titans. The underdog spirit, and the hope of a long Cup run, is what brings fans to games from the early rounds onwards. This is why the Cup is great, but the majority of fans lose sight of this in this age of endless media hype and constant televised action.

So, the Cup is all about those exciting, rare and unlikely match-ups. By definition, then, Huddersfield Town vs Charlton Athletic is the antithesis of an exciting Cup tie. Never has there been a greater example of mutual apathy towards a fixture than in this one. Both fans were tired of the fixture last year, but this season it has reached alarming levels.

There was much relief when the Third Round draw was made, and Charlton were drawn at home to Oxford United - itself an oddity, as the two had met in the Capital One Cup earlier on in the season. However, when it came to the Fourth Round draw, we weren't so lucky...

The first few ties had been drawn, before ball number 29 emerged.

"That's Huddersfield Town."

Come on, number 16. It simply has to be.

"Number 16."

Surely not again...

"Charlton Athletic or Oxford United."

Cue absolute chaos on the internet. Of the three most common words used, one was 'Huddersfield', another was 'off', and the final one was unutterable... Johnnie Jackson only had one word of his own to offer: "Unbelievable." The Charlton media department tweeted their Huddersfield counterparts and said for them not to bother with security passes because their faces would be sufficiently well known. It was carnage, with numerous fans from both clubs simply bemoaning the seeming inability of the two teams not to draw each other in cup competitions.

Charlton made a meal of the first leg, but a 3-0 win at the Kassam set up the Addicks' date with destiny. Huddersfield away, in the cup, again. Magical.

At this point, I am going to make an impossibly irrational statement: There is a romance about this fixture.

If you're still with me, I'll explain.

Two mediocre sides that have absolutely no geographical or historical relation with each other, yet there is such a sense of apathy between them. There is no antipathy or anger from one set if fans towards the other. It is just a fixture that has become unavoidable. Whenever there's a Cup draw, we all say 'I hope it's not Huddersfield', and those sentiments are echoed from our northern counterparts, who'd quite like to try and beat a different opponent for once. Once you reach a point where something is so unlikely, but it keeps happening, it develops a certain charm.

Well I quite enjoy this fateful connection, anyway.

Saturday's game will be the 6th meeting of the two clubs in the past 15 months, and this will be the fourth consecutive match to take place in Huddersfield. With a potential replay to come, and Charlton set to host the Terriers in the league in March, this blossoming friendship could grow even more.

It is a match I'm looking forward to. Yes, I'm mad enough to think this is an enticing away fixture. Even madder when you consider that I've already seen us lose 2-1 in the league at the John Smith's Stadium this season. But, its the FA Cup. A chance for Charlton to play a match which doesn't actually have any bearing on the league. People will suggest it has an influence, but in terms of a direct impact on league positions, it has none at all. The relation to the league is what has dragged the Cup down a few levels, as if it is somehow an unwanted distraction. It isn't. Its the perfect distraction. It just happens that we've ended up playing Huddersfield again.

What would mean more in Wigan Athletic's history? Another season in the Premier League,
or that moment of pure joy upon winning the FA Cup?
The Cup is all about stories. Think of how excited the grandchildren will be when we tell them that we once got knocked out of the early rounds of cup competitions three times in twelve months by Huddersfield. The subplots make it a great tournament. We might be sick of playing each other, but the unpredictable nature of the draw has meant that its happened this way. Whilst neither side can hold completely realistic ambitions for Wembley, it is nice that a game takes place in which the aim is not to grind out another three points to add to the total in the league. The winner might play at home to Manchester City, or away at Kidderminster. That is the joy of the Cup - the unpredictability that comes with every round. 

Sadly, the Cup's excitement has been softened and even obscured by the media's continued focus on what it all means in the Premier League title fight. Hence, you get the rubbish televised matches such as Chelsea vs Stoke, and not something that might show you the true passions expressed lower at clubs lower the league ladder. Furthermore, the Wembley semi-final hasn't helped, as its no longer that ultimate prize for reaching the final. And I'd much rather see games played at Villa Park anyway.

In arguing that the magic of the FA Cup is not dead, I've probably undermined it, and then I've made it even worse by suggesting that the way it insists on making Huddersfield and Charlton play each other is charming.

But as a competition, it is unparalleled in pitting small teams against the big ones. With such ambivalence from those in the Premier League towards it, though, it's no wonder that he Cup gets a bad press. Those people ignore the fact that the competition has lasted for months even before the big teams are allowed in it, so they don't appreciate what it means for the fans who have waited years for their side to make the Third Round.

It would be pushing it to suggest we've been waiting for years for the chance to play Huddersfield in the FA Cup. Instead, its more like we've been waiting for years for the chance to play somebody other than Huddersfield... Still, tomorrow, one of the clubs will reach the Fifth Round, and take with them the hopes and dreams of great days to come. It is a great competition that is in a far healthier state than the media and the top clubs seem to realise. 

Apart the glorious triumph of 1947, Charlton have never really been very good in the FA Cup. I can't say I remember it that well... One day, perhaps, that drought might end. We can only dream... And that's what the Cup is all about. 

Bring on Huddersfield. Again.

"Charlton have won the FA Cup!" Once. 67 years ago. But what a win...

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