ERIC Cantona’s smug face. That’s the immediate image that flashes in my mind whenever the FA Cup is mentioned. Eric frigging Cantona.
The build up seemingly started at about 3am. My mum was on snack duty, diligently replenishing my supplies throughout the day as I sat nervously at a distance of about three inches from our television.
Liverpool flags had been haphazardly stuck to our freshly-painted window frames with Sellotape at my request and much to my father’s chagrin. I was certain we’d beat United and bring the FA Cup – the same cup that had brought so much happiness to my Evertonian next-door neighbours 12 months prior – back to Anfield.
A few hours later and tears were streaming down my red, 10-year-old cheeks. Endless replays of Rob Jones and others failing to block that shot on the line flashed on the screen. The result wouldn’t change no matter how many times I willed it to. A knock at the door duly came. My mates. My Evertonian mates. They asked if I was ill. I shook my head. They either couldn’t understand why I was in my pyjamas before dark and why my eyes were bright red or they were too kind to let on. I mumbled some words, declined their offer to go out and play, shut the door and ran to my room to sob some more. As I did just that I was accompanied by the harrowing sound of those blue boys being joined outside by my gleeful sounding Manchester United supporting friend as they then proceeded to happily play three and in against my garage door for what seemed like an eternity.
Bloody hell that day hurt. Bloody hell that day mattered. Welcome to football young man, there will be plenty of days like this to come.
Fast forward to 2012. Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool have been beaten at Wembley in another FA Cup final. I’m sad. I know Kenny’s job is probably gone. That’s why I’m sad. The game itself barely registers in my memory bank these days save for that late Andy Carroll header that never was.
Losing an FA Cup final wasn’t the main source of misery that day. It was easy to put the loss into perspective. We’d had our fun against Everton in the semi. That was great. Not because it was a semi final but because the Blues were so confident and it mattered so much to them. The trophy at the end of the road? Yeah, I wanted it, particularly for Kenny, but I wasn’t going to miss out on a night out with some friends this time around because we’d failed to bring home a pot.
That’s all the FA Cup is to me these days. I imagine that winning it this season would feel akin to one of those legal highs the kids of today reportedly indulge in. It would likely bring a rush of euphoria and enhance a night out. Then I guess that you wake up, get rid of the hangover and life goes on. It seems that these days by the time the new season comes around people have long since forgotten the FA Cup and it’s winners. Maybe this isn’t strictly true for fans of teams like Wigan who will rightly cherish their win against Manchester City in 2013 for years to come, but ask supporters of Champions League-chasing clubs and I would highly doubt that they will recall any of their recent FA Cup final triumphs or defeats quite as vividly as I remember that horrible day back in 1996 when Eric Cantona broke my heart and the FA Cup not returning to Anfield put me on a downer for weeks.
The easy counter to my argument here is that Liverpool haven’t won the FA Cup in nearly a decade now so how the hell would I know what it feels like these days? The thing is, when I really think about it, our last victory in an FA Cup final against West Ham in 2006 was special more because of the circumstances than the prize itself. Gerrard’s ridiculous goals, Reina’s redemption, the sheer thrill of the 120 minutes of bewitching, crazy football made that final resonate more than actual success at the end of it.
I can’t put my finger on when exactly it happened, but I know that these days the FA Cup is more something that I endure than enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously want us to win the thing every year, but it registers as little more than a bonus now. It’s the coffee and mints after a slap-up meal. I can take it or leave it. Lamentably, whether or not Liverpool make the top four this season is going to be far more crucial in terms of whether I view this campaign as a success or not. I’m acutely aware that plenty of people will be reading this and thinking I’m dead wrong. ‘Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies’ and all that, but let’s be honest, that’s just not true of any big football club these days. Champions League qualification means more to a club’s financial status and its image than a domestic cup ever could in the current climate. Alexis Sanchez didn’t join Arsenal because they ground out an extra time win over Hull City at Wembley. He joined because they’re always in the Champions League.
Ah, Arsenal. The current holders of the FA Cup. That win back in May was apparently going to be seismic and usher in a new era for them. It ended their dry run of nine seasons without a trophy. It signalled a new mentality within the club. They were winners again instead of also-rans. It gave their fans genuine hope of and belief in better days ahead. The new season so far suggests nothing has changed down at the Emirates Stadium. Big games still come and go without victories, the same mental fragility against top sides remains and that FA Cup triumph was presumably a long way from any Gooner’s mind as they were being hammered in Dortmund or swatted away once more at Stamford Bridge. That cup win was what it was. It’s a second-class pot in the cabinet and a great day out. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Returning to that 2012 final for a moment, if Liverpool had won that day they’d have completed a domestic double. They’d have won two of the three competitions they entered that season. And Kenny Dalglish would still have been sacked. If any more proof were required to show the lack of prestige currently associated with ‘the best cup competition in the world’ that fact alone should do it for you. FSG would still have brought Brendan Rodgers in and asked the King to depart L4 and take his FA Cup medal with him as one last token from his second stint as manager. Why? Because Liverpool finished the season in eighth place in the league table, their joint lowest Premier League finish since finishing in the same position in 1994.
Dalglish didn’t deliver a return to the Champions League and, like it or not, that mattered a hell of a lot more to a club like ours than winning the FA Cup does these days. If the people running our club don’t see a victory in the competition as a major success is it any wonder that I don’t?
The FA Cup was once the big brother to the League Cup, which was commonly referred to as the ‘Mickey Mouse Cup’ when I was growing up. These days I see them in an altogether different light. A victory in either competition will not ultimately salvage a poor league season or be a barometer for a team’s success. They are just two competitions that everyone would like to win yet none of the big boys take too seriously. Brad Jones will get his game in both competitions, squad players will receive a much-needed run out and we’ll likely see some kids given a shot here and there. Kolo will start matches and be mad as a box of frogs in both tournaments. Neither competition lies above the other in terms of importance to me these days. I won’t be found despairing if Liverpool are knocked out by a minnow like Oldham again on the much celebrated ‘third round weekend’ come January. Nor will I be calling for Brendan Rodgers’ head if Swansea beat us at Anfield in the 4th round of the League Cup. Give me a guaranteed three points in our next league game right now and you can have your cup competitions, thank you very much.
I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about which domestic cup I’d prefer Liverpool to win this season given the choice. I chose the League Cup. My mate was shocked. He still rates the FA Cup as the more significant achievement. Fair enough, but being almost entirely emotionally detached from both tournaments these days, I laid out my reasoning to try to justify myself.
There are no replays in the League Cup. The final will be held this season on March 1. It offers none of the problematic fixture build-up that accompanies a prolonged run in the FA Cup at a potentially crucial period of the season. If I view them as equals in terms of achievement there is simply no logical argument to prioritise the FA Cup. I also happen to find the Capital One Cup, as it’s currently known, as a more enjoyable tournament in spite of its comical name. Less of a grind. Its games are midweek. They don’t interfere with the league calendar. These days FA Cup weekends aren’t too dissimilar to international breaks for me, particularly if we’re out early doors. They’re little more than a distraction and a break from the football that really matters. ‘Giant killings’ barely register. If they occur it’s likely to have been because David has slain an understrength, unmotivated Goliath who has bigger fish to fry. When an upper mid-table Southampton team play a weakened side in the fifth round as they did last season in their defeat at Sunderland you know something isn’t quite right.
I must state that I don’t take any pleasure in running down the FA Cup and classing it as a second-rate trophy alongside the League Cup. It’s just the way I feel and I can’t help it. It’s akin to having been in a loving relationship with someone you know is brilliant and who you’ve shared wonderful times with but then you wake up one day and you’re just not feeling ‘it’ any more. You can’t put your finger on why or when it went but the magic is gone.
Maybe one day ‘it’ will come back and the FA Cup will really matter to me again. Maybe one day it will decide a Champions League place. Maybe the final will actually kick off at 3pm again. Maybe the semi finals won’t be played in London to pay for a soulless stadium that I don’t care about. Maybe the former showpiece event of English football will cease to simply be an afterthought tagged on to the end of the season. Maybe people will watch hours and hours of build up on final day again and anticipate it for days and weeks on end. I hope so because I genuinely do miss caring about the FA Cup.
I miss the emotion it used to bring out in people. I long for the thrill I had when Michael Owen robbed Arsenal at the death in Cardiff and I’d love to care enough about the competition to feel something similar to the hollowness that Eric Cantona left in the pit of my stomach as a child but I can’t fake it, I just don’t right now.
2001 FA Cup final highlights:
Brendan Rodgers could really do with winning a trophy this season and so could Liverpool. The Champions League doesn’t offer much hope in that respect if we’re being brutally honest while the prospect of a Premier League title looks doubtful at best already. That leaves the two domestic cup competitions on the table.
Given all that I’ve said here, I hope you’ll understand when I say that if Liverpool are fortunate enough to win a domestic cup this season then I can reluctantly admit to you all that I sincerely hope it’s the Mickey Mouse Cup.
Bring on Swansea.
Liverpool in the League Cup
- Won 126, Drawn 49, Lost 42, For 438, Against 212
- Winners eight times (81, 82, 83, 84, 95, 01, 03, 12)
- Biggest win: Liverpool 10-0 Fulham, second round first leg, September 23, 1983
- Top goalscorers: Ian Rush 49; Robbie Fowler 29; Kenny Dalglish 27; Ronnie Whelan 14; Steve McMahon 13
- Appearances: Ian Rush 78, Bruce Grobbelaar 70, Alan Hansen 68, Phil Neal 66, Kenny Dalglish 59