This week I had better start by apologising for departing, partly, from political concerns and writing instead about the cup final, in which my team, Stoke City, played yesterday afternoon.
It had taken them one hundred and forty eight years of if not hurt then certainly considerable frustration to get there, but it was more than worth it on the day. Even if, as things turned out the millionaires of Manchester City took the trophy home and the nation’s sports writers set about trying to ring the changes on the ‘plucky Stoke fall at the final hurdle’ line they’ve been running for years.
The pleasure of getting to star in the big set piece event of British football was dampened down more than a little though by the realisation that these days the cup final is less of a big deal than it used to be. For a start the game had been moved from its usual date to accommodate the Champions League final due to be played at Wembley in a couple of weeks time and crushed into the fixture list along with eight Premier League games.
This, as cynics and sports writers, sometimes its hard to tell which is which, will tell you is just a consequence of how football has changed over recent years. Far from being the stuff of fan’s dreams the ‘magic’ of the cup, they say, resides these days in its ability to make crowds disappear.
While I defer to their superior knowledge of the mechanics of the game I don’t agree with their view that the FA Cup is largely superfluous. You don’t have to be a ‘jumpers for goalposts’ traditionalist who wants to see every team made up of local lads and run by a chairman who mows the pitch on Saturday mornings to feel saddened by the cup’s decline or to see it as symptomatic of a wider societal malaise.
The real ‘magic’ of the FA Cup was, and still is, that it is open to everyone from unpaid amateurs playing in the outer reaches of the football galaxy up to millionaire superstars with a different Bentley for each day of the week. There was always the enticing prospect that the former would beat the latter in the third round and be local heroes for a week or so; even if they didn’t everyone had a great day out and came away with something to tell their grandchildren about.
In recent years all that had been largely usurped by the behemoth that is the Champions League, which has no magic about it whatsoever but does rake in millions upon millions in revenue for the biggest and richest clubs. Paying supporters, the people who turn out rain or shine are relegated to the status of wallets on legs to be herded through the turnstiles, of, better still, kept out of sight watching the match at home on pay-per-view TV allowing even more of the ground to be tuned over to executive boxes for the ‘prawn sandwich brigade.’
It is not hard to see similarities in what is happening to the FA Cup and the problems stalking wider society; unrestrained corporate greed at one end of the spectrum and belligerent impotence at the other with a vast majority trapped in the middle feeling exploited by one group and intimidated by the other. Look a little further and you can see the same approach shown in plans to move next year’s final to quarter past five in the evening in the closure of pubs and post offices, boarded up high streets and the widespread feeling that a way of living on a human scale is being trampled underfoot by the rush to make a fast buck.
Politicians, particularly Labour politicians, should take and avid interest in the demise of Cup Final Saturday, not in the patronising way that Tony Blair et al embraced football in the 1990’s as a way of showing they were at one with the little people, but as a symptom of the way unrestrained market forces are destroying working class culture; and that of much of the middle classes they spend so much time trying to woo too.
The sight of ‘Red Ed’ Milliband done up in a football scarf bought for him by his aides waving a rattle and calling for the cup final to be moved back to its traditional day and time would look both clumsily populist and utterly absurd, but he does need to take his party back to fighting the corner of ordinary people. Intellectuals close to the party seem to be trying to steer policy making in this direction, although you do tend to get the impression that they look at any culture that exists outside a university common room as if it had been spread on a slide under a microscope.
Much about working class and lower middle class culture can be troubling; both are decidedly conservative about social change; but their core values regarding self reliance, strong communities and fairness are worth defending. They are also the values on which the Labour movement was founded and are what it must return to if the party truly wants to be ‘up for the cup’ at the next election.