Full of character: How coverage of the FA Cup has changed

fa cup 2 300x225 Full of character: How coverage of the FA Cup has changed

The FA Cup first round takes place this weekend

FA Cup first round day. For fully paid up nerds (guilty as charged), it is, or rather was, the best day of the season. Teams you had never heard of, from places you had barely heard of, (Billingham Synthonia, Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute – of whom more later – or AFC Totton), mixed it with the slightly less obscure giants of the Football League’s lower reaches. Match of the Day that evening was unmissable – a blur of games, goals and upsets. Names were made and careers derailed – like that of West Brom boss Brian Talbot in 1991, whose Baggies outfit (no pun intended) were humbled 4-2 by Conference club Woking three divisions below. But FA Cup coverage had already taken a turn for the tabloid by the time Tim Buzaglo’s hat-trick had throttled the Throstles.

Students of the Cup will recall Matt Hanlon and Tony Rains despatching Coventry in 1989. It’s the Kipling-quoting Sutton boss – and English Lit teacher – Barrie Williams, sought out for his ‘Every Man Jack Of Em’ routine, who sticks in the mind of the casual fan. Williams, a smart and experienced football man, obviously enjoyed the success and the kudos that went with it. But his achievements in the Cup deserved better than the easy-option, silly season coverage they received.

Live screening of the early rounds from the early Nineties was like a new toy to the broadcasters, giving them a whole afternoon to focus on ‘obscure’ non-Leaguers. And with some commentators’ knowledge of the semi-pro game barely on a par with the viewers’, serious analysis of individual players took a back seat. Instead, the one-off appearances of the part-timers demanded an exhaustive trawl for characters.

TV companies honed in on the chosen non-Leaguers as soon as the draw was made and followed the players on matchday in a style once reserved for the Final. Of course, reporters had to find out a bit more about the players than the left-back’s boot size, and so the ‘character’ was born. In 1989 it was Barrie Williams, and 11 years later, Barry Silkman.

Silkman, or Barry Silkman – athlete – as his Facebook page insists, became one of the oldest players to appear in the FA Cup when Harrow handed him the no 12 shirt for the first round tie with Wycombe in November 2000. At 48, Barry got the tabloid treatment because of his seventies sojourn at Palace and his confirmed middle age.

With fewer matches to cover and more time to fill, television turned to an ageing forty-something to pad out its coverage. The idea wouldn’t have been given house-room in the 70s, when, it seemed, matches stood on their own merits. Wimbledon’s draw at Leeds; Dickie Guy’s penalty save; Newcastle’s defeat at Edgar Street after Hereford’s draw on Tyneside, and Blyth Spartans’ progress to the fifth round replay at a sold-out St James’, closed the gates at grounds across the country. With so much to report and little time to do it, background trivia hardly mattered. The game was the thing. The ties were so good and the achievements so momentous – Blyth’s fleeting acquaintance with the last eight being a prime example – that they held the attention without embellishment.

The closest the Spartans came to tabloid acquiescence was a quick chorus of ‘Victory do-da’ after their win at Stoke. Broadcasters felt obliged to report the facts, not a skewed interpretation of them. It always made a better story if a little ‘un beat a big ‘un, but if they didn’t, the reporters told us what happened and left it at that. The Blyth players were miners, teachers and electricians, rather than overweight ex-pros. Two of them, Steve Carney and Alan Shoulder, were later signed by Newcastle. When the facts spoke for themselves, no-one cared who did the full-back’s paper round.

Sure, the jobs of football’s part-timers were always held up for ridicule or amusement by Match of the Day, but it took the advent of Sky Sports News for analysis to go into overdrive and the story to submerge the facts. With hours of coverage to fill, reporters sought out quirky details, with human interest the crutch for their copy.

The tell-tale signs were there in the early 80s, The patronising use of Dvorak’s 9th (the Hovis Music – probably chosen for its ‘northern’ connotations) to soundtrack Match Of The Day’s Blackpool v Horwich RMI’s footage in 1982, made the part-timers look like post-war day trippers.

The BBC’s coverage of the competition, once the gold standard for football, lost its way with the Cup itself. From the mid-80s, live TV cameras turned up at little v large ties with just one story in mind – victory for the little guy, With plenty of Silkman-type characters to fall back on, the story was written in advance, and only tweaked slightly at full-time. Coverage was hamstrung with commentary so loaded that you ended up rooting for the favourites, just to put one over the broadcaster.

Upsets still happen, but with the competition treated as a hindrance by the Premier League and mere filler by TV, no-one worries about the result or even the characters, anymore. Next time Unheardof Utd from Back End of Beyond, Bradford, get to the first round of the FA Cup (with Budweiser) it will probably be after yet another ‘dramatic’ penalty shootout, rather than an adrenalin-fuelled rocket from the halfway line, with the winning spot kick from the oldest, fattest ex-professional on the field. And who wants to watch that on Match of the Day?

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