Year after year, a narrative is formed around the story of the underdog and the “magic” of the FA Cup, the beauty and romanticism of the unlikeliest victories gained against all the odds, the giant-killing exploits of the Davids over the Goliaths, making the impossible possible.
The results are the stories that create the headlines, but for me the real beauty is in the tiniest of details.
I proclaimed to the rest of our coaching staff that if we were to get to the final and win it, these were the kind of teams we were going to have to beat.
Think about them; it’s in the ensuing ecstasy that induced the parka-jacketed pitch invasion of fans acting on their sheer disbelief, watching Ronnie Radford almost tear Willie McFaul’s net wide open.
It’s in the way Dave Beasant’s huge frame arches, stretching every sinew of his body to claw away John Aldridge’s penalty with the desperate finger tips of a mountaineer clinging on to a cliff face for dear life.
It’s in the embrace of pure unadulterated emotion between Monty and Bob Stokoe that generates emotions so deep they make Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s love story look like a Tinder date.
It’s in the exact moment time seems to stand still as Keith Houchen is suspended in mid air for that split second after the most perfect of connection between football and forehead you’re ever likely to see.
The trouble with episodes of fairytale romanticism is the need to acknowledge there’s the chance of breaking hearts. For every very bit of magic, there’s a tragic, and the FA Cup has left many a victim in its wake.
The 1991 FA Cup final will forever be remembered for the madness of Prince Paul, his car crash first quarter of an hour and the 25 years of battling with himself that has followed. The uncontrollable part of his character which took his team to the final almost single-handedly might not have cost his club on the day, but it’s one he’s been counting personally ever since. The Greeks called it “Hamartia”, the flaw or fault in the hero that leads to their, sometimes fatal, downfall.
Gary Charles, the recipient of that late, lunging Gascoigne tackle, recovered from injury somewhat sooner than his manically charged assailant, but he himself has suffered very much the same fate as Gazza. Gripped by alcohol addiction, he was sentenced to four months of jail time after a drink driving related incident.
Two players colliding in what could have been the greatest moments of their careers, but instead making it a point in their lives that triggered downward spirals. The blame for their problems doesn’t lie in that precise second in time but it illustrates perfectly how on every theatrical stage, darkness is always waiting in the wings.
These past two weeks have echoed the light and the dark of FA Cup for me and my current club Lincoln City too. I don’t know whether you’re aware of this, but National Conference sides such as ourselves, enter into the FA Cup at the final qualifying stage prior to the first round proper and, like any other club in our league, we were hoping for a cushy home tie against a team well below us in the pyramid of league football.
That is the general idea anyway but as we all definitely know, “cushy” games aren’t what the FA Cup is all about, so of course we were given perhaps the most difficult draw possible against Tranmere Rovers, a club who had been promotion chasers at the top end of League One just three years ago.
It was precisely the kind of draw we’d hoped to avoid but with tongue pushed firmly on the inside of my cheek I proclaimed to the rest of our coaching staff that if we were to get to the final and win it, these were the kind of teams we were going to have to beat.
We were slight underdogs on the day, a view mostly held by the Tranmere supporters who seemed to forget they are no longer a league club, but we eventually triumphed after taking the tie back to Sincil Bank for a replay.
Aided by good fortune, good play and the sending off of Tranmere’s keeper for handball outside of the box, we were drawn against Whitehawk, a club from the National Conference South, one tier below ourselves, which took us from underdogs to the owners of slippers made from banana skins within 10 days.
Granted, this wasn’t Wimbledon v Liverpool, but to the majority of people looking at the fixture, the expectation laid heavily on our shoulders.
Not that it had showed during that week, mind. Despite the 1-0 defeat to Bromley the Saturday before, we were wary of what lay ahead and complacency didn’t seem an issue.
Whilst everyone else was asking “who?” and “where?” when the draw was made, we knew it was going to be a tough game.
The club had made a rapid rise up from the Sussex County League but with some investment, they are now a team filled with league experience and as much as the defeat hurt, in retrospect it had all the ingredients of the magic of the cup working it’s wonders for Whitehawk.
There was the heavy, sloping pitch, a set of fans who were making the most of their day in the sun (and wind) by incessantly backing their side, two defences who forgot how to defend for 90 minutes, and a red card for our captain, Alan Power, for a last-man foul made in his desperation to stem the flow of the ping-pong style of attacking football the game had become.
What you ended up with was a 5-3 win for the home side, sending us back up the A1, silent, slightly embarrassed and temporarily broken.
For us, the tragedy is hopefully temporary as we no longer have the magic to distract us from the main objective of trying to get the club back into League 2. For Whitehawk, the magic continues and I for one hope they get exactly what they deserve.
They now face either Dagenham and Redbridge or Morecambe away, either of which they are capable of beating to give themselves the chance of a landing that big financial fish that we all crave at this level, to ease the tension on the purse strings.
The more I think about it, the the more I reason our defeat probably had more to do with the karma of the FA Cup than any magic.
Regardless of tactics or any individual performances, I blame myself for us not progressing to the second round for telling everyone we were playing “Whitesnake” when they asked who were playing on Saturday.
As funny as I thought I was being at the time, I’m not laughing now, am I?