Disappearing cup magic

The newspaper pictures of the empty Jimmy Mac Stand the following day were sad to see.

The glamour of the competition seems to decline a little more each passing year when games are spread over a whole weekend and more. Time was when the Monday third round draw was so eagerly awaited that players huddled round old radios at the training ground to see who they would play and grainy pictures of them in black and white looking taut and expectant appeared in the newspapers. The third round draw was almost as big an event as the Final itself. The little teams came in to play the giants and every one of them wanted to be a giant-killer. Yeovil, Hereford, Wimbledon, Wrexham et al they’ve all had cup glory; and one to forget, Wimbledon here at Burnley 40 years ago when Burnley were 7th in the top division.

These January games were played in fog, on ice and in thick cloying mud. All of them kicked off at 3 o'clock. Some of them involved three and even four replays. At game after game the fans crammed in to see if their own club’s name was on the cup that year. Everyone dreamed in the third round that it would be their year. It was special.

And now: all that has gone. The big teams play a weakened side. TV rules the kick-off times. Clubs themselves manipulate dates to give players ‘recovery time.’ The Final itself is even played at 5 o'clock on Cup Final Day. The early rounds for the so-called big clubs border on being a nuisance. Just 17 of the ties will have been on Saturday.

It is now just dying a slow, slow death, said Jim White in his Telegraph column with the FA destroying its own competition.

Never mind the fans, never mind the heritage, never mind the buzz; this is the result of bending the knee to the cheque. It has come about through a perfect storm of conflicting interest groups, each pecking away at tradition and purpose… now the programme is staggered lurching around like a New Year’s drunk.’

For sure the fixtures did not help. The third-round fell just two days after the New Year’s Day Premier fixtures. The powers that be decided that Premier clubs could play on New Year’s Day and the cup games just 48 hours later - madness. Thus the FA Cup games were spread over an astonishing 5 days. But what was to stop the FA planning the third round this year for January 10. Or, did there have to be a Premier programme on New Year’s Day? Where is common sense at high levels in all this? The next New Year’s Day is on a Friday. The decision makers cannot possibly have games that day and then the FA Cup the very next day. I wonder if they’ve cottoned on to this yet.

And thus did Burnley, through no fault of its own, become embroiled in the fiasco and then have difficult decisions to make, not the least of which was to decide did it want an extra day to recover for the Tottenham game, or play on Sunday and have an extra day to recover for the enormity of the QPR game?

No matter how difficult the decision though, from the fans’ side of the fence, moving the Cup game to Monday January 5 typified how the Cup now puts supporters last in the consideration list, leaving fans from both clubs both angry and baffled as to why this game had to be played on Monday. Had it been selected for television there would have been some sort of begrudging understanding and acceptance. We all know that TV pulls the strings and helps the bank balance. But the Burnley game was not on TV and all those Premier sides not involved in TV broadcasts were playing on Sunday or Saturday except Burnley and Tottenham.  Newcastle, Swansea, West Brom and Leicester were all playing on Saturday, just two days after their previous game.

The club sweetened things with reduced prices. It knew there would be a poor attendance on a Monday night and closed the complete Jimmy Mac Stand. What might have been a 15,000 attendance and a great atmosphere on the Sunday became   9,348 on Monday of which 2,494 were from Spurs. And this was a top, top game and the history of Burnley v Spurs games over the years has been truly illustrious.

When the Monday date was announced there were initial references to policing and stewarding problems because of a possible Cup game at Accrington involving Manchester United. The inference was that it was a police decision. But the Accrington game never materialised. There were clear references to the need for player recovery times following the New Year’s Day game. Nevertheless threads on all the websites expressed disappointment at the Monday choice. The question was asked over and again why could the clubs not have waited to see if in fact the Accrington game would have taken place on the Sunday.

Some days after the decision had been announced the Chief Inspector of Lancashire Police expressed his ire in a reply to the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust. It was critical of both football clubs. It contradicted any suggestion that Monday had been a police decision. It made it clear that if the clubs had waited for the outcome of the Accrington replay with Yeovil, then it would have been possible to play the tie on the Sunday. It made it clear that the Monday decision had already come from the clubs, it was what they wanted, and was nothing to do with the police.

Who then made the decision to play Monday night, we may well all ask.  If player recovery time was the driving force, then you could argue the extra day afforded to Shackell and Marney, subbed at Newcastle, justified the decision. But then on the other hand it was one less day to recover for the massive QPR game and in fact, Shackell didn’t recover.

With better planning and foresight from the FA and the Premier League this whole mess could have been avoided. Not much more than 9,000 chose to attend for a top-of-the-bill, A-grade, glamour tie and nearly 2,500 were from Spurs who made the long journey north. Several thousand home fans clearly gave it a miss because of the Monday date. For sure, the club were given a difficult decision but ask nine fans out of ten and they’ll say the game should have been played on the Sunday.

And the game itself: dreary, forgettable, ‘lacklustre’ said Sean Dyche, with the worst possible result, a 1-1 draw. Did you hear the recent story of the animal trainer who had his thumb bitten off by the uncooperative crocodile? It would be hard to decide what was more painful – that or the first 45 minutes of this game. The perceived lack of interest from the club and the poor marketing spread like a virus to the people that attended who sat mostly in silence; the first half was just so utterly dire. A feverish cup game; you must be joking. After the game Sean Dyche said in his after match comments that the lack of spectators made for a strange affair that affected the feel of the game; which is certainly a more eloquent way of saying that this was like watching 22 players going through the motions of an end of season game while they were thinking about heading off to Marbella.

Before a full house at City and Newcastle the Burnley players had excelled themselves. In this game, and it certainly did feel strange; with Lafferty at left-back, Mee outstanding at centre-back, Jones missing and Arfield in the middle, their first shot of any kind was from Ings well into the second half. Neither side had one single shot either on or off target in the first 45 minutes. Without Jones there was none of the craft or guile that he brings as the playmaker. This was a mind-numbing, funereal first-half where the only signs of life were in the pies or occasionally from the ranks of Spurs fans that broke into chants and songs every so often. Long passages of play were played out in total silence from the home fans. It was as if they begrudged being there.

Sean Dyche said there weren’t as many people as they were hoping for. Then he said it was a good decision to play on the Monday. Sadly, the extra people he was hoping would be there clearly didn’t agree that it was a good decision to play on Monday and voted to stay at home. We’d driven over from Leeds thinking and talking about how bizarre this fixture now felt. The shift to Monday made it seem almost a nuisance, an irrelevance. Other people who travel a fair distance, and there are many of them, clearly didn’t bother. There is no right or wrong answer to the question should it have been played on Monday; you can argue both ways, but it was a decision that killed this game and the attendance.

Without the two and a half thousand Spurs fans the attendance would have been truly embarrassing for a game of this magnitude and appeal. The absence of home fans, the closed stand, the rows of empty seats elsewhere, were the fans’ way of saying to the club if you can’t play this game on a day that is accessible; then we won’t bother coming.

At half time the Spurs manager, I really can’t be bothered to look up how to spell his name, had clearly told his mega-stars that if they ran at Burnley, clearly drained by the previous herculean efforts, and upped the tempo the game was theirs for the taking. Out they came and within the first 5 minutes had a couple of shots at goal. Ings then had his first shot around 65 minutes and produced the first home gasps of excitement as the ‘keeper spilled the smart shot but there was no-one near enough to capitalise before he could gather it up.

Spurs most certainly played the better football, as well they might, the money they’ve spent. Their manager had by now brought on Harry Kane at half-time. It boded no good for Burnley. Spurs upped the pressure more and scored although it wasn’t Kane. The game was theirs for the taking with Burnley struggling to inject any kind of tempo, passion and make any inroads. We settled back in anticipation of a final score of 0-1, and a journey back to Leeds in miserable mode.

But struggling as they were, patched up as they were, Jones-less, these Claret boys just do not lie down. Sean D made changes. Vokes came on, Wallace came on, and at last Kightly latched on to a fine pass, ran at pace round the full-back, made it to the goal-line in the corner of the box, got his cross over and who was there to put the ball home from the corner of the 6-yard box but BIG Sam Vokes.

BIG SAM VOKES… Vokesey, Vokesey, Vokesey…

You could write it as Hollywood fiction. A dreadful injury but the hero returns. The hero scores. The hero equalises. The hero is mobbed and disappears underneath his colleagues who race over and clamber all over him. And the few thousand Burnley fans are roused from their torpor and burst into life.

Now it was Burnley upping their tempo. Before the Vokes goal a lovely move saw Marney burst through one on one with the goalkeeper. It was just a split second for him to decide what to do. His intent was to toe-poke over the advancing keeper. It was a golden chance. The few thousand Burnley fans watched, stared, transfixed by the clear chance that was there for what would have been a superb goal. Marney got to the ball first with a yard to spare. He made his move in the nano-second available, but the outstretched toe sent ball and chance over the bar from 6 yards.

At the other end in the dying seconds Kane might have won it for Spurs but side-footed the chance well wide after Ings had worryingly gone off with an ice-pack for company.

And so it ended. You felt joy for Sam Vokes. You felt for the decision the club had to make after the fixture list cock-up but it was galling to see several of the newspapers next day condemnatory of the missing fans as if it was their fault. It has undoubtedly been an endurance test since the Spurs league game. Sean Dyche said it was a very good decision to play on Monday. The fans, alas, begged to differ.