REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap

This is the latest book by Neil Cotton, a regular contributor to magazines such as When Saturday Comes and Late Tackle. He is also the author of Pies, Graphs and Frozen Toes, which is based on his football blog – Row Z.

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Neil is an avid supporter of grassroots football and the rich historical tradition of the game in general. This is a meticulously researched offering which presents a strong defence of the tradition of cup football which is increasingly struggling to be relevant, especially to the Sky TV generation of supporters to whom the Premier League and the Champions League are all that matters.

The opening pages immediately involve the reader in one of the immense philosophical dilemmas of modern life, “Why am I here?”. The author asks himself this very question as he attends Gosport Borough vs. Sholing, playing in the final of the Hampshire County Cup at Fratton Park, in front of a very sparse crowd of 998. Gosport took the cup for a second time with a 3- 0 win if you are interested. Yet, Neil knows why he is here – he loves cup football in all its myriad formats.

It is easy to forget given the ubiquity of league football, that the first competitive football matches evolved as cup competitions originally, years before the league format became established and had a national prominence that even the Football League, with its all members from either the North West or the Midlands, in its early years struggled to match. Therefore, it is very sad to realise that to fans of most teams in the Premier League, avoiding relegation or finishing in the top four is regarded as more desirable than winning the F.A. Cup or League Cup. How did it come to this and what does the future hold? Neil offers an optimistic response.

As with many sporting initiatives, the Victorians and the public school system were the instigators of the fledging F.A. Cup competition. The founder of the tournament was Charles Alcock who had been inspired by the idea of the Inter House contests he had experienced as a boy at Harrow. The initial F.A. Cup format arrived in 1872 and a certain Charles Alcock was the captain of the winning team, Wanderers. Fifteen teams entered – Queen’s Park from Glasgow even participated. Neil outlines in detail the increasing popularity of the F.A. Cup from its amateur roots to the involvement of the professional teams and the post war heyday of cup attendances when the final was still an important date in the national sporting calendar. The arrival of T.V. coverage of the final in 1953 meant that, for the first time, you did not need a ticket to watch and the match dominated the BBC and ITV networks on Cup Final day as they battled to attract viewers in the sixties and seventies. How sad to see that nowadays, the final has been relegated to an early evening slot, in a vain attempt to revive its status.

Fortunately, the author does not focus solely on the F.A. Cup and, to his credit, expands his coverage to include not only the other well-known competitions such as the League Cup and the Champions League, but also a treasure trove of alternative minor contests such as the Burnley Hospital Cup, the Debenhams Cup, the various County Cups, the Rowlands Cup and the Watneys Cup.

This is where the author’s research really starts to pay dividends as he unearths many forgotten facts to bore your friends with in a pub quiz near you. Many players in the 19th century used pseudonyms; amongst them was a certain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who played in goal for the Portsmouth Association team in 1887 in the Portsmouth and District Cup. Also, can you remember that George Best was the first player to score a goal from a penalty shoot-out (possibly not his career highlight) and that Denis Law was the first one to miss in the same match.

The author covers the majority of these cups by decade. The importance of the hospitals cups has long been forgotten but they were an invaluable source of income generation after the end of the First and Second World Wars. The League Cup almost came about by mistake. Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary, had proposed in the late 1950’s to revamp the league into five divisions of twenty teams and offered the League Cup as a way of recouping income from the lost league fixtures. Sadly for Hardaker, the clubs rejected the new structure but kept the cup.

It is easy to forget how radical the idea was of the European Cup was in the 1950’s. The Football League was somewhat less than enthusiastic about the proposal, viewing it as “ a short lived gimmick”. However, a number of factors combined to establish the tournament, which in case you are under thirty was initially created as a knock out competition with ties being played over home and away legs. UEFA was first formed in 1954 and needed a competition that it could call its own. The advent of floodlights meant that matches could now be played in midweek and in the post war spirit of European unity, most national associations (except England) were keen to participate. The fledging European Broadcasting Union also played a part with the live pan-European coverage of the 1960 European Cup Final.

The 1970’s saw the emergence of a variety of differing cups, which allowed the organisers the opportunity to experiment with some potential rule changes. This was an era when sponsorship of cups was given official F.A. approval, opening the floodgates for what was to follow. The Texaco Cup was the first to allow English and Scottish teams to play competitive matches against each other since 1887. The Watney’s Cup was the first to allow drawn matches to be decided by penalty shoot -out. The Anglo-Italian cup awarded extra points for goals scored and even for good crowd behaviour. It is fascinating to revisit these competitions and reflect upon their initial impact and the reasons for their subsequent failure.

It is impossible to cover every cup contest in a book of this size and some readers may quibble at the lack of attention given to such trophies as the F.A. Amateur Cup, the F.A. Vase and the F.A. Trophy amongst others but that would have involved doubling the content of the book and perhaps losing some of the impact. Or maybe, Neil is just saving these for a second volume of cup football.

Neil is convinced that the various cup competitions still have a bright future. It is easy to forget the importance they still have at grassroots level. For example, the Hampshire F.A. organised twenty-eight different cups in the 2015/16 seasons. He argues that these lesser known cups have an increasing role to play in experimentation with football rules. The Hawk – Eye goal line technology system was first tested during the 2012 Hampshire County Cup final between Sholing and Eastleigh. The first football game to be screened live on Facebook was the F.A. Cup encounter between Wembley and Ascot in the 2011/12 season.

He sees the way forward as perhaps continuing to develop the model used currently by the Champions League, the World Cup and the Football League Play-Offs, whereby the outcome of an initial league system is brought to a dramatic conclusion by a cup knockout format, thus combining the best of both worlds. He even uses a series of Venn diagrams to further emphasize the transformational powers of cup tournaments.

You may be convinced by the author’s arguments or you may not be but this is undoubtedly an incredibly well-written and well-researched book bringing to life a potentially very dry subject. The range of material covered is immense and the author’s love of cup competitions in all their distinctive formats shines through. If, after reading this book, you decide to turn off the Sky Sports channel and head instead to attend a local county cup game and become part of the rich tradition of cup football, then the author has achieved his purpose.

Cup football – An exploration by Neil Cotton is available from Amazon HERE

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