Columnist

Giles Smith's Thursday Thoughts

Up for the cup? A question to ponder given our next two fixtures but, as columnist Giles Smith explains, one this particular club can provide an emphatic response to...

The chances are by now you’ve probably seen some of BT Sport’s ‘Don’t mug off the cup’ campaign, a promotion for the channel’s FA Cup coverage, which continues this weekend, featuring skits in which fans, and others, receive a crispcome-uppancefor dissing the world’s oldest knock-out competition.

Like, for instance, the man in the restaurant with his partner, who casually laments ‘another week with no fantasy football.’ At thispointthe FA Cup appears beside his table in the form of a slightly alarming over-sized FA Cup-shaped mascot with a wonky smile – a peculiar mix of Fulham’s Billy Badger mascot and Chucky from the ‘Child’s Play’ slasher movie series. Saying nothing, and with an unaltering expression (inevitably), our silvery friend responds to this slight by smearing the guy’s main course across his shirt, and then by pulling the cloth from under the table-wear.

Then there’s the bloke at the barber’s, moaning about how the FA Cup just doesn’t spring any surprisesany more. This time the alarming mascot takes the clippers to the bloke’s beard – or at least to one specific strip of that beard, in theneighbourhoodof his chin.

Then there’s the woman in the gallery who thanks everyone for coming to the opening on a night when there was a game on, but then adds that at least it was ‘only the FA Cup.’ She gets a rather nice vase tipped onto the floor.

And there’s the bloke polishing his car while complaining that the FA Cup interrupts his team’s ‘league momentum.’ He gets a bucket of gunk emptied onto his freshly waxed bonnet.

The message from each of these scenarios is the same: don’t mug off the cup. Or there will be a price to pay.

Now, some of us are old enough to remember times in the not so distant past when the FA Cup was unswervingly held in reverence – as a contest, as an event, as a prize worth winning. Back then, an ad campaign which began defensively from the premise of not mugging the competition off would have been unthinkable.

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But this is where we are and there’s no point anybody hiding from it. Indeed, all credit to BT Sport for addressing the obvious issue head on and with humour. If one had a quibble with that mug-off campaign, it would only be with the target of the silver mascot’s vengeance - namely, fans. Because, yes, fans do talk the FA Cup down from time to time, that can’t be denied. And, yes, they occasionally mug it off. Yet it wasn’t fans, first and foremost, who brought about the situation in which the cup was ripe for mugging.

It wasn’t fans, after all, who decided in 1999 that Manchester United (at that point, the defending cup holders) should be excused entirely from competing in that year’s FA Cup in order to attend the Club World Championship in Brazil. That was the wrong-headed decision that gave birth to the idea that the FA Cup is a commitment in the diary that can be dropped like a shot if a better invitation comes along. In other words, it was the most royal mugging off that the FA Cup ever received – and it was clearly institutional, rather than fan-led. (Manchester United, under Sir Alex Ferguson, appear to have capitulated to pressure from the FA and the government who hoped that their attendance would assist England’s bid to host the World Cup. Which, of course, it didn’t.)

 

Like that, if BT Sport’s vengeful cup mascot wanted to get to the source of the mugging, it wouldn’t be disturbing contemporary fans in restaurants and barbershops; it would be dropping a delicate ornament in the office of the Minister for Sport, circa 1999 (Kate Hoey) – or in the offices of the FA themselves at that time. It would be letting down tyres in the car park set aside for Manchester United’s boardroom, for their complicity.

And beyond that, it would spare its buckets of gunk for the managers of comfortably mid-table sides who nevertheless made ten changes to their side for a fourth round FA Cup tie citing fixture congestion and fear of burn-out. Though you can see why BT Sport, which has working relationships to cultivate, elected not to go that way with it.

Anyway, as we go into a long weekend of domestic cup competition, starting with tonight’s Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Spurs, it seems like a good moment to reflect on our own club’s attitude to domestic knock-out football in the two decades since the FA sold the competition out to its own mistaken ambitions. In that time, I don’t think it would be too strong to say, our club has been nothing but serious in its approach to both the FA Cup and its still more battered cousin the League Cup. (Let’s face it, a giant League Cup costume could tell a giant FA Cup costume a thing or two about getting mugged off.) Yet every inch of the way our club has seen these two competitions as annual opportunities rather than burdensome obligations, and treated them, at every turn, with respect and appropriate application.
 

The result of that application has been to deliver seven FA Cups and four League Cups in that period, but in manywaysthat may not be the most important thing here. The important thing is that, wherever else the mugging off has taken place, it has not been around these parts. In an age of widespread belittling for domestic knock-out football, our club’s conscience, one is proud to say, is shiningly clear. No visit from BT Sport’s cup mascot will be necessary.

Incidentally one notes with a shudder that Wikipedia now lists our domestic knock-out trophies under the sub-heading ‘Cup Titles’. There is, of course, no such thing. There are league titles and there are cups. But there are no ‘cup titles’. A title is not a cup, and a cup is not a title. Louis Van Gaal may have tried to imply differently from time to time, during his period at United, but, in fairness to him, he was not speaking in his first language. The distinction between a cup and a title is an important one, so shame on Wikipedia for this confusion. Maybe someone should send BT Sport’s cup mascotround.

 

Limited tickets for Sheffield Wednesday are available at the Stamford Bridge ticket office only (ticket office open Friday 9.15am–5pm and Saturday 10am – 2pm). 
 

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