Alongside a few million other viewers around the country I tuned in to the One Show last week, eagerly anticipating the FA cup draw to find out who the minnows, Sutton United and Lincoln City, might land in the fifth round.
Prior to the draw, a young fan was asked what his dream tie would be to which he replied (as close as I can remember) ‘Man City away, I guess’
‘Why?’ the presenter pressed.
‘For the money.’
It took me by surprise. The young fan was less than ten years old.
The FA Cup, a tournament that gives every team in the country the chance to play at Wembley Stadium and lift a trophy steeped in history, is everything a young fan should dream of.
Every football fan will have a different story, their own personal history with the cup. Reminiscing your time as a youth following the cup will leave any football fan with their eyes glistening over; tales of waking up on a Saturday morning with butterflies of excitement, bustling through the turnstiles in the afternoon and hearing the buzz of excitement as your team bids to enter the next round.
Magic moments have been created by the cup. Perhaps not many spring to mind as a Norwich fan in recent years but every year there is a story for the history books. So why should any young fan care about the money?
Whether you’re Chelsea or Sutton United, to hell with the money. The FA cup is about memories, passion, the love of the game and the romance of the cup.
It’s about Ryan Giggs dancing his way past six defenders and lashing a fierce shot past David Seaman. It’s about Steven Gerrard releasing a shot like a bow from an arrow in the final against West Ham.
‘For the money’ indeed.
Whether the injection of money into football has ruined the game is another debate. What it has done has progressed the sport into an athletic pursuit. The game is tactically more intricate than many would have thought possible. The speed of the Premier League is incomparable to the old Division One in the nineties.
Money has advanced football because of the amount that’s now at stake. Whether it is more exciting is again, debatable because what one fan finds intriguing another might not. What is clear though is that money has created a bigger wedge between the top tier of English Football and those in the leagues below it.
Has money improved the game for the younger audience?
Some of the older (more cultured) readers will have to help me out with this one but years ago, fans found footballers approachable; they were part of the community and you could find them down the pub after the game, chatting with the locals.
For footballers now, community work is part and parcel of the job. I’m sure some players enjoy giving back to the community but by and large it’s part of what pays their wage. Young fans cannot identify with players anymore because their lifestyles are worlds apart.
Even at Norwich, youth players turn up to the ground in personalised Audi’s, an issue which is pressing the wider debate of young English players being given too much too soon.
How can a young fan identify with the stars of their team when the youth players are driving around in cars which cost the area’s average annual salary?
This young fan is experiencing football in an era where advertising and maximising match-day revenue is rife within the top tiers. Sky, BT, Nike, Adidas, the betting companies, they are all redistributing their wealth within the top clubs so they can purchase the most marketable players, selling endorsement deals, image rights, channel subscriptions, the lot.
It then becomes a poor indictment on the state of our game that fans less than ten years old are thinking of the money before anything else.
Yes, it might have been a throwaway comment. Yes, it might have been fed through his dad but it serves to illustrate the wider issue that young fans are being brought up buying into the monetisation of the game, consuming the advertising that’s fed through their football clubs and not experiencing the purity of football.
So does what does the cash injection do for that young fan?
In reality that money will do a whole host of good for Sutton United. We caught a glimpse of what life is like for that calibre of club in the Salford City documentary, The Class of 92. A single pay-out for the fifth round of the FA cup can bring stability to a club which by and large could be operating on a hand to mouth existence.
That money might give that young fan the opportunity to watch his beloved Sutton United through to his teens and beyond. Still, it’s for the club owners to worry about that. Commercialisation has both transformed and killed football.
It has turned the Premier League and major cups into revenue-generating behemoths and at the same time, tarnished the grass-roots level of the game.
I’m not entirely averse to the state of football because the bare facts are there for all to see: it’s a business opportunity. Fans follow their team as passionately as others would a religion, it’s a money making opportunity.
Young fans however, should be kept immune from this. A young fan should be watching the FA Cup draw, desperate for the fixture of his dreams.
Not the chance to play a soulless brand in the hope of a payday.