Matty Lawrence describes the thrill of being FA Cup team captain and leading Millwall out for a final against Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo.
For generations it has been every schoolboy’s dream to one day lead their team out in front of a packed stadium, and a worldwide TV audience of millions for an FA Cup final, the oldest and most famous sporting occasion in history. Matty Lawrence was no different except for the fact that, for him, that dream became a reality when he captained Millwall in the 2004 final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against one of the best team’s in the world (at the time), Manchester United.
In the entire history of humanity, less than 300 men have ever had the privilege of captaining a team to an FA Cup final. More than twice that amount of men have conquered outer space. So when it came to choosing a subject for Matty’s inaugural article in First Touch, we had just one burning question. With all the wide-eyed innocence of Eric Idle in Monty Python’s nudge nudge sketch we just had to ask…what’s it like?
Captain Of Millwall
Yes. I made it from being a day-dreaming boy in the school playground to leading my team out in an FA Cup final. It was cast as minnow vs giant as we, Millwall, were to face the mighty Manchester United. This is what the FA Cup is about – the making of dreams for players and, of course, for supporters.
As a new century gets fully into its stride, I just have this horrible feeling that English football has almost outgrown the FA Cup: the oldest domestic cup competition in the world. The fans still get excited, but do the ‘powers that be?’ – meaning the FA itself, the Premier League, the club owners, or football management?
The loyal fans will sit and poignantly ponder the everlasting memories of the FA Cup; Memories that are so dependent of course on their generation:
The Stanley Matthews final of 1953 when his beloved Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3.
Ronnie Radford ploughing through the mud for Hereford Utd to deliver a crushing 30 yard blow to Newcastle’s FA Cup hopes in 1972.
Sutton United becoming one of the only non-league teams to dispatch of first tier opposition when they beat Coventry City in 1989.
2004 FA Cup Final – Manchester United vs Millwall
I still remember walking out at the Millenium Stadium in 2004 (Wembley was in between old and new), as if it was yesterday. Okay, a rather surreal, yesterday: Sir Alex Ferguson out in front with Roy Keane just to my left. If I dared to turn around, some young upstart called Cristiano Ronaldo could be found strutting his way onto the turf… I doubt he ever amounted to much, anyway. The result was a killer blow (Millwall lost 3-0 to United), but the memories are cast in stone. Are we really going to let this heritage die?
“We’ll be remembered more for what we destroy than what we create.”
Okay, maybe that’s slightly melodramatic; not die, per se, but certainly fade away, because the FA Cup has been fading away since the beginning of this century and the blame can easily be laid at the feet of Manchester United FC. Of course it was not solely their decision to withdraw from the 1999-2000 FA Cup to compete in the inaugural World Club Championships in Brazil, but nevertheless, the FA Cup has never fully recovered from that decision.
Most of the blame for that historical blunder should, ironically, be heaped onto the shoulders of the FA themselves, as it was they who advocated United’s withdrawal, thinking it would help with England’s 2006 World Cup bid. The FA believed that if United hadn’t participated, then the rest of the football world would have poured scorn on their bid.
“We did it to help England’s World Cup bid. That was the political situation.”
Sir Alex Ferguson
United’s Fateful Decision
They needn’t have worried anyway; the tournament was awarded to Germany. The only real beneficiaries of the withdrawal from the FA Cup that fateful year were United themselves, as they enjoyed a couple of weeks in the South American sun, whilst their Premier League adversaries, (Arsenal et al), toiled away in the cold and the mud of a stereotypical English winter.
Man United returned from their winter break in South America, fresh and ready for their successful assault on the 99’-’00 Premier League title. Meanwhile, the FA Cup has been withering on the vine ever since.
Team manager’s priorities have changed: They’ve been fielding weakened teams in the competition because money and balance sheets have taken over. There’s no Champion’s League place on offer to the FA Cup winner these days. Without a shadow of a doubt, fourth place in the Premier League is a much more desirable proposition than the 107 step climb up to the Royal Box to collect the FA Cup.
Living The FA Cup Dream
Regardless, we must not forget what the FA Cup means to so many fans and players alike. No less than 736 teams were entered into the FA Cup this season. With a rough estimate of 18 players per team in the competition, that amounts to about 13,248 players used in the 14 rounds of this year’s FA Cup. That figure doesn’t even address the fans who turned out in their droves to see the six qualifying rounds before the First round proper.
Not only do these games bring whole communities together, they also bring some much needed money into clubs as low down as the ninth and tenth tier in the English pyramid. The extra preliminary rounds of the FA Cup began on the opening day of the Premier League this season: August 16th, 2014. The FA Cup final is this year being held on May 30th.This is a competition that spans over ten months of the year.
An FA Cup final is a spectacle that transcends more than just football: it is the final bastion in our attempt to stave off economics over a sport we adore. Very few football fans will remember who finished fourth in the Premier league in the 2011-12 season, but millions of us remember Dave Beasant plunging to his left to save John Aldridge’s penalty in the 1988 FA Cup final. The self-titled Crazy Gang went on to win the game and etch their names into FA Cup folklore.
One For The Fans
Let us not forget that the FA Cup is a competition for the fans more than any other. It encompasses villages, towns and cities throughout the land. This season’s Cup final will be the 134th in its history. The governing bodies of our beautiful game must come together and protect the FA Cup.
We can’t have any repeats of teams pulling out of the competition. I don’t want to see any of the Premier League elite playing combinations of reserve and youth teams, and how on earth can an FA Cup semi-final be scheduled for virtually exactly the same time as one of the biggest Premier League games of the season?
All of the above are undermining this wonderful competition. There won’t be a spreadsheet being placed in either Arsenal’s, or Aston Villa’s trophy cabinet on May 31st; there will be a gleaming trophy of success. None of us should take our eye off the ball. Football may not be a matter of life and death, but let’s not let this historic competition die.