Head to head with FA Cup baffling

 

You mightn't have twigged it but further evidence that the National League's unending war against the Premiership is being won came just the other day at Old Trafford where two of England's biggest clubs kicked off against each other at noon. The crucial decision must have been taken several weeks ago when representatives of Manchester United, Liverpool and Sky all got together to discuss arrangements for the televised game.

"Enough of these crazy head-to-heads with those boys in Ireland," somebody presumably sighed after hours of intensive discussions aimed at finding a way around the problem. "Let's haul the kick-off back to noon and avoid another spanking from Bohemians and the boys." Very wise lads, very wise indeed.

Even before this momentous victory had registered with the beleaguered powers-that-be in Merrion Square, though, they were once again displaying that tendency of theirs to overplay their hand. "Come the first weekend in January," they were chuckling to themselves, "we're going to wipe that FA Cup off the face of the footballing map".

Well, all right then, the reality is they probably didn't even give it a second thought.

Nevertheless it's hard to find words that adequately describe the thinking, or lack of it, behind the decision to stage the second round of the Harp Lager FAI Cup on the same weekend as the third round of the English FA Cup.

Even before last week's draw handed us 11 games in the Dublin area, the timing of what is one of the biggest weekends in the domestic game suggested that crowds would be thin on the ground at many of the fixtures. For a start, satellite and terrestrial television will show the more attractive ties from the English competition. Then there is the fact that the first (now second) round of the Cup here generally fares pretty well in terms of media coverage. But then so does the English competition which means that something is going to get squeezed.

The more dedicated fans will simply argue that the media should stick by its own game but that is to ignore the fact that, in all probability, more than half the combined number of people at all of the 16 matches here will travel to England that same weekend to watch games there.

And while prominent figures in certain clubs here will insist that we shouldn't be worrying about what is happening in another country, very few of them seem prepared to take on a half decent televised Premiership match head to head. Let's not forget that there might be various reasons for the success of Friday night football

over the past few years but the main reason it was introduced was because Sunday afternoon games on television started to steal away their audiences.

Then there is the rivalry with Gaelic games, a difficulty that was addressed in some detail by Brendan Menton at last week's meeting of the FAI's National Council when he argued that Eircom Park would deprive the FAI of the resources required to recruit youngsters also being wooed by the GAA. Like it or lump it, but the fact is that the tussle between the two organisations is a reality at grassroots level all over Ireland.

A major turning point in that battle is perceived to have been the success, between 1988 and 1994, of the senior national team, but what is far more important on a day-to-day basis is the glamour and glitz of the English club game.

The irony is that the same fascination with clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool which fuels the schoolboy and youth leagues here, consistently undermines the senior, semi-professional game in this country even if the relationship becomes a little more complex when our league champions can make around a third of their gate receipts for the season from staging one lunch with Alex Ferguson.

None of it, though, will come as news to many people with an interest in the game here. But then the dates for the third round of the FA Cup can hardly come as a surprise to anybody up in Merrion Square either, and they still managed to carry on regardless.

emalone@irish-times.ie