Last weekend’s FA Cup exit for Leeds United at Queens Park Rangers was rather a weird affair – I was looking forward to watching our youngsters have an outing to show what they could do; by and large, this came to pass.
The weirdness arose from this fan’s strange ambivalence about the tie in terms of its outcome – in short, I watched the match without really caring what the result would be. Like many another Leeds fan, I’d rationalised the cup situation as an inconvenient distraction from the main business of winning promotion; the longer this sideshow lasted, the more the outcome of the main event would be jeopardised.
And then the game kicked off and, within less than a minute, Tyler Roberts had fired in an opportunistic effort from around 25 yards, which hit both posts and came out to safety for the home side. Normally, that would have rattled me to an early peak of frustration, but this time – well, my reaction was more “oh dear, how unlucky”.
It was as if this early incident had summed up my attitude to what used to be described as the World’s Greatest Knockout Competition. If young Tyler’s shot had gone in, I’d have been pleased alright – but it wouldn’t have been a moment like taking an early lead at Derby back in August. Not by a long chalk.
So what is it with the FA Cup? I remember another season in which Leeds were fighting for promotion, back in 1987. We ended up losing out in the new-fangled end of season play-offs, and that felt tragic enough. But there was also a glorious FA Cup run which took us all the way to a semi-final at Hillsborough against eventual cup winners Coventry City.
I was on tenterhooks for the whole of that cup campaign, a real high point being a win in the fifth round, ironically over Queens Park Rangers, when Brendan Ormsby scored a thumping late headed winner at the Kop end of Elland Road.
The atmosphere when that ball hit the back of the net, with Ormsby climbing the Gelderd railings to commune with the ecstatic Kop crowd, was simply phenomenal. There was no thought back then of, oh well, it’d be nice to go out and concentrate on promotion. We wanted it all, although sadly we ended up with nowt.
It’s not as if the Cup is totally devoid of magic these days, either. The fact that smaller clubs, way down the league ladder, can raise their game and knock out some of the elite outfits – well, that still provides a buzz of excitement. Last weekend saw recent Premier League champions Leicester City fall at tiny, troubled Newport County, with Barnet disposing of Sheffield United at Bramall Lane and managerless League Two Oldham doing the business at top flight Fulham. The cup shocks are still with us, so why do I and many other Leeds fans feel as if the whole knockout competition thing is much less important now than back in the late 80s?
It probably all comes down to money. Cash trumps glory in these TV sponsored times, and the abundance of dosh in the game has resulted in the reaffirmation of the old saw that “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. So we see our FA Cup third round spread over the entire weekend and intruding on the Monday, with staggered kick-off times and a general diffusion of the excitement that used to be focussed on that traditional Saturday 3pm whistle for kick-off.
Now, it’s much more important – for a club like Leeds, anyway – to gain entry to the Premier League, with all of its millions, than to chase less lucrative silverware. It’s sad, but true – and at least it lessens the pain of our annual cup exit.
Rob Atkinson is a lifelong Leeds United supporter. He writes a column for the Yorkshire Evening Post every fortnight.