YOU just can’t beat the magic of the cup, can you?
For all that the FA Cup has been maligned and disrespected, downgraded and dismissed, if can still produce those special moments.
This weekend was no different. A packed non-league ground, fancy Dan visitors, a last-minute equaliser and a last-minute winner.
Only a curmudgeon of the highest (lowest?) level or a West Ham supporter (two out of two, dear reader) wouldn’t have felt for Kidderminster as they came within moments of first knocking their Premier League opponents out of the cup and then taking them to penalties, only to suffer last-minute heartache twice.
Not so long ago their exploits on Saturday would have earned them something perhaps even more valuable, in a hard currency sense, than the biggest upset in the history of the competition.
The 1-1 normal-time draw would have produced a replay back at the London Stadium, with a hefty chunk of the gate receipts from the 50-odd thousand crowd keeping the club going for the foreseeable future.
But since just before the turn of the millennium, FA Cup replays have gradually but steadily fallen by the wayside. Before the 1998-’99 season final replays were scrapped, and the following season it was the semis. Quarter-final replays bit the dust before the 2016-’17 campaign and the fifth round went the same way in 2018-’19.
They remained for the third and fourth rounds, but it was bad luck for the Harriers that they held the Hammers this year, with the FA removing all replays for one season only, because of the prospect of Covid-enforced fixture congestion.
All things being equal, whenever two teams can’t be separated, dusting yourself down and going again is the best way to sort things out.
But sometimes that isn’t possible and when that’s the case you have to simply make the best of things. There’s no perfect system because the ones that seem the fairest – keeping playing in some form or other – aren’t guaranteed to produce a winner. When soccer toyed with golden and silver goals, teams tended to get so negative for fear of conceding they were binned in favour of reversion to 30 more minutes, come what may, and a penalty shoot-out if necessary.
A shoot-out isn’t the ‘lottery’ ITV and BBC commentators will have you believe just before England lose another one in a big tournament, it’s a test of nerve and skill.
It might not be as big a test as the 120 minutes before it, but it’s far from the worst way of determining a winner when teams finish level and coming back another day is off the table.
The GAA has historically loved a replay, and the GAA referee has historically loved a draw. The barely fit for purpose time-keeping in Gaelic football and hurling has meant that a few more seconds, enough for one more attack from the team trailing by a point, or a few fewer seconds of injury-time that magically disappear as someone faffs about with the sides level, crop up far more often than common sense suggests they should.
But just as FA Cup replays fell victim to worries over fixture congestion, the same concerns have seen ‘Winner on the Day’ find its way into the GAA’s Official Guide.
In the midst of the early stages of the National Leagues that isn’t necessary, but even at this point in the season, dissent over finishing matches with spot-kicks or pucks has got an airing.
After watching his side beat Kildare in the O’Byrne Cup, Laois manager Billy Sheehan said: “To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s a skill in the game. I’d rather if people took frees off their hands.
“It is going down the soccer route. I’d rather if there was even frees from a certain distance or just on the 45, or whatever. I don’t think penalties is a way to decide a Gaelic football game.
“We didn’t win. That’s the fact. We drew the game. I know people will say we won but we didn’t win.”
Apart from apparently not knowing what “fact” means – it’s doubtful Kildare would have been allowed to play the O’Byrne Cup final if they’d taken the notion to just show up – Sheehan’s argument is the sort that doesn’t just not hold water, but dissolves with barely a drop of scrutiny.
Some of the greatest players in the history of the game were smashing in penalties long before Billy Sheehan was born – and even longer before you were allowed to kick frees out of your hands.
But the real shoot-out furore will come when someone is knocked out of the football Championship on penalties, which is a decent possibility this season with the return of the Qualifiers. When they do you’ll be able to hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the ball Chris Waddle sent into orbit in the 1990 World Cup semi-final.
Teams have already won and lost county championships after shoot-outs, and presumably don’t value those titles any less or feel the pain of those defeats any more because of how they came about. The last kick or puck of a match deciding things is nothing new.
And it’s not like previous, different attempts to avoid more replays have gone off seamlessly. In 2019 Antrim chairman Ciaran McCavana called a halt in the middle of the free-taking contest between Portglenone and Lamh Dhearg after their county semi-final replay ended level, and later said he did it because he needed to show “the moral courage to look after the players” as they didn’t deserve to lose a championship shoot-out.
Presumably that was also the case before the shoot-out started and also however many months before that, when the competition by-laws allowing for a shoot-out were put in place. Either way, it shows that whatever system is in place someone won’t be happy about it.
But some sort of system needs to be in place if you actually want to decide a winner.
Penalties are perfectly fine, but if Billy Sheehan and others who bridle at the foreign sport influence want to complain about something, complain that only goals count. Penalty shoot-outs in Gaelic football and hurling should allow points to be scored. Yes, that means a team taking last may be able to tap the ball over the bar after an opposition miss, but there’s a simple way to avoid that – don’t miss.
Whatever comes after ‘normal time’ will always feel like a gimmick. But sport itself is contrived. All rules are ‘made up’ and implemented in favour of something else that is equally made up.
Maybe play extra-time until a team is ahead by a certain amount, maybe bring in a ‘golden score’. Or maybe just practise penalties at training.