TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SHMUCK
Mickey Blue Eyes
The FA Cup is the most glorious of sports competitions. The reasons are not hard to find: success or failure hangs on a single game of ninety minutes. Unlike a league competition, other results don't matter. In short order the knock-out formula brings out the best and worst of the world's most popular free-flowing field team sport. Quite simply there is nothing to match it anywhere on the planet. Extreme luck notwithstanding, fail to perform and you go out; your status in the sport is of virtually no consequence. The Cup - The Cup - can be heroic, cruelly unfair and wildly unlikely. It is the very essence of competitive football.......So, Cheltenham Town away on a Monday night. Only in the FA Cup, unless the financial backside really falls out of our Royal Blues.
Cheltenham away is not like playing in distraught deindustrialised urban wastelands in North London, Birmingham, Sheffield or Manchester. Legend says it is the kind of place retired "intelligence" officers, Freemasons, Opus Dei membra or senior civil servants go to die. Cheltenham is a borough, not a city, and was once a spa resort in the bucolic Cotswolds, Gloucestershire. Our city got letters patent in 1207, they got a market charter in 1226. Ours came from Jack Lackland, theirs from his boy Henry. The borough has a population of about 115,000. Forty-one admitted multi-millionaires live there, which is exactly forty-one more than our beloved city of 460,000 souls. Average Gross Value Added per head in Cheltenham was £21,947.27 in 2011 compared to the national average of £26,200. Ours was £17,489. Their unemployment rate is 2.7%, ours 12.8%, so we could expect a tediously predictable if muted chorus of "Sign On" from their footy bourgeoisie, though these days you hear less and less of it as more and more everywhere have to...well...sign on, actually. (Funnily enough, the ditty was also levelled at Man United fans during their tie at West Ham, thus ghettoising Lahndan even more. This will surely reach its apogee if we ever hear Chelsea fans sing it to Millwall fans. What a larf.) Meanwhile, Cheltenham's 500 ex employees at Kraft UK Headquarters have our sympathy after closure in 2011; plainly we are all in this together. Or perhaps not.
By common consent it is safe to say Liverpool and Cheltenham are different. In what remains of the deluded English caste system Cotswolders are perceived as morose middle class tory clerks or forehead-knuckling tractor-driving royalist peasants, while we are proud, hedonistic socialist werkn klass fightin' a rearguard action against a warmonger establishment looting the world and infesting it with goon-spooks. In a worst case scenario their local watch committee might expect hordes of invading Bolsheviki from the North Steppes coming to overturn their social order, impregnate their women, sabotage the local fox hunt and prevent tories reading the Daily Telegraph. Old habits and myths die hard, like Peter Wright the spycatcher who never caught a spy, but retired to Australia instead of Cheltenham, and exposed The Wilson Plot. A move, I am delighted to say, that infuriated and gave acute indigestion to unemployable square-head Clouseaus at SE1 1BD. Even your average David Cornwell couldn't make that one up. Obviously if George Smiley still exists he lives in a second floor flat in Cheltenham.
Presumably the spa braced itself for the cultural shock wave of 1,013 revolutionary Evertonians wearing Ché Guevara tee shirts while distributing free copies of Das Kapital and photographs of a smiling Señor Bueno Muchacho Hugo Chavez...... anything to bait the goldfish of Vauxhall Cross. Well, something has to replace the Cold War or the spooks will have to, er, sign on. Travelling fans wanted an entry visa application similar to the old USA form with the question, "Do you intend to destabilise the US government?" In answer to which, quite rightly, Peter Ustinov once wrote, "Sole purpose of visit." US Immigration - humourless bastards like all capitalist lackeys - kept him in a back room for three hours while they pondered the additional implications of his surname. Gawd knows what Cotswold Immigration would make of Nikicar Jelavić and Phil Jagielka. However, revolutionary talk will have to be postponed because - hold on to your panty hose and pull - the borough council is sandal-wearing Lib Dem, as is their MP, who also chairs - stop sniggering at the back - the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tribal Peoples. That alone qualifies him to be a devoted footy fan.
Nevertheless, Cheltenham is generally considered an establishment town with establishment leisure pursuits; association football is not an establishment leisure pursuit. Straight faced, you note the host arena is named Abbey Business Stadium with a capacity of 7,066. But fourth tier League Two Cheltenham Town Football Club was founded in 1887 by a teacher, a mere nine years after Everton was founded by a Sunday School. Their honours list is sparse but not entirely devoid of lower echelon sports glory. Last season their average league gate was 3,245. Twenty years back it was 885. Not long ago they avoided bankruptcy by the skin of their teeth after spending money they didn't have, which will sound vaguely familiar to knowledgeable fans and Evertonians aquiver with our annual accounts. There is also a Southern League club named, and you will like this, Bishop's Cleeve. There are four amateur rugby union clubs. Also, and you will like this even more, the town is home to the national headquarters of the Croquet Association. Thus, your worst social prejudices are safely reinforced.
All of which demonstrates why I love footy: for ninety minutes none of the demographics would matter a row of hors d'oeuvres. Unlikely as it was, we could actually lose the match and be unable to eat our food bank gruel for weeks. This was the game at grass roots level, far removed from accountants and public relations machinery of first level professional football. Lose this and we would never live it down in verbal warfare with our loveable neighbours, let alone lift our heads in exalted company. Seedy neocon spooks and their placemen MPs would rejoice. We would have lost to a boozed-up West Country Rotary Club XI. Death on the barricades would be preferable. We would be Les Misérables in spades.
Of course most social prejudices are bollocks: The Cotswolds are indeed beautiful, Cheltenham neat and tidy, which makes the journey and visit pleasant even in winter. Moreover, there wasn't a turnip wagon in sight and George Smiley was hiding away somewhere amongst the nice sandstone terraces, though occasionally you came across elderly men with more than a passing resemblance to Alec Guinness, Gary Oldman and Rowan Atkinson. You couldn't get much more Johnny English.
In fact the footy locals are no different to any other fans; what they lack in numbers they make up in friendliness. The only stark difference is in spoken accent, in the twenty-first century still a major stumbling block in English society. It is one hundred years since George Bernard Shaw prefaced Pygmalion, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." This is why a large majority of island Brits are useless learning foreign languages; if they are so self-conscious about their own accent they are unlikely to even try to adopt necessary alien phonetics. And you could scarcely find accents more different than Cheltenham, which is rhotic and slightly indolent, and Liverpool, which is mostly fricative, quick and self confident (John Bishop apart). There are even accent differences within both communities. I can only speak for myself when I say I enjoy all accents, even Birmingham. To hell with social prejudices and myths and Daily Mail shmucks who manufacture them. Life and the class war are tricky enough.
Superficially, the Abbey Business Stadium made our task look tricky too. It has the feel and sound of an old concertina accordion with leaky bellows. It recalled the Macclesfield tie away a few years ago, a game regular fans will know we could easily have lost had we shipped likely first half goals. Whaddon Road is camouflaged away in a suburban area similar to Huyton; the ground is so small it is almost submerged behind typical Brit semi-detacheds, a bowling club green, a plot of allotments and some exceedingly scruffy industrial units, also not unlike the old South Liverpool FC setting. Until recently another adjoining site was occupied by derelict post-war prefabs. Cheltenham stereotypes evaporated by the minute. We hoped our Cup hopes didn't go with them.
John Heitinga and Steven Pienaar were out, presumably because Here's Johnny! is en route to sunnier climes while Peanuts needs some sack time for the battering he takes in every match. In came Seamus Coleman at right back and Bryan Oviedo at wide left mid. Jags paired with Sylvain Distin at centre back. It was a very strong team, therefore no excuses if we lost.
Pre-match the ground buzzed with the air of a slightly overheated gathering of the local Council Tax Payers Association. This lasted for twelve minutes, when we scored, then evaporated entirely when we got a second ten minutes later. Our lot were seated behind one of the goals, almost on the goal line, and could scarcely be bothered to engage verbals, but it wasn't needed anyway. Every now and then ten or so adolescent locals would raise their voices and shout what were presumably insults. Nobody could understand them. The rest of the game looked and sounded like a practice session or a 20/20 cricket match. Cheltenham tried hard but was never in it except for several feisty charges down either wing, particularly on their right. It finished 5-1 and could easily have been a lot more. The differences in class were palpable, as they should be and often aren't. (That's "football class," in case you are confused.)
As usual in these encounters, both sides spent the first few minutes in wary assessment. An early goal in a Cup match can be lethal. Naturally, Cheltenham tested the gear as soon as they could; their wide right man gave Bainsey a couple of problems before he was sussed and marked closer. For the most part that closed out their biggest threat. But they still had the first shot after five minutes after a smart move down the left got to their man at centre of the D but he snatched at the chance and it trickled wide of Tim's left post.
Our first came after a close interchange on the left between Oviedo, Felli and Osman, the Costa Rican got to the left angle of the penalty area where he tangled with a couple of defenders and the ball bounced slightly forward and left to Felli. The Hairy One hit it right-footed without hesitation, it took a murderous bounce just in front of their 'keeper on his left, hit the post and came out to Nik; he had to stretch with his right but got enough on it to knock it home. We were so close to the pitch we could have fished the ball out of the net for the 'keeper.
Shortly afterwards a long ball from Jags was headed on by Fellaini to Nik and he should have scored with an easier opportunity, but didn't. Then they had a long distance effort smothered by Howard. At the other end, a Bainsey free kick was saved easily. The tempo had increased but mostly well under our control.
The next goal illustrated that Felli has learned well his recent discipline lesson. Yet another attack down the left brought us a throw-in near the corner flag. Phil Neville heaved in a long one to the near post, where stood Fellaini, who was promptly used as a stirrup by a defender, and lo! a penalty! Which Bainsey banged in low and hard to their 'keeper's right. Unstoppable. This effectively closed out the contest as Cheltenham deflated and we relaxed to play it around in tight little training-ground triangles that further eroded home team energy.
A few minutes after half time just such a left wing triangle made it 3-0. There was a touch of luck about a rebound, but there was no luck in the way Vic Anichebe put Bainsey clear and he kidded their right back and made a short cross to Leon Osman. He went around a defender as though he was a wisp of fog and stuck it cool as you like under their 'keeper. A couple of minutes later it was 3-1 after they made a quick move of their own down their left, sucked Seamus out of position, nobody covered as they should have, and made an easy chance from left of the goal area, duly belted in at Tim's near post.
But Seamus made amends with a half hour left when he did what he does best, break quickly for two thirds of the pitch, then combined well with Vic at wide right, scissored inside for a perfect return from the big man and then lobbed the 'keeper from about sixteen metres. It highlighted the difference between the two teams.
A seemingly inevitable fifth came a minute from the end when Vic - my man of the match - broke clear down our left after diddling a defender on the half way line, drew another defender and then clipped it to Felli loping through the middle, and he side footed it home. Game shot.
It was good to see us play this way, smoothly, nice interpassing, every millimetre an accomplished Premier League team capable of beating anyone. But you had to bring yourself up short and remember, no disrespect intended, it was only Cheltenham. Nevertheless, it was the kind of game that has given us difficulties in the past. Few fans have forgotten the absurd loss to Leeds earlier in the season, and you can't blame them; they take nothing for granted and there is no reason why David Moyes and the players should. Bring on the next round and a similar attitude.
As we drove away, a tired voice in the back seat said unkindly, "Fuckn tory Wools. Roll on the revolution." English social prejudices are alive and well. Shaw was right. Some things never change.