Category Archives: FA Cup

Thatcher’s footballing legacy

In an ironic twist of fate the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comes on the same week as the 24th anniversary of Britain’s worst football disaster, the Hillsborough disaster.

The Daily Mail claimed on Tuesday that football owed a debt of gratitude to the woman who “saved English football.” Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has backed the Daily Mail’s call for a minute’s silence before next weekend’s games, including before his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall.

However many football fans, including the Hillsborough families, have claimed a minute’s silence for the former Prime Minister would be insulting.

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

Legacy

The Iron Lady’s time in Downing Street coincided with one of the darkest periods in English football’s history.

Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in 1979 shortly after Nottingham Forest had lifted their second successive European Cup and she was forced out of her job in 1990 a few months after the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster. During her tenure English footballing success dried up on the field and chaos ensued off the field to the point where it endangered the sport’s future in England.

When Thatcher took over from James Callaghan in May 1979 English clubs were outperforming the rest of Europe and celebrating unprecedented success. But under the surface football was losing its battle against hooliganism.

As unemployment grew and the age of protest swept across Britain, young football supporters saw hooliganism as a way of venting frustrations and rebelling. Football violence had been growing throughout the 70s and by 1979 it had become highly problematic.

Another problem was the deteriorating state of the country’s stadiums. Most football grounds had become outdated and inadequate for the problems of the late 70s and early 80s. Stadiums were crumbling, health and safety was non-existent and supporter safety was routinely jeopardised.

In her early years in office Thatcher paid little attention to football, apart from when she considered a boycott of the 1982 World Cup due to the Falklands situation. She was not a football fan and had little time for the national sport, especially since the sport’s image at the time was appalling at home and abroad.

But 1985 saw a change in approach by Thatcher and her government.

Tragedy

On 11 May 1985 Bradford City were due to lift the Division Three trophy after their game against Lincoln City. Towards the end of the first half a discarded cigarette lit a pile of rubbish underneath the old wooden stand and the fire spread quickly.

There were no fire extinguishers in the stand as the authorities believed they were likely to be used as weapons by hooligans. Many of the emergency exits had been locked as part of a Football League directive to prevent ticketless fans from sneaking into stadiums after kick-off.

In total 56 fans died in the blaze. It highlighted the pressing need to update stadiums and make them safer for fans.

Later that month the Heysel disaster further exemplified the problems surrounding English football. Liverpool were preparing to face Juventus in the European Cup final in Brussels’s Heysel Stadium. Before the game there was rioting which culminated with Liverpool fans chasing Juventus fans across a terrace. A crush ensued and a supporting wall collapsed, with 39 Italian supporters declared dead.

English football’s reputation abroad was in tatters and there was condemnation across the continent. UEFA eventually banned all English clubs from participating in European competition, a move which Thatcher rightly agreed to.

After six years of inaction Thatcher’s government made efforts to combat the problem of hooliganism, but still did nothing to improve fan safety. Thatcher routinely described football hooligans as “animals” but her attitudes and actions seem to suggest she thought the same of all football supporters.

The proposed introduction of Football ID Cards was met with horror by lovers of the beautiful game, who saw them as an insult to decent, law-abiding fans. Attempts to ban away supporters from grounds also drew fierce opposition. Thatcher’s approach seemed to be to tar everybody with the same brush, and even considered erecting electric fences at the front of stands and terraces in order to keep fans off the pitch.

But Thatcher, or more specifically her government’s connection to football will forever be remembered because of Hillsborough.

Hilsborough

On April 15 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on an overcrowded terrace during an FA Cup semi-final between their club an Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. The oldest victim was 67-year-old Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, the youngest was 10-year-old John Paul Gilhooley (cousin of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard)  and 37 teenagers died at Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report which followed the tragedy found the Lappings Lane end of the stadium had been woefully inadequate for such a high volume of fans. The report recommended wide-ranging changes to stadiums in Britain, including the eradication of terracing from top football grounds.

 While Thatcher and her government had focused attentions on combatting “the English disease” they had ignored the problems highlighted by the Valley Parade fire in 1985. No attempt had been made to improve stadium safety and the consequences were tragically felt at Hillsborough.

The 2012 inquiry into Hillsborough also found Thatcher’s government had been instrumental in covering up the failures of the police at Hillsborough. While the report declared there was no evidence of Thatcher herself being involved in the cover-up, the Iron Lady had created the culture which made police cover-ups the norm during the 80s. The Prime Minister wholeheartedly backed the police despite constant corruption and outrageously heavy-handed tactics when dealing with strikers and protestors. This fuelled a culture of complacency among the police and meant the Hillsborough families had to wait 23 years for vindication and an official confirmation of the truth.

Football the enemy

Thatcher never pretended to like football and regularly showed distain towards the national sport. To her credit she took on hooligans head first in the aftermath of Heysel but she didn’t understand the sport or the people who followed football. She made the mistake of viewing all football fans as hooligans and couldn’t see beyond the violent minority.

Just like the trade unions and the Argentinians she viewed football hooligans as the enemy, and was therefore determined to win at all costs. She failed to conquer hooliganism during her time in number 10 and her attitude towards football harmed the sport. The massive strides taken by English football at all levels since 1990 is astonishing considering the sorry state the game was in when Thatcher left Downing Street.

The suggestion working class football fans should be asked to observe a minute’s silence for Margaret Thatcher this weekend is rich to say the least. She paid the game no respect at all and it’s very questionable whether football should pay any respect back.

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MK Dons vs AFC Wimbledon: Evil vs Good?

 The biggest match in Europe this weekend won’t take place in Old Trafford, the Camp Nou or San Siro; it will take place in Stadium MK where the Milton Keynes Dons face AFC Wimbledon for the first time in history.

You read correctly, on a weekend when fixtures include Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund and Ajax vs PSV, the most important encounter is an FA Cup 2nd Round match between the MK Dons of League 1 and AFC Wimbledon of League 2.

But before you close this tab, thinking I’m some kind of nut case, let me explain myself, and more importantly let me explain the significance of Sunday’s game.

The History

Wimbledon FC fans protest against their club being moved to Milton Keynes

Rewind to the year 2000, when Wimbledon FC were struggling financially following relegation from the Premier League. They were ready to start their 10th season ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, 6.5 miles from their traditional home at Plough Lane, which they left in 1991 due to the club’s inability to fund its renovation.

At this time Milton Keynes didn’t have a professional football club, despite having a population of nearly 200,000 people. Businessman Pete Winkleman wanted to change this and began the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, with the intention of building a state of the art arena to persuade a Football League club to move to the city.

The only person enticed by the suggestion was Wimbledon’s new chairman, Charles Koppel, who saw it as a great way of relieving the club’s financial woes. Unsurprisingly Wimbledon’s fans were outraged by the suggestion and passionately protested against the move.

At first the FA and the Football League both opposed the plan, calling it “franchising” and predicting a disastrous outcome should the move go ahead. However, after a lobbying campaign by Wimbledon’s board, an independent commission gave the plan the green light and in 2003 Wimbledon FC moved 60 miles to Milton Keynes.

The club continued to use the name Wimbledon FC for a year until it was changed to the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. The MK Dons were English football’s first ever franchise.

Rising from the ashes

Out of the ashes of Wimbledon FC a determined group of fans got together and formed AFC Wimbledon, with the long-term intention of achieving promotion back into the Football League. A lightning-fast climb up the amateur leagues culminated in promotion to League 2 in 2011.

The success of AFC Wimbledon has gained the club huge plaudits and they’re particular a favourite of underdog-loving neutrals.

Anger towards the MK Dons had inevitably eased over the years as AFC Wimbledon attempted to rebuild, but when the two clubs were drawn against each other for the 2nd Round of this year’s FA Cup old memories came flooding back.

Most AFC Wimbledon fans didn’t want this fixture and still don’t feel enough time has passed since their club was stolen from them. Many AFC Wimbledon fans are still extremely bitter, not only about the move, but also about the Milton Keynes club’s conduct since 2003.

Between 2003 and 2007 MK Dons Chairman Pete Winkleman had tried to pass off Wimbledon FC’s history as MK Dons’s history. This has not been forgotten by AFC Wimbledon’s fans despite Winkleman returning Wimbledon FC’s trophies and memorabilia to AFC Wimbledon in 2007.

AFC Wimbledon fans are angry the Milton Keynes club is still calling itself “The Dons.” The old Wimbledon FC were nicknamed the Dons, as are the current AFC Wimbledon and fans claim the MK Dons have no right to use it.

Many AFC Wimbledon fans are refusing to travel to Milton Keynes on Sunday because according to them the issue’s still far too sensitive and painful.

What about the pantomime villain?

The MK Dons are nearly a decade old and they’ve changed a great deal since the original controversy over their creation.

The club has worked very hard to forge an identity and a history of its own. They have already won a League 2 title and a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in their short history and their support base is growing year by year.

The club is trying its best to shake off the nickname “Franchise FC” and by now the vast majority of football fans have accepted the MK Dons are here to stay.

But despite the MK Dons’s superb attempts to establish its own identity, Sunday’s game against AFC Wimbledon is expected to trigger the same negative coverage the club received when it was first formed.

 Franchising: still the ultimate evil

The coverage will be damning because despite the football world’s acceptance of the MK Dons, fans are still wholeheartedly opposed to franchising.

For most fans franchising remains the ultimate evil: a putrid concoction of commercialism and arrogance borne out of pure greed.

Franchising is the American invention that goes against everything we as football fans believe in. It devalues supporters and shows complete disregard for their needs and emotions. It underestimates and takes for granted loyalty, the most important trait of any football supporter.

When Wimbledon fans were robbed of their club it provoked universal revulsion among football fans across the World because we all empathised with them. We all imagined how we’d feel if the clubs we support were taken away from us.

For most football fans life without our club is almost unthinkable but this was the reality for Wimbledon fans in 2003.

 Good vs Evil?

It’s awfully tempting to look at Sunday’s game as a clash between footballing good and footballing evil; honest, loyal, traditional fans taking on a plastic, commercially-driven franchise. We once again find ourselves sympathising with Wimbledon fans and hating the MK Dons.

But one of the main reasons Sunday’s game is so important is because it’s a chance to normalise the situation and give both sides a greater degree of closure.

Both sets of fans knew this day had to come sometime and although Sunday’s sure to be an emotional, awkward and heated day, it will hopefully relieve a lot of tension.

The first meeting of the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon will draw a heap of attention but once the full-time whistle is blown all football fans can begin to move on. After Sunday’s game all future encounters between these sides will seem far more normal.

Many fans on both sides won’t look forward to Sunday but everyone knows the game’s an essential step in the development of both clubs. From Sunday onwards we can stop viewing the MK Dons as the franchise which stole Wimbledon FC, and begin to see them as a club in their own right. Likewise we’ll be able to see AFC Wimbledon as more than just an antidote to the MK Dons.

On the field I can only see one result.

The MK Dons are hitting form at a good time in the season and they’re playing a sophisticated style of football which I expect will lead them to promotion. AFC Wimbledon on the other hand are entrenched in a relegation battle and struggling for confidence.

But in many ways what happens on the field on Sunday is irrelevant. The important thing is that AFC Wimbledon fans get a degree of closure from the match and the MK Dons use the landmark event to move on and leave the past behind.

FA Cup 1st round special

League 1 and 2 is off this weekend due to the 1st round of the FA Cup and we’re all waiting patiently for some giant-killings!

Every year a host of league clubs make uncomfortable journeys to cramped, rusty old non-league grounds, hoping they can overcome the bumpy pitches and excitable fans in order to book their spot in the next round.

But it just wouldn’t be the FA Cup without the odd upset. Therefore I’ve trawled the fixture list, looking through the league vs non-league fixtures for some quirky stories and possible upsets.

 And please feel comment on any of these previews and whether or not you agree with my upset ratings.

Cambridge City vs MK Dons                         Upset Rating: 4/10

The Friday night game will be televised on ESPN, proving the media smell a possible upset in this game. The Dons are desperate to get promoted this season and the Cup’s unlikely to be a priority for manager Karl Robinson. Unusually for the aesthetically pleasing MK Dons, they’ve struggled for goals this season. However, Cambridge City (not to be confused with former league outfit United) are also struggling at the moment. Languishing 16th in the Southern League, they’ll need all the help they can get in this one. Home advantage might just be enough to get them the replay, but I think the Dons will have too much for City on this occasion.     

Hereford vs Shrewsbury                               Upset Rating: 5/10

Despite the two local rivals exiting League 2 in differing directions last season, the derby’s back. Neither club’s set the world alight in their new leagues and the Cup will be a chance to get a confidence boost. Expect a highly-charged, competitive derby, but I see Shrewsbury’s superior skill winning it for them. Expect drama!                       

Aldershot vs Hendon                     Upset Rating: 5/10

Aldershot have had a dreadful start to the season and Hendon will be boosted by the fact the Shots have only won once at home this season. However a light has recently appeared at the end of the Aldershot tunnel with a win and a draw ending their run of seven straight losses. Hendon aren’t doing too well either, 20th in the Isthmian League. They need to travel with confidence and determination. A few tasty tackles early on could unnerve Dean Holdsworth’s low-scoring side and make things interesting. Don’t rule out a replay in this one.                        

Carlisle vs Ebbsfleet                        Upset Rating: 5/10

Carlisle have struggled for consistency this season and manager Gregg Abbott’s emphasised the on and off-field importance of the Cup. Carlisle have hit poor form recently, but Ebbsfleet have only won three games all season. They’re capable of scoring against the Cumbrians, but the seriousness with which Abbott views this contest suggests Carlisle will want to get the job done.                           

Chelmsford vs Colchester            Upset Rating: 6/10

A meeting between two of the competition’s form teams, and this could also be classed as a derby with just 23 miles separating the two clubs. Chelmsford are 2nd in the Blue Square South and they have FA Cup pedigree; they’re aiming to reach the second round for the third season in a row. The confident Claret Army will be out in force and will be buzzing with confidence. On the other hand Colchester have suffered just one loss in seven games and are charging up the League  1 table. Despite Colchester’s hot form, this is the kind of opponent that causes problems for league clubs.             

Cheltenham vs Yate                        Upset Rating: 3/10

Yate are the lowest ranked side left in the competition, but don’t be fooled by the fact they’re bottom of the Evostik Southern League Division One South and West. In the last round they incredibly beat Blue Square Premier leaders Newport County in a replay. They’re plucky, they’re brave and they’re ready to take advantage of any Cheltenham complacency. Cheltenham should have too much for the beautifully nicknamed Bluebells. But everything we know about the Cup says that this is one to watch.                                                             

Coventry vs Arlesey                        Upset Rating: 4/10

When the first round draw was being made many non-league clubs would have hoped for an away tie at Coventry and it was Arlesey that got it. The Southern League side will travel to the impressive Ricoh Arena in high spirits and whatever the result, it’s likely to be an unforgettable day out for everybody connected with the club. But don’t rule out a replay in this tie. Coventry have only won once at home this season and though Mark Robins looks to be slowly turning things around at the Ricoh, there are still signs of fragility.                             

Doncaster vs Bradford Park Avenue        Upset Rating: 4/10

It’s a Yorkshire derby at the Keepmoat on Saturday as Rovers welcome Bradford PA. Bradford Park Avenue were once a league club until financial problems led to their expulsion from the league and eventual liquidation. They reformed but unlike clubs like AFC Wimbledon, FC United, and even Chester FC their climb back up the leagues has been slow and arduous. Nevertheless they hope to gain promotion to the Blue Square Premier this season. They’ll face a Doncaster team in great form, and it’ll take a monumental effort to beat them.                 

Forest Green vs Port Vale                            Upset Rating: 7/10

Forest Green Rovers aren’t your typical football club. They’re striving to become the world’s first organic football club. The stadium food’s completely vegetarian, the lawnmower’s solar-powered and the Chairman’s an eco-activist. However the formula seems to be working pretty well as Forest Green currently occupy a play-off spot in the Blue Square Premier. They’re playing well this season and targeting promotion to League 2. Port Vale on the other hand are looking to leave League 2 and return to League 1 under Mickey Adams. Vale look like a good bet for promotion, but away against tough opposition, this could be very interesting.                           

Fleetwood vs Bromley                   Upset Rating: 3/10

This is the first ever meeting between these two sides. Fleetwood have taken to life in League 2 like a cod to water (see what I did there). Last season they reached the third round where they were knocked out by local rivals Blackpool. They enjoy the Cup, but will know from personal experience that it’s unwise to underestimate lower league opponents. Bromley are adapting steadily to life in the Blue Square Premier and currently sit 16th in the table. Fleetwood’s confidence and superior skill, combined with home advantage should see them through.                   

Kidderminster vs Oldham             Upset Rating: 4/10

If you want proof of how tough the transition from league to non-league can be, take a look at Kidderminster Harriers. Since their relegation from League 2 in 2005 the Worcestershire club have struggled financially and now find themselves depressingly 21st in the Blue Square Premier. Oldham’s results have been inconsistent this season and just like last term goals are in short supply. This could be a tight one, and who knows, if Kidderminster approach the game in the right frame of mind they might get a valuable replay.                            

Lincoln vs Walsall                              Upset Rating: 3/10

Much like Kidderminster, Lincoln haven’t adapted to life outside the Football League. They’re currently 19th in the Blue Square Premier and battling against relegation. The Cup could provide some much-needed relief for the Imps but their record in the FA Cup hasn’t been good of late. Walsall are having their best season in years, playing entertaining, passing football on a limited budget. Lincoln will do very well to get a replay from this game.                      

Met Police vs Crawley                    Upset Rating: 2/10

It’ll be a very unusual feeling for the Met Police to have the neutrals on their side for a change. This is the first time the Met have reached the first round since 1993 and they’ve never gone beyond this stage of the competition.  They’re one of the lowest ranked teams left in the Cup and they’ll be facing a team that has its sights set on the Championship. Crawley know what it takes to succeed in the Cup as underdogs. Two years ago they narrowly lost at Old Trafford against Man Utd as a non-league team. Crawley’s rise has been phenomenal and they ooze professionalism and organisation. I can’t see the Met Police causing Crawley too many problems.                              

Southend vs Stockport                  Upset Rating: 7/10

Times have been tough for Stockport. They’ve had numerous brushes with bankruptcy and are lucky to remain in existence. But for the first time in years the club could be on the up. They’ve ended their ground-share agreement with Sale Sharks, meaning the rugby team no longer play at Edgeley Park and on the field they’re starting to play some good football. Their unflattering 11th place standing in the Blue Square Premier masks the good football they’ve been playing recently. Southend have been inconsistent this season and if they’re not careful they’ll be spending this season trapped in mid-table. Stockport could spring a surprise here.                           

Swindon vs Macclesfield               Upset Rating: 4/10

Last season this was a League 2 fixture. But this weekend’s fixture will see 7th place in League 1 taking on 7th place in the Blue Square Premier. Macclesfield have reacted admirably to relegation and haven’t been overwhelmed by the culture shock. Swindon under Paolo Di Canio have excelled in Cup competitions and last year they eliminated Wigan Athletic. Di Canio takes this competition very seriously. Although they may still be slightly tired physically and emotionally from their last gasp defeat to Premier League Villa on Tuesday, Swindon will in my opinion beat Macclesfield.         

Torquay vs Harrogate                     Upset Rating: 1/10

Harrogate’s preparations for this game can’t be ideal. After all they only qualified for the 1st Round on Wednesday night after winning a replay against Hyde in Extra Time. This means player-manager Simon Weaver will have just two whole days to prepare for his team’s game against Torquay. Add to that the fact that Harrogate now have one of the longest journeys in this round, plus the inevitable fatigue following the extra-time victory against Hyde and the Blue Square North side clearly have a mountain to climb. Torquay, currently 7th in league 2 and unbeaten at home, probably can’t believe their luck. I can’t see any hope for the Yorkshiremen. This should be Torquay’s most comfortable victory of the season.                                    

Braintree vs Tranmere                   Upset Rating: 4/10

Shamefully this is the only game being shown on terrestrial TV this weekend. Sunday’s clash sees League 1 table-toppers Tranmere travel to Blue Square Premier strugglers Braintree. Nobody on Earth expected Tranmere to be where they are in the league, but the team deserve to be where they are. However the last few games have been more difficult for Ronnie Moore’s men and Braintree, in front of the ITV cameras, will look to take advantage. They’ll raise their game for the cameras and this game will be difficult for Tranmere. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on events at Cressing Road.                                     

Burton vs Altrincham                      Upset Rating: 3/10

Burton will have to keep an eye out for Damian Reeves against Altrincham. The striker’s in red hot form at the moment and already has 16 league goals to his name this season. On the other hand Burton have been formidable at home this season with only one loss so far. They’re a tough nut to crack and Altrincham will have to come up with something pretty special to beat Burton on Sunday. The quality gap should see Burton win this one comfortably but with a player like Reeves on the loose don’t rule out a shock.                      

Gloucester vs Leyton Orient       Upset Rating: 6/10

The Orient bus driver will undoubtedly be questioning his directions this weekend because Orient’s away game against Blue Square North side Gloucester is being played in Cheltenham’s Whaddon Road. Gloucester haven’t played at their home ground, Meadow Park, since it was submerged in 8 feet of water in 2007. The flooded stadium’s insurance skyrocketed and City had to look elsewhere and they now groundshare with Cheltenham. This is the first time in the club’s 129 year history that they’ve made it to the 1st round of the FA Cup and everybody connected with the club is ecstatic. Orient will be nervous before travelling to Cheltenham. They currently hover just above the League 1 relegation zone and probably won’t view the cup as a great priority. This one could possibly end in an upset.               

Dorchester vs Plymouth               Upset Rating: 4/10

Cornwall isn’t known for its football. It’s the only English county that’s never been represented in the Football League and the only footballer of note to come from the Celtic outpost in recent times is former England goalie, Nigel Martyn. But Dorchester of the Blue Square South are hoping to put Cornwall on the football map with a derby win over League 2 Devonians, Plymouth. One man in particular will be looking forward to the game. Sam Malsom was let go by Plymouth as a teenager but instead of dropping into non-league, he pursued his dreams abroad and played in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Sweden before returning to the West Country. Aged just 24 he’s already played for clubs in four different countries. He’ll be looking to show Plymouth what they missed out on. It would really be befitting of the cup’s romance if cute Dorchester can pull off a win in this one.