Writing about the forthcoming FA Cup final, the BBC’s chief football correspondent, Phil McNulty—Pip McNulty, to his friends—offered the following gem with regard to Wigan’s chances against Manchester City: “There is a wonderful ‘what side of the bed will they get out of?’ unpredictability about Martinez’s side that gives this final an enticing air of mystery.” With respect to Pip (except by calling him Pip) I am inclined to disagree. That is to say that unless Wigan get out of bed having murdered all of City’s players and coaching staff in the night, then there is not any air of mystery about who will win The FA Cup. City are second in the same league Wigan might get relegated from: City will win The FA Cup. Poor form,
This is all the more reason why it would be ludicrous if The FA Cup helped save the Roberto Mancini’s job, as has been rumoured lately. Beating Wigan should not be a legitimate defense for a manager who has constructed the most expensive squad of players in history and then lost the league title to a never-entirely-convincing Manchester United side and went out in the group stages of the Champions League. Again. Which conjured appalling memories of his time at Inter Milan. There are two big trophies to compete for these days: the Champions League and the Premier League. Neither of these, if you read carefully, is The FA Cup. Mancini should be leaving City regardless of whether he manages to get his fringe and scarf combo up the stairs at Wembley.
It’s not just that winning The FA Cup will have involved beating only three Premier League teams this season—Stoke, Wigan and Chelsea—teams that haven’t done anything impressive this season. For all I know, knocking off Leeds, Watford and Barnsley represents as tough a run of fixtures as exists in football.
No, it’s that the FA Cup has been robbed of any value it may have once enjoyed. Observe a couple of facts about this year’s FA Cup: it began with Budweiser, the official sponsor, filling up Wembley FC with some old pros for the novelty of it, and it will end at 5.15pm on a Saturday, designed not to clash with league fixtures played on the same weekend and to drum up some extra cash from fans travelling on the day. These days, The FA Cup is a kitsch, corporate shell, filled with second elevens and empty clichés. And fat men in suits. No, that wasn’t a dig at you, Rafa.
That shouldn’t save anyone’s job. Mancini was brought in to win the league and the Champions League; this season, he has done neither. At another club which hadn’t outspent its opponents by several hundred million pounds this might be acceptable as a one off, but this is Manchester City, a club which has bought its way to the top of the pile; once you reduce football to being entirely about winning, as their spending does, why should any failure be tolerated?
Mancini has been a disappointment in any place it actually matters. In the league, he decided to give United a headstart by spending the opening months of the season systematically breaking up his best partnerships from last season (Lescott and Kompany, Aguero and Tevez, his fringe and his scarf) and replacing them with a formation involving three at the back which showed how clever he was. In the Champions League he got a difficult draw but, actually, had spent more on players than any of the teams he was playing against, leaving his side’s lame performances—they lost to Ajax—down, again, to him. He couldn’t match the likes of Mourinho and Ferguson, either for consistency or for tactics on the day, and what else is there to say?
Maybe you’d let him off if he looked to be learning from his mistakes—tinkering where he didn’t need to, building his players up for big games better, showing some genuine tactical ability rather than relying on Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero to pull his team through time and again—but that hasn’t happened. All the signs are that he won’t improve. His response to adversity this season was to lead a smear campaign against his own players. First he publicly criticized his strikers, then he criticized Joe Hart, then he criticized Samir Nasri. “What solutions have you come up with to motivate your players, Roberto?” “I’ve called them all out as being shit in front of the cameras” “Ingenious.”
His other solution to poor form? He’s become unhinged. His favourite explanation for City’s form this season is that they didn’t do well enough in the transfer window last summer. This, despite the fact that they spent more than United, their main title rivals, for the fourth season in a row (admittedly this time not £100 million more, but still). Roberto has repeated that his team would have won the league if they, instead of United, had bought Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. Apparently a forward line of Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez is not enough—“I can’t work in these conditions!”
Beating Wigan in the FA Cup final changes none of these issues. Mancini has failed this season and shown himself as fundamentally incapable, both in the first instance, leading to setbacks, and then in dealing with those setbacks. He is also clearly unwell: at one point in the summer he was convinced his chief executive and sporting director were talking deliberately quickly so he couldn’t follow what they were saying. Even if there is no-one particularly outstanding around to replace him, he should be a goner.
On some level, I think Mancini even knows all of this himself. Selecting Gareth Barry in midfield every week is him being self-deprecating.
The FA Cup with Budweiser
The FA Cup, if you didn’t know, and now you do know, is currently called the FA Cup with Budweiser. This is important beyond the fact that it has helped hollow out what used to be a fun competition. It’s important because it makes the hand-wringing from the people in charge of football after violence in the stands of Saturday’s FA Cup final entirely ridiculous.
The sports minister called on football authorities and the police to “throw the book” at those involved in “disappointing” and “depressing” outbreaks of football-related violence. He also said, “From what I’ve heard, it’s a sort of alcohol-inspired, warm day and that’s what’s done it.”
Of similar incidents of violence outside the ground after Sunday’s game between Newcastle and Sunderland, a Newcastle spokesman said “We were embarrassed and appalled by the behaviour of a minority of so-called fans who last night were involved in disturbances and disorder in Newcastle city centre after the match.” He went on: “These deplorable individuals have no place at Newcastle United and bring shame on the club and the vast majority of its proper, law-abiding, fans.”
Now, these aren’t the right responses. Because, you’ll notice, they take no responsibility for the “deplorable individuals.” They say that there’s “no place” for them in football, and yet, if you look, there is a place for them, because they’re there in stadiums every week. These aren’t “so-called fans”; they are fans. They like football. So it’s football’s problem to deal with. And writing them off as “embarrassments” and one-offs (multiple “deplorable individuals” equals a group, actually) doesn’t do any good.
Clearly there’s a problem with football if people want to start fighting in the stands. It could be that despite saying that alcohol is the cause of the recent violence, the FA Cup is still The FA Cup with Budweiser and alcohol is still sold and advertised at grounds. Or it could be, deeper, that as a recent FSF campaign hints at, treating football fans with contempt—having them marched around by police, shouting at them to sit down etc—is a good way of getting them to show contempt back. Or it could be that it’s not a coincidence that violence goes up in a recession because people are more unhappy, and what else is there to do other than punch each other up a bit? These aren’t reasons to accept violence, but they are reasons to suggest that violence doesn’t just happen.
Whichever you want to choose, writing off a football fans who throw punches as “deplorable individuals” and saying that they’re an “embarrassment” isn’t how you deal with them. “Throw the book at them”? Who exactly? Throw ten people who did a bit of fighting in prison and you think ten more won’t appear the next week? Violence doesn’t appear from nowhere in individuals, you put together the right set of circumstances and it’ll happen with almost anyone. Mindlessly demonizing football fans who have fights isn’t how you’ll stop fights. And to have to point that out to the sports minister is pretty grim. Is he being deliberately thick or does he just hate anyone who goes to football matches?
Ethan co-edited Surreal Football Magazine #3, available in all formats here. Hard copy, iOS, PDF and Kindle.