Joni Mitchell sang “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” and boy, was she right!
I was born in the early 80s. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad pushing his chair to as close to the TV as was possible without damaging his eyes, so he could watch that afternoon’s football without interference from my sister and me running in front of it, blocking his view.
Sometimes he’d even let me watch with him, as long as I didn’t ask too many stupid questions.
As an avid supporter of Chelsea he only ever wanted me to follow in his footsteps.
When I was old enough he would take me to matches, and naturally I became a Chelsea supporter.
I began attending Stamford Bridge at a crossroads of football in England. My first match was in 1990, in the aftermath of by far English football’s darkest decade.
Hooliganism (it’s really not as romantic as it sounds) was still not only fresh in the memory but still a rampant problem.
The Hillsborough disaster, which saw 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death due to police incompetence and overcrowding, was a touching distance’s moment in the past, English football was taking a long hard look at itself in the mirror.
A reformation took place, which not only involved all-seater stadiums which meant Hillsborough could never be repeated but also the brand-new shiny Premier League with a new TV package.
And to be honest, I hated it!
Obviously I recognised change was needed, but not overkill.
I didn’t want to sit down, I wanted to be jumping around at every kick my team had.
This change was symbolic of my feeling towards the game, especially as I reached my early 20s.
Don’t get me wrong, I have many amazing memories of watching Chelsea, those are some of the greatest times of my life, including two victories against Barça (sorry to the Culés reading this) but by 2005 I was longing for something different.
I was desperately missing the dangerous and edgy 1980s football culture that I had never really experienced.
It wasn’t the violence, never that, I think those people are idiots, I just wanted that companionship of thousands of others packed in together cheering their team.
I sat inside Stamford Bridge with 40,000 others and it was often the loneliest place I’d ever been.
At Chelsea in the early 2000s it was all corporate boxes and fans of other teams sitting in them.
My season ticket was West Stand Lower Tier, we sat right at the back and directly behind us was a long line of corporate boxes.
In the box directly behind my seat was international superstar, Robbie Williams. That’s right, that Manchester lad that had zero connection with Chelsea was suddenly a fan.
I stopped going to Chelsea all together after that, switching instead to watch my local side, Ebbsfleet United.
They’re the team of my town, the town I was born and grew up in.
Even now, the team that gets most of my attention in terms of whom I see live, are the team closest to where I live, right here in Gràcia, CE Europa.
I still watched Chelsea on the telly on a regular basis, pretty much every time they were on.
Watching on the TV is a different experience than watching in the ground. On TV I can appreciate the football better, in the ground it’s all about the experience of being at the event.
I have a keen eye on Barça, I passionately support them as they’re important ambassadors for the city I love and of Catalonia.
I still favour local football but I’m long since over my brief boycott of top-flight football.
However, there is one thing that I can’t stand to watch, the FA Cup. Not a single iota of this tournament is interesting to me in recent years.
It’s completely lost it’s soul. FA Cup Final day used to really mean something, it used to be one of the most important events, not only in the sporting calendar but in life in general.
Nowadays it’s whichever top team’s reserves have managed to battle it out against the lower teams to reach the latter stages of the competition and then that top team plays their better players.
And invariably the competition would be won by a team I despised.
The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world, with its roots going all the way back to 1871.
It starts in August, with teams playing it out in front of something in the region of 50 supporters, or sometimes less, in the extra preliminary round.
Remember me mentioning me supporting the team of my town, Ebbsfleet United? We play in the fifth level of English football. We join the FA Cup in the 4th qualifying round, effectively the 6th round. That’s in October.
Football League clubs in the fourth and third levels of English football join a round later in what is called the First Round Proper, in November.
Two rounds later in the FA Cup Third Round we get teams from levels one and two, the Arsenals, Liverpools, Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas, in January.
The Final is four months hence, a whole six rounds later, in May.
From the extra-preliminary round in August until the final in May, the FA Cup is a whole nine months of emotions, ups and downs, morning sickness from the celebratory beers celebrating last night’s win and a painful and excruciating ending if you’re lucky enough to get that far as you finally get to see your pride and joy’s crowning moment through tears of heartache, agony, ecstasy and screaming at the top of your lungs excitement.
From the Extra Preliminary Round to the Final it is fourteen rounds.
For me, it wasn’t just the final, my team’s entry in October was a particular highlight, as was the First Round regardless of if we were in it; but my favourite was the Third Round.
If you were lucky enough to make it that far as a minnow, you could get drawn against the likes of Manchester United or Arsenal (or Chelsea), it for me was the most important game in the footballing calendar.
Check the past tense of the verb to be, it “was”. No more.
The FA Cup somehow had less importance as teams clambered over each other chasing European glory. Or in some teams’ cases not even glory, just qualification, just to be recognised, just for a seat at the table.
A number of clubs put out weakened teams in the FA Cup just so they can play their strongest teams in the league as they struggle for that all important fourth spot which means entry into the Champions League.
I love the Champions League, it’s very entertaining, it’s the best in the world but it’s good for different reasons as to why the FA Cup was good.
The FA Cup was good because it gave working class heroes the opportunity for fifteen minutes of fame. The chance to rub shoulders with the bigger teams.
By playing weakened teams in the FA Cup in order to concentrate on the League, football’s oldest competition lost some of its gloss, for me.
However, I’ve come to realise that I’ve set my expectations too high.
I loved the FA Cup because of the feelings it once gave me and when I couldn’t recreate those emotions I blamed it all on certain other factors.
Now that we carry cameras around in our pockets we try to record our happiest memories but you can’t bottle emotions. Those feelings are unique because they’re one-time only.
Brilliance is a brief moment that can never be recaptured. Firsts can never be recreated. The first time I held my niece and nephew, those moments can never be got back.
Think about the first time you watched your favourite film. However much you tell yourself you still love it as much now as you did back then you’ll never get to feel what you did when you first saw it.
For me there was a moment when I first truly appreciated cinema. The first Lord of the Rings film, the Fellowship of the Ring, when I first saw that my mind was blown. I’ve tried to recapture that moment a number of times, both with that film and with others, thus unsuccessfully.
I get rare moments of films with that emotion but not often enough. Those moments are like bubbles, try too hard to control them and they’re gone. You just have to sit back and savour the moment and hope that it lasts for as long as possible.
In this period of self-isolation I have been craving football more than ever.
I’ve taken to watching old games on YouTube and anything I have in my collection.
However, it’s not the same when you know the result.
It’s really made me appreciate the FA Cup more. I can’t remember the last time I watched an FA Cup match but I reckon it may well before I moved to Barcelona in 2015.
But I’m definitely going to be watching it now.
And I do know how to appreciate a good thing.
My favourite bar is right around the corner from the Oxinity offices. It has a large open terrace, beers are cheap, service is fantastic and the atmosphere is spectacular. When I’m there I appreciate it for what it is and I’m thankful for every second.
I’m so thankful for living in Gracia, there’s very little traffic compared to the rest of Barcelona, it’s bohemian, like me. It’s middle-class enough for me to appreciate what working hard for a living can get you but not too much that I don’t feel like I want to live here.
I’m thankful for living in Barcelona. The best thing I think is the weather. This is what makes me happiest. Walking to the station or to a class on a warm sunny morning, with a blue sky above me as I look up through the cracks of Gràcia’s skin.
I’m thankful for all those things, and a lot more besides. I have the ability to walk, I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can talk and I earn money.
Imagine speaking English and not appreciating how the world is basically made for you.
I appreciate all those things but I think I’ve neglected my love of the FA Cup (I’m also incredibly thankful that I’m so first world spoilt that my biggest problem right now is that I miss football, don’t worry, that irony is not lost on me).
Without the heartache this crisis has caused I think it’s good to reflect on what we have and what we’re thankful for.
Many people have lost loved ones, others have lost their jobs, businesses or livelihoods so my ramblings may seem trivial. If, however, like me, you’ve not had to suffer that heartbreak or suffering then it can be really helpful to just take a moment to think about how lucky you are to have what you do and to be thankful for that.
Whether it be the company of a loved one or a popular pastime you often don’t even know it’s there until it isn’t.