("Level playing fields never existed," comments the cynical old friend of mine. "We'd struggle not to do our ankles on the molehills.")
It is ten years after - this should be the only time I type this today - "magic of the Cup" was debated within a stitch of its life following Manchester United's decision to fly half-way round the globe rather than take part. From fair-weather fans to utter fanatics, the future of the Cup and by extension English football was exhaustively debated and analysed, with my then boss at the time agreeing totally with "Brand Utd" sidestepping the competition "they have clearly outgrown".
The discussion comes round again this season, related in that spooky-fate-and-fortune sort of way to Manchester United. Following the turning of Old Trafford into a holding bay for Texan debt, plans scrawled on the back of naan bread by disillusioned fans created FC United of Manchester, a protest club which would turn into something non-league football had not quite seen before. Fan-owned, eschewed of shirt sponsors, and now with share-save style promotions to raise money for a new ground, FCUM made an extra slice of history their own this week by beating Rochdale in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup.
(Remember for teams of the Pyramids, the Cup starts in August).
FCUM polarise and divide opinion to this day. Their reputation within the hitherto stuffy world of non-league is polarised. Frankly the atmosphere and attitude was long overdue for some clubs at the lower levels, whose grounds desperately needed the singing, chanting and enthusiasm of League football which FCUM almost always guarantee. The terraces of some provincial towns must thing the echoing choruses of football crowds have been missing for generations. When Burscough, the team I follow, played Boston some years ago, their supporters acted just as they would in the League, an attitude FC has maintained despite long years clawing their way through Leagues were polite applause can be sneered at...
The FCUM attitude to the FA Cup has been one of hyperactivity, giddyness and outright hunger for success. The jokes about meeting Manchester United in the Third Round are told with straight-faced seriousness.....
.....which reflects very differently to the attitude in the London Borough of Merton.....
Below are three Tweets sent to me in response to questions forwarded to those AFC fans suggesting their potential game with MK Dons could be boycotted or even forfeited:
@doktorb Not really. It justifies them. And they say we're arch rivals, but we're nothing of the sort.
@doktorb why? The idea of playing the franchise isn't like playing rivals you realise. I don't want rivals to go bust.
@doktorb i genuinely would not want to be there which is different from principled boycott stance
The extent of the disquiet - to put it mildly - amongst AFC Wimbledon fans against a potential match with MK Dons utterly stunned and silenced me. There is no charity, no olive branch, no eagerness for playing "rivals". The two teams may appear to have been cut from the same protest movement cloth....It is only on closer inspection that the different patterns are discovered. Although a minority of AFC fans want the game to go ahead, there is no pounding-heart nostalgia amongst the majority. FA Cup or not - achievement of making the First Round Proper or not - "Franchise FC" would not be welcome at the "home of the Dons".
(I highly recommend this WSC blog on the subject)
Such is the continuing problems at the heart of the oldest club cup competition. AFC fans are clearly principled - mayhaps too principled to the point of blindness. It is just as easy to over romanticise the fan-power teams as it is the Cup itself. How we all paint the game in the garish pop-art colours of the ITV title sequence, wrap every fault in scarves and wooly-hats. There are hooligan tendencies within the fan base of both AFC and FCUM, there are non-league fans unhappy at the perceived easy ride given the 'novelty factor'. Nevertheless both sides have ultimately transformed the non-league organisation as much as the game.
There will always be exceptions to prove rules. FC fans are out there now sharpening defiance against ever playing Manchester United, and of course AFC Wimbledon fans who are excited by the prospect of playing Milton Keynes look forward to each respective replays. Ultimately, however, the Cup is only a symbol for the sides at their level, an icon too far to reach, the fervour amongst clubs and fans overblown and knowing. It has not been the Cup we've wanted it to be for years. Blame whoever you like for 'reinventing the wheel'.
It keeps on spinning. AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester find themselves positioned on opposite sides...