On Friday evening, in the company of 7.6 million other viewers, I sat down to watch the televised fourth round match of the FA Cup between and Arsenal and Manchester United. On Saturday afternoon, I braved the cold, blustery wind and sleeting rain, together with 3,040 other hardy souls, to watch a bottom-of-the-table clash in the Football League’s lowest tier between Cheltenham Town and Macclesfield Town. Why, I hear you ask. Well, nobody can deny the guilty pleasure of enjoying a reassuringly expensive meal at a swanky restaurant yet sometimes a takeaway from the local Chippy will do just as well. They are worlds apart but they both satisfy a necessary appetite.
That there is gulf in class between the Premiership and Division 2 hardly needs to be said. More like a yawning chasm. As ever when I watch Premier League footballers in action, I am in awe at the pace at which the game is played. Not that the players are any quicker over the turf than their lower league compatriots – parity in fitness levels, one imagines, is relatively easy to attain – but it is the speed of thought that sets them apart. The reason the ball is not swiftly and accurately passed back and forth amongst a melee of feet at the lower levels of the game is, to put it bluntly, that the players are not as skilful. An extra second is required to bring the ball under control and that makes all the difference. By the time he has control and looked up, he has already been closed down. A Premiership footballer controls the ball effortlessly, instantly, completely, and thus has the time to weigh up his options. Often, his footballing brain is working two or three passes ahead. At its best, football played like this is almost magical. Not for nothing has it been called The Beautiful Game.
Football at Whaddon Road, home to Cheltenham Town, is certainly not beautiful. Saturday’s match against fellow strugglers Macclesfield Town illustrated with brutal clarity what I mean. “There he is, Judas!” remarked the man behind me. He was referring to the Macclesfield manager about to take his seat in the opposition dug out on the other side of the pitch. Sol Campbell did not in fact take his seat; he remained on his feet throughout the game, a large, brooding figure in a dark overcoat, only becoming animated when his side were making some defensive error or other. The tag ‘Judas’ has followed him ever since he crossed north London to join Arsenal from Tottenham Hotspur. As you would expect, his team were hewn from the same granite as he, tough, hard-nosed, uncompromising and occasionally brutal with an irritating brand of niggle that used to characterise his own attitude. They could play a bit too, so it was going to take some clever football to break them down. Sadly, Cheltenham did not possess the skill or wit to overcome the physical challenge and the game descended into an unseemly spectacle of aerial bombardment, misplaced passes and cynical fouls. The first goal was a penalty. Of course it was. Resulting not from a sublime piece of trickery but a clumsy and unnecessary sprawling trip by Scott Flinders, the Cheltenham goalkeeper. The way the penalty was converted had a hint of farce about it. The ball cannoned off the inside of the post and ricocheted off the back of the ‘keeper’s head into the net. Roll up, roll up – all the fun of the fair. It got worse for poor old Flinders. Playing piggy-in-the-middle with one of his defenders in the six-yard box, he lost the ball to Piggy, who slotted it home with a disbelieving grin creasing his face.
The turning point as it happened came in the colour red, not of the home team strip but the card the referee flourished at the Macclesfield captain for a short-arm jab in the face of an oncoming forward. It took him a long time to locate his card. I suspect he was listening to advice in his earpiece from the fourth official before producing it. Fair enough. It was the correct decision. At this point, the game threatened to get out of hand as one nasty foul followed another. “Can’t see this game finishing without another sending-off,” my friend opined.
That he was proved wrong came about because he was so right. Let me explain the paradox. A sickening clash of heads (was it a foul, was it accidental – the home crowd were in no doubt) left a Cheltenham defender ominously prone on the ground. You know it’s serious when he remains motionless. It took the medical staff a full 10 minutes to get him onto the stretcher and off the pitch. They by-passed the stand and the tunnel to the changing rooms and made their way straight into the car park to an awaiting ambulance. It is right and proper that concussion is taken seriously and all necessary precaution and care is taken with the injured player but in the meantime, 21 combatants stand around getting stiff and cold. The flow of the game has been interrupted. On this occasion, it was just as well. The bite had gone out of the contest and the fouling, more or less, ceased. Against the 10 men of Macclesfield, Cheltenham went into the break 0-2 down, devoid of inspiration or ingenuity “I don’t think we saw one single piece of skill in that half,” offered my friend. Apart from that on show from the club doctor, I could have added.
Half-time, and I jealously eye the flask of steaming coffee as it is passed along the family in front of us, all the while thinking of that glass of wine I poured for myself in front of a roaring log fire whilst the BBC pundits dissected the first 45 minutes at the Emirates the previous evening. The words ‘kitchen sink’ and ‘throw’ were not in evidence in their discussion but they certainly were in the home dressing room here. With a gale, home support and renewed belief at their backs, Cheltenham were a team reawakened in the second half. Wave after wave of attacks crashed down on the Macclesfield defensive rampart and it was only time before a breach was made. Ultimately it was a piece of sublime skill, one that got us all out of our seats, which secured the desperately needed breakthrough. The overhead scissors kick that bulged the back of the net from Luke Vardey (all of 36 years old, by the way) would have had his namesake at Leicester City purring with appreciation. Oh sorry, the names on the back of Cheltenham’s red-and-white stripes are so difficult to read – it was Varney, not Vardy. Anyway, it was a helluva goal. You don’t often see that at Whaddon Road.
I felt Macclesfield missed a trick here. They got it wrong. They fell back even further into defensive mode and did not even try to play it out from the back to keep hold of possession and take some wind out of their opponents’ sails. They had shown in the first half that they had the ability but they forgot how to play and just hoofed it away desperately and aimlessly. They paid the price. Cheltenham scored twice more and would have had even more had it not been for three of the best saves I have ever seen live at a match. “O’Hara – on loan from Man U,” said someone. Ah, that would explain it.
Now it was Cheltenham’s turn to get it wrong. Thinking they had the match won, a game that seemingly had been irretrievably lost, they switched off, allowing the intensity of their play to ebb away. With nothing to lose, Macclesfield started to play properly, something they were more than capable of doing, something they should have been doing much earlier. How their No 9 missed a sitter in the last minute to equalise is, and will remain, a mystery.
“Good game, then?” my wife asked as I warmed my feet by the fire, a glass of wine thoughtfully thrust into my hand. “Crazy game,” I replied, “That is why we freeze our nuts off watching live football.” I then contemplated the two contrasting experiences of the weekend, one a high-class encounter between two aristocrats of the game on the box and the other a high-octane clash between two rough-hewn artisans in the sticks. Both were compelling in their own way. Drama! That’s it, I concluded in a eureka moment. Skill, bravery, physicality, teamwork, elation, heartache, thrills, spills….and yes, periods of boredom too. It’s all there, crammed into 90 minutes of pure theatre. “Football, bloody hell” was Sir Alex Ferguson’s verdict when his team won the European Cup in the most unlikely of finishes. Or, as my mate puts it, “If you didn’t enjoy that, check your pulse.”