With Christmas gone and a New Year upon us, I think it’s a good time to reflect upon some of the highlights from the festive period. As fond as I am of baubles and pigs in blankets, my favourite part of Christmas this year was the annual Secret Santa draw.
I donned my smartest suit and tie, wrote all the relevant names on ping pong balls and got my wife to draw them out from a velvet bag. As the names were drawn, I said a few words about each person’s history in the competition, announcing if any of the combinations were repeats or reverses of previous years. I even said the words “and that concludes the draw” before conducting a brief analysis of all the matches. This may well paint me as some sort of socially challenged individual, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to emulate a legend of sports media.
He may bear an uncanny resemblance to ‘The Count’ from ‘Sesame Street’ but, when it comes to FA Cup draws, Jim Rosenthal is certainly no muppet. With his slick statistical nuggets about all the competing teams and an inexhaustible book of ball innuendos to call upon, the charismatic ladies’ man has finally found a role he can call his own … but ITV doesn’t make it easy for poor old Jim.
Take the special guests, who act as Jim’s assistants, for example. It seems the days of former FA Cup winners picking the home and away teams has passed. Nowadays, the powers that be seem hell-bent on finding the strangest available celebrities to perform the draw – usually two people who have no connection to the FA Cup or to each other. Rumours that Nelson Mandela and the Chuckle Brothers are doing tomorrow’s Fourth Round draw are as yet unconfirmed.
But it’s the random guests and tangible awkwardness which make the FA Cup draw so uniquely special. A more professional and thought-out operation would just be too bland.
The FA Cup Third Round draw is widely perceived to be one of the highlights of the English football calendar and I would argue that, as long as your team is in it, the draws get more enticing as the rounds go on. Though it has to be said, not all football draws are quite so captivating.
If you want to watch the FIFA World Cup draw in full, you need to book the day off work. I’ve wasted so many hours of my life watching men on stilts operating exotic bird puppets, whilst Sepp Blatter explains all the different connotations of the draw, in fourteen different languages. By the time the actual draw starts, I’ve usually forgotten which country I come from. Give me three suits with a bag of numbered wooden balls any day.
Of course in most other competitions there are all kinds of complications, such as seeding, that have to be taken into account. In the Champions League or World Cup, the draw is engineered so that the favourites don’t meet each other until the final rounds. The rules of the FA Cup are such that any team can play any other team, home or away, from the third round onwards. That’s what makes the draws so thrilling.
There are mixed views as to whether today’s East-Midlands derby was a good draw or not. I personally think it has all the ingredients of a cracking cup tie, but when you consider the fact that the two teams are in the same league and have already played each other at the City Ground this season, it does take a little of the gleam off the occasion. Unfortunately, as exciting as the draw itself may be, the ties produced often leave fans disappointed.
The chance of drawing one of the ‘big teams’ is slim and anything other than this is often met with melancholy grunts by fans of clubs the size of Nottingham Forest or Leicester City. For me, should The Reds progress today, the best draw would be a home game, either against an exciting team, like Arsenal or Manchester City, or against a lower league side who we have a good chance of beating (in theory.)
Unfortunately, unlike my annual Secret Santa draw, it can’t be fixed so that everyone gets what they want. Imagine the controversy that would ensue if Jim started meddling with his guests’ balls during tomorrow’s live show … just because he fancied a romantic cup fixture between the current champions and some non-league giant killer.
Whilst the draw remains fair, the majority of teams who progress will be left disappointed. Only a few will get that dream fixture, and therein lays the magic.
If Forest get knocked out today, I won’t forsake tomorrow’s draw for the ‘Eastenders’ omnibus. Instead, I’ll watch on as those mismatched dream-makers pluck numbers from a glassy goblet of hope. I urge you all to do the same.
I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that Jim makes an inappropriate comment, live on air, or that the Chuckle Brothers spill the balls all over the shiny studio floor. My everlasting hope is that, one day, the guest responsible will leave a stray ball in the bag and no one will realise until the draw is complete. Jim’s reaction would be worth paying the licence fee for.