There's something about the FA Cup that is absolutely magical; it conjures up great giant killing feats as minnows swim, albeit briefly, in the same pool as the sharks. This season's competition has been no exception and it was great to see some of the Premier League teams battling it out at old, small, wet and windswept grounds in January.
Manchester United were matched against Cambridge United, which led to a 0-0 draw at the Abbey Stadium and a replay at Old Trafford, all of which will have provided a much needed windfall of cash for a club that, like so many, struggle to pay the players and the other bills year on year.
What was interesting about this particular fixture was how the British sporting media centred on the groundsman, Ian Darler. Following comments made about the poor quality of the surface by Louis van Gaal, the United manager, much was written about the lack of funding made available for the pitch upkeep and the fact that Ian suggests that his personal contribution to the club over a thirty-six year span has probably exceeded £30,000. We feature Ian in our February/March issue, as well as Tony Provan, the head groundsman at Gillingham and Rugby League's Stuart Vause at Castleford Tigers; all of whom, like so many others, work well beyond the call of duty, with passion, dedication and commitment.
Unfortunately, there are far too many clubs at the lower levels, who still value paying high player salaries over the maintenance of the stage on which they are expected to perform. The relatively small sums involved in keeping a reasonable surface, seem to be overlooked, season after season.
It's difficult to fathom why some Chairmen do not understand that a decent playing surface encourages better play and better players and, therefore, it is a worthwhile investment in the overall scheme of running a club.
Bradford's epic FA Cup 4-2 win away at Chelsea was then overshadowed the following week by a poor 1-1 draw at home to struggling Colchester in League One. On the night, the pitch was barely deemed playable by the referee. During the post-match press conference, Bantams manager, Phil Parkinson publicly criticised his Board, stating that they needed to provide the money to get the pitch sorted out.
He said that he had asked for more financial help early doors, but it all fell on deaf ears, almost like he was trying to make excuses. Now the pitch is in poor condition, it can only hinder the team's chances of progressing to reach at least the play-offs this season.
It was fantastic to hear the manager fully backing his groundsman, Mick Doyle, saying that Mick worked extremely hard, but lacked the necessary support from upstairs to get the pitch up to a decent League standard.
I hope that clubs have taken note of the publicity surrounding these games and will look to invest in their groundstaff and the future of the pitch; starting with the end of season renovations in May. I also hope that Cambridge United will appreciate the endeavour and commitment to the club that Ian provides and perhaps even recompense him for his contributions over the years to the club he loves.
As we were going to press, the new Premier League TV rights deal was announced; an increase of 70% to £5.14bn. When all lower league clubs are struggling with their finances this, in my opinion, obscene deal provides a genuine opportunity for the top flight clubs to invest in lower league and grassroots football ... I can but dream!