The pleasures and perils of broadcasting the FA Cup

Posted by Phil Lythell

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesBrentford fans offer a greeting to Chelsea's John Terry hours before Sunday's FA Cup tilt.

The FA Cup. If there is one football competition that conjures up romance, emotion, despair and ecstasy, it is the Football Association Challenge Cup.

Every English football fan has a favourite memory as well as one -- or several -- which they would prefer to forget. The people responsible for delivering these moments and indelibly printing them into our collective consciousness are, of course, the players. But an equally vital part of the process involves the broadcasters who beam the upsets and the mismatches into our living rooms.

That process is an unfathomably complex affair and requires a vast array of organisation and manpower. For the Brentford-Chelsea fourth round clash, ESPN deployed 90 staff, 20 cameras and around 15 kilometers of cable to help relay events from West London to the footballing world. Consider the fact that this was the second of three live matches that the channel was covering over the weekend, the sheer scope of logistical planning is mind-boggling.

Arriving at a sodden and windswept Griffin Park at 7:45am on a Sunday morning is a surreal affair. It is not often you turn up to a football ground at the break of dawn. Yet while the surrounding streets might have been empty of expectant supporters, there was a hive of activity on Brook Road as the majority of the 90 staff buzzed around inside and outside broadcast trucks and manned their stations within the stadium.

And they are all here for one reason and one reason only, for the possibility of covering that most exquisite and rare of things -- a cup upset. Or perhaps not so rare. The fourth round weekend had already seen Norwich lose at home to non-league Luton Town and QPR capitulate against League One's Milton Keynes Dons. That Sunday would also see Tottenham eliminated at the hands of Championship side Leeds and Liverpool get knocked out by a team two divisions below them, one that had earned just one point from their previous eight games.

The shock was on and the folks at ESPN made no pretence that that was exactly what they were hoping for. The Champions League holders bowing out to the Bees would arguably be the story of the weekend. Indeed, the layout of the show had to be changed at the eleventh hour with presenter Rebecca Lowe making script changes with her producer up until 1am the previous night.

"The storyline is going to be, 'Is there another shock on the cards', partly because of what happened yesterday and partly because of Bradford [reaching the Capital One Cup final]. But also because of the slightly erratic nature of what is going on at Chelsea," said Lowe with her hair in curlers as the makeup artist applied the final touches to her appearance. "So anything can happen. We have that in our minds and we go through all the storylines before but in the first minute everything can change."

That sentiment was echoed by Andrew Hornett, the senior executive producer, who admitted that the nature of predicting surprise results was not an exact science and hinted at a disappointment at not having made a different selection when choosing the matches to cover: "Nobody could have predicted that Norwich-Luton was going to be THE game, but we would have loved to have been there."

The FA Cup has acquired the reputation for being the tournament which unites neutral football fans behind the minnows. Everybody bar those associated with the big fish hope that the small clubs can pull off the impossible and turn the tables on illustrious opposition. Lowe confesses that is the very reason she fell in love with the game in the first place.

"The FA Cup to me is what football is all about," Lowe said. "It's what I grew up loving. My earliest memory is of Crystal Palace reaching the semifinal of the FA Cup and watching that in 1990 at home realising what football can do emotionally to you."

The fans' perspective is one thing we are all familiar with. Often forgotten though is the thankless task that the bigger team face in such a fixture. Chelsea are expected to beat Brentford today, and even if they win by a cricket score, they will receive scant praise. But lose and the knives will be out. It creates a pressure that demands that the players take the field with the right mentality as former Blue-turned-pundit Graeme Le Saux explained:

"For Chelsea today, it's all in their heads. Can they deal with what Brentford throw at them and the atmosphere? They'll be looking at it as I did as a player thinking 'the television cameras are here because they want to see an upset.' So you've got to use all those things to wind yourself up, to get yourself motivated to go out and say, 'you know what? We're international players. We've got to show why we're international players.'"

Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesChelsea manager Rafa Benitez checks out the soggy pitch at Brentford prior to kickoff.

Just as the players have to adopt a professional attitude and block out the emotion of the occasion, the broadcasters also have an important job to do; one that is made all the more difficult by the inherent perils of live television. The meticulous preparation needed to cover the match begins the moment the draw is made, but that does not mean that all eventualities can be guarded against.

"Everything can go wrong," admitted Hornett. "It is live television and things do go wrong. Cameras can break, VT machines can break. You try and make sure that you are backed up in every area. You check everything. Sometimes you check everything again and then you go on air and it doesn't work anymore. That can happen."

As if to prove his point, just seconds after the programme goes live on-air, the first hiccup arises as the microphone assigned to Paul Buckle -- the Luton Town manager and a last minute addition to the show -- fails as he fields the first question directed to him at pitchside by Lowe. The situation is rectified very quickly, though it is the perfect example of how the best laid plans are at the mercy of lady luck.

Lowe, however, is a veteran of the medium and has experienced a wealth of bizarre situations including disappearing autocues and being temporarily blinded after being doused with champagne by jubilant footballers. But those all pale in insignificance when she recalls the most harrowing moment of her broadcasting career.

"I was presenting when Fabrice Mumaba collapsed [in last year's FA Cup quarterfinal between Bolton and Tottenham]. That was the hardest thing that has happened because it was something that you didn't expect when you woke up in the morning. That was horrible to experience and I will never forget how that felt. That was the toughest and the worst thing."

One of the trademarks of ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup has been their decision to film the panel at pitchside rather than from the warmth and comfort of the studio. The rationale is to try and convey the ambience of the occasion as vividly as possible.

It is a strategy that has worked rather well despite providing the odd blooper such as the time that pundit Martin Keown collected a ball in the side of the head from an errant practice shot. A lesser known incident, however, almost saw the trophy itself disappear after FC United of Manchester stunned Rochdale 3-2 in the first round of the 2010/11 competition as Hornett explains.

"It was an upset. Fans ran onto the pitch and we suddenly thought, 'where's the FA Cup gone?' Luckily the security guard had just grabbed it and hidden it under his coat but actually we were more part of the event than if we were sat in a glass box."

Away from the pitfalls and tribulations of live coverage, there is still a match to be played and a shock -- of sorts -- to occur between two West London rivals facing each other for the first time since 1950. Such a unique occasion and the emotion it evokes in anticipation of the implausible is infectious. Even as a Chelsea fan, I can feel the sense of excitement building and the very real thought of defeat enters my head even though it is surely unthinkable that the European Champions could lose to a team 44 places below them in the football pyramid.

But that feeling is unmistakably there. It is felt by the fans arriving at the ground three hours before kick-off, by the vendors setting up their stalls of half-and-half scarves and by the players smiling nervously on arrival at the stadium. But the most eloquent and succinct appraisal should be left to Lowe.

"Today I will absolutely love it. I mean it's hard, when you're pitchside among the elements and the crowd, but there is nothing like it. The adrenalin you get from that is like nothing else. That is my favourite thing about this job: the FA Cup."

Follow Phil Lythell @PhilLythell

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