Delivering the FA Cup

Posted by Kristian Walsh

The show begins: Mansfield and Liverpool take to the pitchGettyImagesThe show begins: Mansfield and Liverpool take to the pitch

What is magic? Some believe it rests at the bottom of a magician's hat, readily available with the tap of a wand; others think it exists in a form of dust, sprinkled to illuminate everything it falls upon. There are even those that don't believe in it at all.

There are different types of magic. Rabbits being pulled from hats, card tricks and disappearing acts. It is a broad banner draped over an even broader school of thought.

But there are no rabbits, fairydust or ace of spades as I walk through Mansfield on a foggy Sunday morning, just miniscule drops of rain falling upon the sodden, lifeless pavements. Cars infrequently drive past, their headlights brighter than the sky above. There has been little movement in this quiet town so far, most still in slumber ahead of its day in the spotlight.

Time for a confession: I travel to this town in Nottinghamshire with iniquitous intentions. I'm one of those whose belief in magic has faded over the years - not of rabbits and cards, but the FA Cup. It is undoubtedly still a good competition, unique in its history and tradition. The magic still exists, but it needs redefining. In an era where the gap between the rich teams and the rest have widened, Wrexham's 1992 triumph over Arsenal would now be even more miraculous; Sutton United's day of glory against Coventry City in 1989 - the last time a non-league side beat a top flight team - would be nearly impossible.

A chance for repentance lies ahead. The first sight upon exiting the town's train station is the proudly-stood floodlights of Field Mill in the distance. Within there stood a number of people - approximately 90 of them - who believe the FA Cup is as enchanting as ever.

"I love the FA Cup," says ESPN presenter Ray Stubbs straight away, standing in an automobile labyrinth three hours before kick-off. The night before, that space had been the Blue Square Premier club's modest car park. It also served as a foyer for the reception and ticket office, two doors serving as tiny entrances to the club's massive soul. Overnight, a steel and concrete heart had been erected; it is here where every second of ESPN's coverage of Mansfield's day would be sourced.

Fourteen kilometres of cable runs in, out and back into the stadium; 20 television cameras are stationed around the pitch; 12 vehicles of all shapes, sizes and designs jostle for position in the concrete circus outside. All numbers to help realise the scale of the operation, coupled by letters plentiful enough to win Scrabble five times over: HDC1500 cameras, EVS XT2 hard disc recorders and M2000 HD tape machines.

It is a lot of effort, but then, there is definitely some form of magic in the air - along with all the other welcome clichés. As I survey the pitch an hour before kick-off, it appears a great leveller. Leaving the pitch and walking back to the multitude of vans and trucks, I'm careful not to slip on discarded bananas skins in this ultimate tricky tie for Liverpool.

It's that sort of thing - tradition, history - which fuels ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup. They firmly believe in giving exposure to every level of the cup; a strenuous overnight workload in remote locations is worth it.

"As the competition develops you go on a little journey every year - first round has its own particular style and character, so does the second round and then it's the third round when the Premier League and Championship clubs come in. I would even go further back and say I get interested in it when it very first starts - I read all those extra names in the preliminary round," says Stubbs.

"The beauty of the competition is that all those clubs in the extra preliminary round are in the same competition as Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. I think everything is relative in the football pyramid; it's why I love all the early qualifying rounds."

The close proximity of everything vital to ESPN's programming really gives the day a feeling of football from a simpler time, as does the raw, rugged nature of the set-up. There is no head office, nor is there a studio; their working lives, and the fate of the day's programming, rests in temporary accommodation.

As Stubbs talks, ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan walks past with a small cup of tea, every sip scalding his lips, his tea-making skills not as expertly crafted as his goalscoring. A short while later and a few yards away, what appears every one of the 90 ESPN employees clamber into the catering truck for the pre-air meeting 90 minutes before kick-off to run through how the day will play out on television. Mansfield fans gather outside, peeking through the windows and trying to catch glimpses of anyone recognizable.

Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool in action during the FA Cup match against Mansfield
GettyImagesDaniel Sturridge of Liverpool in action during the FA Cup match against Mansfield

The set-up seems intent on capturing the mood of the small town, drawing upon the emotions of the people who have come to see Liverpool's star performers and maybe, just maybe, witness their players provide an upset. It is something Stubbs agrees with.

"The local community will be out in force. Every round has its own little character and we love being part of it," he says. "When we think about these games, we try to get the character of the occasion across. That's why we present with our lovely table pitchside - I love our table, I'll have nothing said against our table.

"When you get the opportunity to give a club like Mansfield its day to shine in the sun - or the fog - the beauty lies in the way we can share it all around. This is a competition for every club at every level, so let's share it around."

Football without fans is nothing. Though television deals have not necessarily helped keep football affordable, there is no denying ESPN's desire to bring that visceral, fleshly FA Cup experience to viewers. There is a lot to draw upon at Mansfield. The slumber from earlier had well and truly ceased; the rain has disappeared, but the wind has picked up, carrying the voices of the young contingent of Mansfield fans through the slowly-populating stadium.

As kick off approaches, the checklist behind the scenes furiously gets ticked off. All the pre-air meetings have been finished; Stubbs, Keegan and John Barnes have discussed the possible tactics of the two teams, before performing their rehearsals to a cacophony of noise. The yellow and blue seats slowly become three-dimensional as scarves, hats and shirts of the same colour fill the landscape. It's nearly judgment day, though Stubbs is well-prepared.

"It probably doesn't appear so on screen from my part but there actually is," says Stubbs when asked if there is a lot preparation for a game between sides of such contrasting familiarity. "I would have kicked off on this when the draw was first made. It's a bit like being in school - I get a bit of paper out and I write little notes, and then you research and your colleagues pass on stuff, and then you keep adding and refining. I try to find out as much as you can about the game and share the occasion."

The FA Cup is clearly something dear to Stubbs, as well as the rest of the on-camera team. Both Barnes and Keegan won the cup with Liverpool, while ESPN commentator Chris Waddle played in two finals. But it is how much it matters to those not appearing on camera that also shines through - there is alacrity in everyone's step, whether dealing with inquisitive supporters or eager Mansfield players.

It's infectious, too. Even this sceptic feels a few goosebumps protrude from limbs as the players walk out on to the pitch. From the vantage point of pitchside, next to Stubbs' beloved table, everything is magnified. The blue and yellow of one end glows brighter, the red opposite looks even more soul-stirring. The drums bang louder, the voices carry further, the cold wind feels even bitterer. Behind the calm of the sole cameraman who follows the teams walking from the tunnel, chaos from all those behind it. The afternoon's work for the 22 on the pitch may have only just begun, but for those at ESPN, it's the beginning of the end of a long 24 hours.

Perhaps it is the squelch of mud beneath my shoes, or the smell of damp grass invading my nostrils. But for that moment, Mansfield seems like the focal point of the universe. That is what the FA Cup is about. That the FA Cup matters has never been in question - but at that moment, the magic came back. The fairydust fell from the heavens, the rabbit appeared from the hat. They say the magic dies when their secrets are revealed. Funny, that.

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