Monday, 7 January 2013

Mansfield Town 1 Liverpool 2

There was a point in this quintessential David vs Goliath FA Cup encounter, with about ten minutes to play and just after Mansfield Town had scored, that was as big a two-fingered riposte to those detractors of this beautiful competition as it is possible to muster. 

On the two sides of the ground hosting the home supporters, there was not one spectator sat down passively. Every single Mansfield fan was out of their seat, waving their arms and flags, jumping around, embracing the stranger sat next to them and singing along to the chants in a show of club and community unity and unbridled joy.

And as this wall of noise permeated down onto the playing surface, those warriors in yellow and blue found a little extra something within themselves to put in that telling tackle, take that decisive touch, make that instinctive run or play that crucial pass. And two metres in front of my vantage point, on the Liverpool bench, Brendan Rodgers visibly shuddered with grave concern.

In the end, non-league Mansfield were a blatant brush of the hand away from remaining in the competition and playing a replay. They were sunk by a goal the scorer and many of the Liverpool fans were too embarrassed to celebrate. To describe Mansfield as “plucky”, as many will, is to do them a disservice because they were better than “plucky”. “Plucky” implies an element of luck, yet Mansfield were equal combatants and made such light of the 93 places between the two teams as to make it indistinguishable.

It was brilliant to be present at Field Mill to watch such a re-affirmation of the FA Cup in my conscience and in the consciences of many others watching on around the world. A day after the competition had been once again been criticised as being little more than a chance for managers to rest players and a list of fixtures played out before empty stadia (like at Millwall, see below), this was a timely reminder of what the Cup can throw up.

This was also the core message of my trip, arranged by ESPN, who were covering the match live, to go behind-the-scenes of their impressive, travelling roadshow-style operation. Like many broadcasters before them, they have tried to breath new life into the competition and wanted to bring the fans closer to it. They wanted to re-connect the Cup to the national psyche, if you like.

In practice, this means erecting a table from polystyrene and wood in a muddy corner of the pitch, close to the home end, and presenting the coverage from there. This has many inherent dangers, such as the carefully-prepared miles of cabling being kicked out by the cumbersome, size 20 boots worn by the Blue Square Bet mascot, which is basically a giant-girthed inflatable cube. This was a moment of great consternation for Ray Stubbs and his pundits as this great “thing” emerged from a garage behind the stand and threatened to knock them all off air.
Ray Stubbs and Kevin Keegan at the ESPN pitchside "table" (John Barnes is
obscured by the camera)
What impressed me during my tour of ESPN’s mini commune of wires, generators and screens (wheeled and plugged in overnight in the Mansfield car park) was that their entire team, from the presenters to the commentators to the producers, is genuinely enthusiastic about the Cup and its perception in an ever-more crowded football calendar.

Jon Champion, who was calling the game from a wooden plank suspended on rickety scaffolding atop the derelict Bishop Road Stand, was especially eloquent in his memories and affection for the old competition and, as you would expect from a commentator, was able to reel off great soundbites without prompting. 

I don’t know why I found this surprising but Champion has the same silky smooth tones away from the microphone. Somehow I imagine him commentating on the process of making a cup of tea (“SPLASH! goes the noble tea bag as it flirts playfully with the boiling water in the cup”) or walking the dog (“Is it a kestrel over there on the hedge top? YES, YES, I believe it is!”)

The day didn’t end well for Champion as ESPN chastised him for saying Luis Suarez was a cheat live on air, essentially summing up the nation’s mood in one word.

Ray Stubbs was Up for the Cup too, chatting merrily and with locked eye contact as he sipped a tiny cup of tea in the car park. He said he would take the ESPN pitchside table as a retirement gift and put it in his front room or that bar he plans to open in the Algarve. 

It was an interesting insight into how things are done in broadcasting and it was a good look behind-the-scenes at how everything comes together. A particular highlight was the all-important production meeting being held in a claustrophobic white Portakabin where other members of crew were polishing off their lunches. For the record, the choice was roast lambs and spuds, chicken korma and rice, and swordfish (yes, swordfish... in Mansfield!) 

Another special highlight was trying to catch the eye of the very attractive Mansfield CEO Carolyn Radford, who tottered through the muddy goalmouth in her three-inch heels to join Stubbs, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes at the famous “table.” Guess which one of the four didn’t require make-up...

She was certainly without inhibitions on her club’s big day and spent most of the interview giggling and joining in with the increasingly loud supporters behind the goal as kick-off drew ever nearer. 

The atmosphere was certainly electric, with smoke bombs set off in both the home and away ends on the kick-off (which was delayed while ESPN finished their advert break - they have the authority to do that). I went round behind the dug-outs with the other handful of reporters on the trip - a young lad called Chris from Gizmodo, the Tech blog, and a writer from the Anfield Wrap, Christian, who had been delighted to chat to Keegan before kick-off. I’d spoken to him a few days earlier, so found myself less bothered. 

Liverpool, who were backed by about 1,500 fans and 96 there in spirit (Mansfield couldn’t use a section of seats so they put the names of the Hillsborough victims on them in a classy gesture), started the match perfectly. After seven minutes, new signing Daniel Sturridge was set free by Jonjo Shelvey and finished with a clinical touch so often missing during his time at Chelsea.

Rodgers spun around in the dug-out in relief, fist-clenched, and the boisterous home fans were momentarily silenced. A few second later, Sturridge was clean through again and, after an age to set himself, was expertly denied by Alan Marriott in goal. That moment kept Mansfield in the match and they quickly grew into contention. 

The pitch, which was in a better state than I expected, started to cut up and a few agricultural challenges rattled the Liverpool players. The likes of Suso might be expected to find all this a bit bewildering and uncomfortable, but Stewart Downing really had no excuse for another dire performance. 

At half-time, Liverpool still hadn’t put the game to bed and, in the ten minutes after the break, they were essentially holding on for dear life. Mansfield, through a barrage of set pieces and the booming throws of Exodus Geohaghon whipped the 6,000-odd home fans into a frenzy. It was a deafening noise which made me lament the fact that Boston United haven’t experienced this kind of occasion for so many years.

There were enough close shaves for Rodgers to send for the cavalry, with Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson coming on to try and make the game safe. The Uruguayan did exactly that, controlling with his hand before slotting the ball home to howls of derision from around the ground and frenzied appeals for the Mansfield rearguard. 

Suarez - the “racist b**tard” - was pretty unpopular before, but this made him a pariah. If Robin Hood still roamed about in these parts, he probably would have hijacked the Liverpool coach on its way back to get at lucky Luis. 

To their eternal credit, Mansfield kept going and, with just enough time left for it to matter, pulled one back through Matt Green. There was a ripple of fear in the away end and Christian wore a face of pure fear as the yellow and blue assault continued. Liverpool, despite the raucous atmosphere towards the end, kept their nerve. 

Anxious moments for Rodgers
Afterwards, Rodgers had to dodge some pretty searching questions about whether Suarez should have owned up to his indiscretion. Given how the match then panned out, it’s a good job he didn’t. But there was no disgrace at all for Mansfield on their big day in the sun. 

The day brought one more strange incident. Our group was waiting for the train back to Nottingham when a man approached us clutching a carrier bag full of KFC chicken. He wanted to know whether the trains would take him back to Stoke. He also claimed that his brother played for Liverpool and then offered to pay for us all to get a taxi back to Derby. We didn’t think it was such a good idea to get in a cab with such a deluded and chicken-heavy person and so left him to it. I don’t know if he ever got back home, but he certainly wouldn’t have gone hungry...

Next match: Chelsea v Swansea City in the semi-finals of the League Cup on Wednesday.