Dab Cams and Dud Cups; on the FA’s Failing of Lower League Clubs

Up on the Wembley big screens, as England were preparing to face Malta, the pre-match audio-visual assault of corporate messages paused long enough to herald the introduction of Dab Cam. As fans took their seats a roaming lens flitted about the stadium and zoomed in on supporters and remained fixed on their gurning faces until they made a misguided and peer-pressured attempt at performing ‘the dab’. And so, another new in-stadium phenomenon was instantly born; the Mexican Cringe.

For those unaware (a group in which I included myself until the exact moment described above), the dab is a dance move that has spread from American hip-hop culture and been adopted as the celebration of choice for young moneyed sports stars; initially in American Football, before it’s inevitable progression to the Premier League’s sub-25s. If pushed to describe it for you I’d say it resembled a particularly zealous am-dram portrayal of a sneeze.

Whether you’re a seasoned dabber (a dab hand?) or only discovered it a paragraph ago, the dab is not the issue here; for the last twenty-five years or so footballers have performed celebrations influenced by dance, from Roger Milla’s Central African sway to whatever that bollocks Lee Sharpe used to do by a corner flag was.

Sutton United 2-0 Ebbsfleet UnitedNo, instead it’s the Football Association’s attempted adoption of it that makes you sink into your seat in embarrassment. In allowing themselves to hear out whichever marketing moron it was who suggested cutting to the Dab Cam as a reasoned form of passing the time before a competitive international fixture, the FA has become that teacher who’s always just a bit too desperate to be down with their pupils. Before we know it the FA will be asking us to ‘call me James, yeah, Mr Simpkins is my dad’s name’ before sitting backwards on its chair to ask us what bands we’re into.

The Dab Cam is, in a way, symptomatic of the FA’s ongoing desperation to stay relevant and keep on-trend with everything and anything going on at the top level of football. Though the FA may make noises about being here for the wider game, from the grassroots up, the truth is they just want to be in with the cool kids and so they duly do whatever the cool kids want to do.

A case in point; a few weeks ago I saw a headline; ‘FA Cup fourth and fifth rounds could move to midweek’ and I thought can’t we have anything nice anymore? Can’t you just leave us with something? There are 736 teams who take part in the FA Cup, yet the whole nature of the competition continues to be twisted and distorted purely for the benefit of the upper most six of those – barely one per cent. Why must the rest of us lose out? Why must it be us that sees our favourite competition weakened because of the selfishness of those at the top?

Fixture congestion is not the fault of the FA Cup – this competition is not the source of the extra games being played by the top Premier League clubs; there are less FA Cup games now than at any other point since their cash-cow was formed. No, the extra matches come from the expanded European competitions that they lobbied for and created, and then warmly embraced with pound signs for pupils in eyes bigger than their bellies.

If we had an FA that genuinely cared for the game at all levels, one that truly concerned with upholding the integrity of the game then they wouldn’t even entertain the idea of adapting the FA Cup because Chelsea’s midfield is a bit tired. Instead they would be telling them where to go. To lump it. To suck it up. Telling the top clubs that it was they who wanted more European games and the financial rewards of meaningless group matches in front of disinterested crowds as they toy with Bulgaria’s second best team. So, if the prospect of playing a league game on a Tuesday night in March makes you go crying to the FA, tough. Why not recall and play some of the thirty-odd young players you’ve stock-piled around the European loan-market if your wingers are too knackered.

26 Southend United 0-3 Doncaster Rovers BBut they don’t. The FA doesn’t step forward and take a bold stance to protect the integrity of their flagship competition. And if the FA Cup can’t be guaranteed protection, then that only leads to lesser competitions becoming rife for experimentation under a flimsy ruse of somehow being for a perceived greater good.

England’s young players need more games, we are told, they need more opportunities to experience a competitive environment. But rather than the governing body seeing that as cause to challenge to the top teams over their policies of hovering up anyone under 21 who can kick a ball vaguely straight in the hope they’ll be the next Kieran Dyer, we instead get the cop-out shambles that is this season’s Checkatrade Trophy.

Even if you manage to leave aside the mystifying logic that somehow England’s lack of international success could be stemmed if only the nation’s most promising players first got to experience a penalty shoot-out loss to Fleetwood Town’s second string, the reformatted tournament just further highlights how not a single shit was given by the FA to clubs or fans whose life exists below the Championship parachute payments. That anyone could’ve thought that we’d be happy to turn up and watch our team being belittled into facing a side with squad numbers so high you couldn’t even stick them on the lottery; that we’d be OK with watching our local sides face the disinterested forgotten signings of clubs for whom the height of ambition represents finishing fifteenth, again, just so long as  it meant a national side people have never felt further detached from might stick an extra goal past Lithuania is as staggeringly arrogant as it is detached.

Look down from the Dab Cam screens at an England game, and at the towns on the flags in the stands; Doncaster, Rochdale, Luton, Plymouth. These are the people who follow England, and dabbing is merely something their parents and grandparents do down the Gala on a Thursday night. They suffer enough having to watch the tosh that the England team serve up on a regular basis, why should they be made to suffer further by watching their clubs belittled and dicked about too, just to serve the egos of the privileged few?

imageI don’t profess to know the answer to England’s problems – and as a Welshman I couldn’t care – but even through the fog of my own disinterest it’s clear that their issue is not one of a lack of talent. They have it, sadly. Loads of it. But through the Premier League the FA has fostered an environment where money, not achievement, is they key driver. Finishing fourth – and passing Go to collect the Champions League’s millions – has become a greater motivation than actually lifting silverware. And if we can’t rely on the FA to big up the legacy of its own showpiece over short-term windfalls of European cash, then how can we ever rely on it to look at the bigger picture, and think of us beneath the hype?

We all know the English football system is far, far from perfect. That it’s quite frankly a mess. But the idea that it, and only it, is preventing English success internationally is naïve and close-minded, even by the FA s standards. Besides, the view that there are too many games, yet not enough chances for young players, was emphatically blown out the water by the achievements of Wales, and their relatively young squad of English-league based players, at Euro 2016. Maybe one day soon the FA will steal its gaze away from the Dab Cam and from the toes of the Premier League’s money men long enough to realise that the problem isn’t with the foundations of English football, it’s in the ceiling

by Glen Wilson

A version of this piece initially appeared in issue 84 of popular STAND, a fanzine for the likes of Doncaster. Issue 85 of popular STAND will be on sale on Saturday 26 November.