It had, at the time, felt like something of a dream job. It sounded great, of course; his kids had loved the title. “Like in Harry Potter!” they’d said. “You’re the Minister of Magic!” He’d laughed, and explained that being head of something wasn’t quite the same as being minister of something, and that neither the BBC nor BT were the government. But he’d liked that they’d liked it, so he hadn’t explained too much.
And it was easy enough in the early rounds, when all the teams involved were so small that pretty much anything counted as magical. Even Salford — the vanity project of a collection of millionaires — seemed to count, and had very obligingly agreed to appear on television several times as they made their way through to the second round. Gary Neville had shaken his hand. Paul Scholes had taken a moment to chat about Louis van Gaal’s poor taste in mechanical pencils.
But those happy days were gone. Now it was the Monday morning after the fourth round, and he been asked to attend a meeting first thing. He’d barely slept. The email had seemed neutral enough, but the more he thought about it, the more he’d begun to suspect that there was anger hiding between the lines. “Hi, hpoe you had a good weekend. Could you pop in Monday morning for a quick chat? Thanks, C.” Was the spelling error just a careless moment, or had his boss been typing through clenched teeth and rising blood pressure?
It was time to find out.
He knocked on the door, waited a second, then two, then opened the door. His boss, C, waved him in — cheerfully? aggressively? dismissively? — and pointed him to a chair, then continued speaking into the phone. “Yes. Yes, I agree. No, he’s just got here. Yes, I’ll be talking to him. Of course. Good bye.”
C placed the phone down carefully in its cradle, then turned to face him. C’s face was studiously neutral as they went through the formalities: the morning greetings (fine, thanks), the offers of coffee (yes, thanks), the quick catch up on the weather and the commute (damp and long, respectively, thanks). Then it came. The question. The big one.
“So,” said C, with a smile that might have been intended as a relaxing gesture but looked unfortunately like a wild animal baring its teeth, “what the hell happened this weekend?”
“I can only apologize,” he replied. “We … no, I thought we had all the bases covered. Five live games and a decent shot at something in four of them. That none of them came in is, well, obviously I take full responsibility. But I stand by our preparations.”
“Take me through the games.”
“Well, obviously you can ignore Colchester-Tottenham. That was a long shot. But we were fairly sure that Manchester United would struggle against Derby. A manager who may or may not have been trying to resign, a squad struggling to reconcile its desire to attack with its instructions not to, Marouane Fellaini … it seemed a no-brainer. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised that they achieved competence.”
C nodded. That was good.
“So, Liverpool and West Ham. Obviously no basis to expect a giant-killing — with them both being entirely ordinary in size — but we figured we were guaranteed goals. Liverpool can’t defend anywhere and is rubbish at home, while West Ham is a dangerous side, particularly playing away. Add to that the rumors that Klopp was going to play the kids and we figured we were sorted for something amusing, at the very least.”
“But you were wrong,” C was taking notes. That was probably a bad sign.
“Yes, we were. It was dull. Very, very dull. The only saving grace is that we get a replay out of it, and surely it can’t be as boring the second time around.”
“Yes. Let’s hope not.” Was that a joke? It might have been a joke.
“So. Everton. Again, a bit like United, we were hoping that their general messiness would carry over into the cup. Teams that can’t defend are always exciting, particularly when their fans are just beginning to teeter on the edge of proper misery. A dodgy result in the cup? Away at Carlisle? We’d have had magic and a mutiny. Story of the weekend.”
C nodded and made another note. This was definitely not going well.
“And, well, Chelsea. Frankly, we probably should have known that MK Dons would come over all funny in the presence of television cameras. They are, essentially, as a club, an exercise in vanity and showing off, and to expect them to play sensible, careful football, of the kind that might beat Chelsea in the cup, was a mistake. Also, Pete Winkleman stole my Thermos.”
C paused in his note-taking and shook his head. There might have been a hint of a smile. There might not have been. He continued. One last push.
“Look, we messed up, and we ruined everybody’s weekend. But if the television games were pretty poor, then nothing else went well either. City hammered Villa, Blackburn beat Oxford, and there’s no way we could have expected Shrewsbury to beat Wednesday or Peterborough to hold West Brom. Imagine if we’d picked either of those games for television. We’d have been laughed out of town.”
He put on his winningest smile. “Sometimes, the cup just doesn’t cooperate. Sometimes” — he spread his arms disarmingly — “sometimes magic just doesn’t exist.”
C nodded again and made one final note before looking up and smiling. Properly! A proper smile!
“Look, you know this weekend wasn’t good. Five games on television and not a single upset. Not even the threat of an upset. This is the FA Cup. This is the BBC. This is BT Sport. Three of the greatest institutions in England, embarrassed by one another. This is, frankly, unacceptable.
He put his pencil down.
“Luckily for everybody, John Terry decided — in that selfless, humble, putting-the-team-first way of his — to take his failed contract negotiations public. Such a leader, that man. Such an example. So between that and deadline day, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about. We got away with it. You got away it. Now, let us never speak about this weekend again.”