Interview: ESPN commentator Jon Champion previews Altrincham vs. Burton Albion in the FA Cup

Interview: ESPN commentator Jon Champion
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Sports Mole previews the Altrincham vs. Burton Albion FA Cup reply with ESPN commentator Jon Champion.

Thursday evening's FA Cup replay between Altrincham and Burton Albion provides the hosts with a chance of pulling off one of the competition's upsets.

The two teams met at the Pirelli Stadium earlier this month and shared six goals evenly in what proved to be a thrilling contest.

With the two teams getting a second go at each other this week, we look ahead to the tie with ESPN's lead commentator Jon Champion, who will be at Moss Lane.

We all love seeing the big clubs battle it out in the FA Cup. However, are matches that provide non-league teams with the chance of causing an upset like this one what the tournament is all about?
"Absolutely. These are the best games that we do, professionally-speaking. These are the games that are most fun to commentate on. A couple of Sundays ago I found myself at the Avenue Stadium in Dorchester. They are a club that have been going since 1880 and it was the first time in their history that they had beaten a Football League side in the FA Cup. So after 132 years of trying I was there on the day they made history and that is the beauty of the FA Cup at this stage. We as commentators are there as privileged guests on the greatest day in a particular club's history."

So many people these days believe that the FA Cup has been devalued. Surely opportunities like this for Altrincham prove that this is not the case?
"I celebrate the inner qualities that the FA Cup throws up. The fact that sides who are separated by huge gulfs in terms of the Football League and non-league structure are equals for the day. Also the fact that David can slay Goliath and occasionally it happens. I just think that we have the most wonderful of cup competitions - in stark contrast to most of the other cup competitions around the world. It's something that we should really cherish and celebrate rather than wondering if it is in decline. I don't think if you were to talk to the players of Altrincham or Dorchester or any of the other sides that made a bit of a stir in the first round, they would say it is in decline. It's still the biggest day of their season and that is what we've got with Altrincham and Burton playing on Thursday night. It's the biggest game of Altrincham's season and certainly I think that is something that stands the competition away from virtually every other football competition."

Are there any major differences between working at games like this one and say, commentating on the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League?
"Yes. I'm not just paying lip service to it, I honestly feel that there is. That's because I think you take each game and each occasion on its own merit. If you're doing Manchester United against a run-of-the-mill side from Germany in the Champions League - it's probably a side that they have played four or fives time before over the last seven or eight years. It's a side that is going to Old Trafford and that United are expected to beat and probably a side that United will go on to beat. Where is the surprise and the drama there? I just think that when you settle into your chair for an FA Cup tie, particularly one involving teams from different divisions, you never quite know where the ride is going to take you. That is why the FA Cup does it for me. I love the inner qualities that it throws up."

Altrincham led twice in the first tie and were eventually pegged back by a late goal. Do you think that will be playing on their minds come Thursday?
"I just wonder whether Altrincham's best chance has gone because they have lost the element of surprise now. Burton should be fully prepared when they get off the bus at Moss Lane on Thursday night and I doubt that they will be as sloppy as they were in the first game. Having said that, Altrincham are a match for anyone on their home ground. The pitch is tremendous - Manchester United's development squad play there. It's one of the best surfaces, not just in the non-league but anywhere in the country, and I think Burton will enjoy playing on that, which isn't always the case when you go away to a non-league team. But when Burton enter the arena of Moss Lane with all the history that swirls around on FA Cup nights and the memories of those 16 Football League scalps that Altrincham have taken - that could work in the home team's favour. I also wouldn't be at all surprised if the tie goes into extra-time - it could be that tight."

Crewe Alexandra await the winners in round two, which provides both with a good chance of reaching the third round. Do you expect that to spur them on?
"I do but I'm not sure they need any spur though, especially Altrincham. It's been 11 years since they last made it through to round two and they've got every incentive. Their last win against a Football League club was back in 1994 against Wigan and that is a long time for a club of Altrincham's FA Cup tradition to go without claiming a scalp. I think they'll be very up for this no matter who they are due to play in the second round, let alone the third. It is a tie that stands on its own two feet. They would have preferred Crewe at home but Crewe away does offer the possibility of further progression and then they are in the hat with the big boys, where anything can happen. Some of their fans will remember playing the likes of Everton and Tottenham and so I think it would rekindle a lot of memories."

You mentioned the pitch at Moss Lane being a fantastic playing surface. But are there any major differences for you from a working point of view to when you go to Old Trafford, the Etihad Stadium etc?
"Safety! That would be the first one. They build temporary scaffolding and the people that build these things take particular delight in supplying very bendy and high ladders that you have to clamber up with all your books and your kit. That's the biggest challenge of going to grounds that you don't usually visit. The second thing is that the lights are not always quite as a good as a Premier League match. If you're doing a night match it can be quite difficult picking out players on the far side if there is an area of shadow. The only other thing is that the players are not instantly familiar to you. So I've had to put in the hard miles and been to watch Burton at Plymouth and Altrincham vs. Worcestor recently. You can turn up and do Manchester United vs. Tottenham any day of the week. You're in a nice commentary position and you know all the players straight away. That's not the case with Altrincham vs. Burton or indeed any ties during the early rounds of the FA Cup so it needs a bit of extra work."

Obviously in your job you need to be impartial but does a part of you want to see an upset on Thursday night?
"It's quite nice to see an upset in the FA Cup but if one says that, one is perceived as being anti-Burton and I'm not that. I do think that it makes an occasion. The thing about an FA Cup upset is that it is not an upset if it is happening all the time. I think it needs to be recognised that a non-league team beating a club from the Football League is still a comparatively rare occurrence. It's something to be celebrated by the neutral, which is me, when it happens. That's because of the rarity and scarcity value, not because we are delighted in the fate of a Football League club. Also, on this one, let's not forget that there is a bit of role reversal with Burton turning up as the Football League side after so many years in non-league. They've only just become the big boys themselves and it is not a position that they are completely used to yet."

Watch Altrincham take on Burton Albion this Thursday, live on ESPN from 7.30pm. ESPN has live and exclusive coverage of up to 25 FA Cup matches this season, from the first round through to the final. For more news, comment, video and analysis, visit dedicated football website, ESPNFC.com.

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