The first week of any year often brings similar traits. Ambitious resolutions, an annual detox after a boozy Christmas and the 3rd round of the oldest competition in the world, the FA cup. Historically this is one of the biggest dates in the football calendar and provides fans with drama and expectation, as lower league and even non league clubs have their opportunity to hit the back pages with a giant killing act. Ronnie Radford, the 1988 crazy gang- it’s the magic of the FA cup. Any football fan is familiar with the cliché. However, as I rose this morning never have I been more uninspired by a Saturday afternoon line up. Filled with a feeling of emptiness, it reminded me of the frustration felt when an international friendly breaks the mould of a pulsating premier league season. When 17.45 came I was even less inspired.
Credible home draws for Nottingham Forest and Reading against Birmingham and Liverpool respectively will leave both clubs happy, while cash strapped Coventry will be delighted to take Pompey back to the Ricoh Arena. Nevertheless, such results do not represent the archetypal upset we’re accustomed to at this time of year. Mr Mancini avoided a potential banana skin in his first taste of the FA cup away at struggling Middlesbrough, while every other premier league team progressed with relative ease on home soil. Hull and Blackburn crashed out in the all premier league clashes, not that they’ll care one iota. So as I look forward to the return of the premiership I’m left wondering, where has the magic of the FA cup gone?
Firstly, I do believe the draw undoubtedly played a key role in the insipid events of this afternoon. As the big boys entered the competition many of them were given attractive home draws against lower league opposition, while the top flight affairs of Wigan vs. Hull and Villa vs. Blackburn didn’t exactly leave the mouth watering. Unfortunately, it’s more than that and I fear the FA cup is in danger of losing its importance.
No longer is it about football for the so called giant killers. Reflecting on today’s games, I would have loved to have seen Sunderland travel to non league Barrow and find out if they’ve got a backbone. Likewise Stoke. However, in today’s business it’s about money and the smaller clubs would rather go away, pick up their pay cheque and take a hiding than challenge the opposition on the pitch. This is maybe not true of the players or fans, but certainly is of the management and boardroom. The mentality towards the FA cup has changed; I even doubt Reading wanted to win today’s game against Liverpool. Happy to go to Anfield. Content to go out.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the change in attitude towards the competition; it has been gradually devalued over the last decade. Today attendances were as low as they’ve ever been for the 3rd round. Many people will point to Manchester United’s withdrawal in 2000 as a turning point, although I do not necessarily hold this view. Maybe the belief in the romance has waned? In 15 years only Pompey have broken the mould of a ‘big’ four winner. So after a busy Christmas period whereby every team had heavy league expectations to fulfil, managers view it as a chance to rest players for a game that doesn’t matter.
And there holds the sad truth, the FA cup no longer matters. For the small clubs it’s about money and for the bigger clubs there is too much more at stake. I hope tomorrow provides more twists and turns in the form a big upset at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge but I won’t be holding my breath; for now, the magic has gone.