The FA Cup Fourth Round, played out last weekend, was most peculiar. There were sixteen matches played, involving thirty-two clubs, and not a single one was drawn. It was the first time that this had happened in a shade of fifty years. I bet no-one at the BBC saw that one coming. Equally strange is the layout of the last sixteen of the competition. Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool are all ominously present and correct (fingers crossed that they draw each other in the fifth round, then), but the rest of the Premier League has been absolutely decimated. I pointed out here before that the best possible Premier League representation in the Fifth Round would be eight clubs, and the weekend’s results mean that just six have survived – the Big Four, plus Middlesbrough and Portsmouth. I can’t offer a definitive solution to this riddle. I remain less than convinced that this idea that “the Premier League doesn’t care about the FA Cup any more”. I simply cannot accept that professional sportsmen could sell their supporters down the river like that, and I also don’t think that it is in the genetic make-up of the professional sportsman to not want to win. I remain convinced that it is simply that the majority of the Premier League is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is. If the Premier League was anything like as good as it thinks it is, Everton’s reserves would have rolled Oldham Athletic, Birmingham City would have beaten Huddersfield Town and so on and so forth. Until lunchtime, when the Fifth Round draw is made, it’s difficult to gauge how healthy this all is for the competition (the rest of the Premier League’s capitulation could be seen as simply giving the Big Four a free run to the semi-finals if they manage to avoid each other in the draw), but it does at least make a pleasant change to see some different faces at this stage of the competition.
The vast majority of the weekend’s plaudits were taken by Havant & Waterlooville, who inflicted up Liverpool arguably the most excruciating forty-five minutes of football in their entire history. It was inevitable that Liverpool would eventually overpower them, but the final score of 5-2 was highly flattering, and whilst some cynics snorted over the cliches about “the magic of the FA Cup” and it being “what dreams are made of”, it’s worth pointing out that lazy journalism will always be lazy journalism. Some people have also wondered aloud how many of the 6,000 people that travelled up from Hampshire to Anfield will be back at West Leigh Park next week. My mind turns to Woking’s FA Cup adventure in 1991, when they took a similar number of supporters to The Hawthorns for their match against West Bromwich Albion. Prior to that FA Cup run, Woking had been a fairly typical lower division non-league team, getting by on crowds of three to four hundred. Their average home crowds immediately shot up after this cup run, giving them the springboard for two promotions which took them into the Conference, where they remain to this day. We shall wait to see with interest whether Havant & Waterlooville enjoy similar success.
Yesterday’s back pages certainly made interesting reading, with particular regard to Newcastle’s trip to The Emirates Stadium to play Arsenal. One “senior source” (presumably a disgruntled player) noted darkly that Kevin Keegan’s team talk prior to the match consisted of telling his players that “Arsenal are a great passing team. We must make sure that we pass the ball better than them”, and nothing else. Such tactical acumen was thoroughly rewarded with Arsenal swatting them aside by an eventual 3-0 scoreline. Two games, no goals and out of the FA Cup. The Keegan Revolution marches on. Two further Premier League teams bit the dust against lower division opposition. There was no great surprise at Pride Park, where Derby County’s new American owners saw their team thrashed at home by Preston North End, who currently occupy one of the relegation places in the Championship. They must be wondering what they’ve let themselves in for, there. Slightly more surprising was Manchester City’s capitulation at Sheffield United, not least because Sven Goran Eriksson seemed to have turned a corner in terms of turning City into a capable, organised outfit, whilst the involvement of Bryan Robson at Bramall Lane would appear to preclude Sheffield United from doing anything with much efficiency.
In Sunday lunchtime’s match, Spurs were predictably hungover against Manchester United. With a makeshift defence playing, they took the lead at Old Trafford before capitulating, and the 3-1 scoreline seemed to flatter United, with Michael Dawson getting himself sent off for deliberate handball and Radek Cerny rolled over a tame, deflected shot by Cristiano Ronaldo to sew the game game. In spite of all of this, Spurs had their chances. Jermaine Jenas was put through on goal with the score tied at 1-1 but rolled the ball tamely wide, and Dimitar Berbatov bundled the ball against the post with United leading 2-1, so it could have been different, but Spurs are going to have to put this one down to experience and redouble their efforts in the League Cup and UEFA Cup.
Elsewhere, Middlesbrough were given an almighty scare by Mansfield Town before running out 2-0 winners and Portsmouth had to come from a goal behind before beating Plymouth Argyle. In the matches between the lower division sides, Bristol Rovers beat Barnet 1-0 at Underhill, Wolverhampton Wanderers raised a few eyebrows in beating Watford 4-1 at Vicarage Road, and Luke Beckett continued his impressive record – he scored the winning goal in Huddersfield Town’s 1-0 win at Oldham Athletic, meaning that he has scored in all four rounds of the cup so far this season. The draw for the Fifth Round will be made at lunchtime, and the sixteen teams left in are as follows: Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United, Coventry City, Huddersfield Town, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley, Southampton and Preston North End. You can catch up with the weekend’s goals here, and there will be a lengthy report on the Liverpool vs Havant & Waterlooville match here.