Is it that time of the season again already? The first weekend in January means that, just after the chaos of the Christmas schedule, everyone can relax for a weekend and forget all about The Football That Is More Important Than Life Itself and enjoy (Enjoy! Fancy that!) the Third Round of the FA Cup. None of this means that it will be necessarily all be plain sailing for the biggest clubs and plenty of them will have very uncomfortable weekends indeed. It’s also time to mention my annual reminder to clubs that aren’t in the Champions League – You’re not too big for the FA Cup. There will be plenty of Premier League clubs putting out under-strength sides this weekend, pursuing that agenda that I’ve never been able to understand – that, in modern football, it’s much more important to secure that fourteenth place in the Premier League than it is to actually have a go at winning the FA Cup. I can’t think of a single club that hasn’t been humiliated in the Third Round of the FA Cup. Whether it’s Manchester United getting stuffed by Bournemouth (1984), Arsenal throwing away a lead to lose to Wrexham (1992) or Liverpool getting beaten at Burnley thanks to a hilarious own goal (2005), there isn’t anyone that hasn’t come a cropper in the FA Cup Third Round at some point or other, so here are five matches that could make must of us giggle while supporters with wounded pride start banging on about the “league being more important anyway”.
Derby County vs Sheffield Wednesday – Cor. Just how bad are Derby County this season? Worst team in the history of top flight English football? Probably. Laughing stocks of the whole of English football? Yes, and deservedly so. Their board of directors have consigned their supporters to a year of unremitting misery – where has that £50m that they pocketed for going up at the end of last season gone, anyway? Yeah, right. Meanwhile, after an appalling start, Sheffield Wednesday have stabilised and, although they’ve been without a chairman for the last couple of months, they are currently out of the relegation places and, in the “everybody beating everybody else” world of the Championship, they could yet make the play-offs. Would you bet against them getting a result at a half-empty Pride Park on Saturday?
Stoke City vs Newcastle United – As I was writing on the subject of Newcastle United last night, they were in the process of getting beaten 2-0 at home by Manchester City, further tightening the screws in Sam Allardyce’s coffin. With Joey Barton still in prison after having been refused bail again and plenty of people on Tyneside very much on edge at the moment, I’d fancy Newcastle to lose to just about anyone at the moment, so it’s probably the wrong time for them to be playing a Stoke City team that is probably the best that the club has had in well over twenty years. Reading through the Stoke team is like reading a “Where are they now?” article for the Premier League about seven or eight years ago. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Steve Simonsen, Marlon Broomes, Leon Cort, Dominic Matteo, Salif Diao, Russell Hoult and Rory Delap are now, then look no further. Stoke City are currently in fourth place in the Championship, and are more than capable of beating a Newcastle team that is currently playing with the collective look of the condemned man on its face.
Huddersfield Town vs Birmingham City – Although they have improved slightly under new manager Alex McLeish, there is still something pleasingly unpredictable about Birmingham City at the moment, and they’re ten times more loveable than they were when Steve Bruce was in charge of them. Huddersfield are currently in a mid-table place in League One, though they do contain such moderately well-known names as Danny Cadamarteri, Phil Jevons, (Huddersfield legend) Andy Booth and Frank Sinclair. Whether Huddersfield can beat Birmingham or not will come down to which Birmingham team turn up at Galpharm Stadium on Saturday. If the Birmingham team recently beaten 3-0 at Bolton Wanderers turn up there, then anything is possible.
Blackburn Rovers vs Coventry City – I still can’t really fathom exactly why it is that people continue to be impressed by Mark Hughes’ Blackburn Rover team to the extent that Hughes is now regularly linked with bigger jobs. Coventry have had a traumatic season of it so far, with the club sailing close to administration and a points deduction that would have put them bottom of the Championship before Ray Ranson’s SISU group managed to secure a take-over. Like so many other teams in the Championship, Coventry’s squad is peppered with familiar names, such as Chris Burchill (the former Port Vale player who was notable as Trinidad & Tobago’s only white player at the 2006 World Cup), Julian Gray, Michael Hughes and Arjan de Zeeuw. Considering that there will most likely be more people sitting in my living room on Saturday afternoon than there will be at Ewood Park, I’d be less than surprised if Coventry saw off their more illustrious opponents.
Bristol City vs Middlesbrough – Bristol City had been threatening to get out of League One for the last few seasons, but not even their most optimistic of supporters would have expected a sustained run at a place in the Premier League in their first season back in the Championship, which sees them currently in third place, hanging grimly onto the coat tails of the vastly better off Watford and West Bromwich Albion. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, are still managed by Gareth Southgate, which is more a reflection of the extraordinary patience of Boro chairman Steve Gibson than it is on the dubious managerial “skills” of Master Southgate. It’s a long journey down from Middlesbrough to Bristol, but I suspect that their return journey could be even longer.
This weekend’s live BBC FA Cup matches are Aston Villa vs Manchester United on Saturday, and Burnley vs Arsenal & Stoke City vs Newcastle United on Sunday.