Throughout the entirety of its existence, the FA Cup has acted as a barometer for the state of the game in England. From 1883, when Blackburn Olympic’s win in the final against the Old Etonians marked the end of the amateurs’ early domination of the competition, via the 1945/46 competition, which was largely played over two legs and in front of massive crowds because the Football League had been unable to resume its programme at short notice after the end of six years of war, it has reflected the health and priorities of English football, and what its current condition says about the priorities of both clubs and supporters doesn’t offer a particularly healthy prognosis for the world’s oldest cup competition. Crowds have slumped, and the weekend of its Third Round Proper was met with a collective yawn by supporters who seem to now value the Premier League – or the possibility of getting into the Premier League – above all other considerations.
There were four non-league clubs playing in this year’s Third Round. Two won and two lost, but in three of the matches – including both at which the non-league clubs won – the story very quickly became about the bigger clubs. At Moss Rose, Macclesfield Town reached the Fourth Round for the first time in its one hundred and thirty-nine year history by coming from a goal down to beat Championship leaders Cardiff City by two goals to one, but their result was somewhat overshadowed by the Welsh club’s decision to field its development team plus a couple of senior players returning after having been out for a very long time. It is less than two months since Cardiff unveiled an £85,000 statue commemorating the club’s 1927 FA Cup winning captain Fred Keenor, and irony which will not be lost on those who saw the contempt with which they chose to treat the competition this year.
At Kenilworth Road, meanwhile, there were at least no excuses to be made on account of the strength of the team for Wolverhampton Wanderers as they lost by a single goal to Luton Town. Wolves have had a dismal first half the season in the Championship following their relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season, and an FA Cup loss against non-league opposition with a supposedly strong team proved to be enough for the owners of the club to decide that their experiment of bringing in the Norwegian Stale Solbakken at the end of last season, news that Solbakken himself is reported to have found out by a telephone call. Receipt of a text message of support to Sokbakken during a post-match interview with the Norwegian television channel TV2 led to runours that he had been sacked by text message – not that what actually happened painted the club’s senior management in a much more positive light – but within twenty-four hours he was forgotten, with Dean Saunders having been lassoed in from Doncaster Rovers to replace him.
Hastings United of the Ryman League Premier Division couldn’t quite match these heights, falling by four goals to one at Middlesbrough, and were an agonising two people above taking the number of people that would have been every headline-writers wet dream. Of 1,068 that did make the six hundred and twenty mile journey, it will be interesting and informative to see how many turn out considerably closer to home, at The Pilot Field for the club’s home league match against Wealdstone on Tuesday night. Making a similar journey but in the opposite direction were the supporters of Newcastle United, who were travelling to East Sussex to play Brighton & Hove Albion. Newcastle’s dismal recent form and equally unimpressive recent cup record – they have got beyond the Fourth Round of the competition just twice in the last ten years, and not at all since 2006 – were ominous, and the team that Alan Pardew decided to put out hinted that improving on that didn’t rank terribly highly on Pardew’s list of priorities this year, either. Brighton won by two goals to nil, a comfortable win which marked the second consecutive season that the Albion had knocked Newcastle out of a cup competition.
None of the SuperClubs perished, though two of them do at least have to put themselves through replays in order to guarantee themselves a place in the Fourth Round of the competition. Manchester United were dependent, after a somewhat lethargic display at West Ham United, on two moments of utter genius within three seconds from Ryan Giggs and Robin Van Persie to force a replay at Old Trafford, while Arsenal had a most peculiar afternoon in South Wales, going a goal down to Swansea City before scoring two goals in three minutes towards the end and then throwing away that lead a couple of minutes after taking it. The winners of that match travel to Brighton in the next round. Elsewhere, Chelsea’s fringe players beat Southampton’s fringe players and Tottenham Hotspur managed to overlook the fact that just because Coventry City were wearing a replica of their 1987 FA Cup winning shirt (because they beat Spurs in the final that year, you see? YOU SEE?) doesn’t mask the fact that Coventry have slipped down two divisions since then. Spurs took their foot off the pedal after having scored three times in twenty-three minutes during the first half, and will travel to Leeds United or Birmingham City in the next round at the end of this month. Similarly, Manchester City swiped Watford aside in the manner of an elephant absent-mindedly flicking its trunk at bothersome mosquito.
Elsewhere, there were draws. Lots of draws. Fulham were held at home by Blackpool and Wigan at Athletic home by Bournemouth. Sunderland could only draw at Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City did the same at Crystal Palace. In total, there were eleven draws, which means that the Third Round replay week – which is the week after next, because it is apparently impossible to arrange a football match at four days notice, even if everybody knows that because these are cup matches there is a reasonable chance that this may happen – will be more congested than usual, which will probably please the television companies as the rest of the world rolls its eyes and wonders whether other leisure activities inspire such snark and ennui in roughly equal measures. The FA Cup could be “saved” by offering a Champions League place to its winners (which will never happen, since the Premier League tends to view the FA as both an enemy and as prey), or by giving a billion pounds to its winners, which won’t happen because to do that would be ridiculous. Alternatively, it could be saved by clubs realising that their worlds will not cave in if they actually send their full first teams to play one or two more matches over the course of the season and supporters start to remember that being a supporter might actually be about wanting to win trophies rather than increasing your chances of finishing in fifteenth place in the Premier League rather than sixteenth by a degree that is neither guaranteed or even measurable. These won’t happen, though.
And that was the week that was.
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