The FA Cup Third Round: Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud
Call me an outlier, but I miss the presence of mud at professional level football matches. Pitch technology has moved forward in such leaps and bounds over the last few years have meant that the vast majority of pitches look like bowling greens all year round. Indeed, for several seasons groundsmen with a creative streak have been etching designs into their turfs, and it’s far from implausible that, at some point in the future sponsors will start getting in on the act, surreptitiously getting their logos on on this particular action. A combination of this and the onward march of 3G artificial surfaces means that mud may soon join terraces, black boots and advertisement hoardings that don’t flicker in about the most infuriating manner possible on football’s endangered species list.
One of the more ironic properties of mud is that it renders so well on a High Definition television, and there was plenty of it to see at St James Park in Exeter this evening. Whilst it doesn’t really smell of anything, there’s enough in our memory banks from the mere sight of it to summon forth mental scents of Deep Heat, fried onions, Bovril, and thick, tangy woodbine smoke. The aroma of football. St James Park is, with floodlights mounted on single poles, a small open terrace at one end and houses poking out from behind the stands along the side of the ground, a relic from a bygone era. And this evening, it was rocking. A crowd of 8,300 people barely let up from singing for the entire ninety minutes, and their reward will be a trip to Anfield for a replay the week after next on a night when their team matched Liverpool every step of the way.
It’s tempting to use the word “Liverpool” advisedly. Was this “Liverpool” or “a team reminiscent of Liverpool”? We’ll probably never know whether Jurgen Klopp actually, actively dislikes the FA Cup or not, but what we do know for certain is that the team hasn’t demonstrably improved under his tutelage in the Premier League, that has a match in it next week, and that the club’s injury list is growing to a point at which even some medical professionals may be starting to wonder whether it possible for there to be such a thing as an epidemic of twanging hamstrings. With this in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that Klopp’s team included players from the fringe end of the reserve spectrum. This Liverpool team featured Ryan Kent, Kevin Stewart, Cameron Brannagan, Tiago Ilori and Connor Randall making their debuts, with four other players, Adam Bogdan, Brad Smith, Joao Teixeira and Jerome Sinclair, had managed six first team appearances for the club between them.
Exeter’s opening goal came as a result of a defence that was playing as if only just introduced to each other. Jamie Read found himself in a little space and with the behind him and crossed low for Tom Nichols to slide in and roll the ball wide of Adam Bogdan to give the home side the lead. The excitement of all of this didn’t, however, last very long. We may talk a lot about how the level of inexperience fielded by Liverpool could only have a detrimental effect on the team’s well-being. People who end up under contract at Premier League football clubs don’t do so by accident. They are all supremely skilled. And so it was when, three minutes after Exeter’s goal, a challenge on Benteke deflected the ball to Jerome Sinclair, who calmly placed the ball into the corner of the goal to bring Liverpool level.
For much of the remainder of the half, Liverpool controlled the game as the two teams to to grips with an uncomfortable playing surface. Still, though, Exeter created chances. David Noble shot over from ten yards out. Christian Ribeiro headed wide when he should really have scored. Exeter City wouldn’t be denied before half-time, though, but the goal came with a dash of Premier League pantomime about it. Adam Bogdan, the back-up Liverpool goalkeeper, made a hash of a corner at Watford a couple of weeks ago that set the tone for a three-nil defeat that raised a fair few eyebrows. This time was no better than the last. In stoppage-time, a corner from Lee Holmes dropped under the crossbar and, with Bogdan apparently distracted by the attacking Exeter players, over the goalkeeper and in at the far post. Two-one to Exeter at half-time, then.
The common sequence of events for matches such as this is for the lower division team to sit back and try to ride out the storm as the higher positioned club tries to fight to avoid the embarrassment of defeat or the inconvenience of a replay, as appropriate. This wasn’t how the second half of this match played out. Five minutes in, the Exeter goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik saved brilliantly from a Christian Benteke header, but after this Exeter controlled the play in a way that was unbecoming for Liverpool, to the extent to which one started to wonder whether they might end up having cause to regret dominating possession and not extending their lead beyond the reach of their Premier League opponents. With seventeen minutes left to play, a cross from Sheyi Ojo was only momentarily cleared, and Brad Jones brought Liverpool level again.
This time, Liverpool finally started to impose themselves upon the game as Exeter started to tire. Their patchwork team, however, was unable to break down the home side’s defence and the match ended with the two sides level and facing rematch at Anfield the week after next. It is, most definitely, a replay that Liverpool could well do without. Jurgen Klopp got away with this evening, with a experimental team that might easily have brought about one of the most embarrassing results in the history of Liverpool Football Club. But what really matters in the long run is that he rode his luck and got away with it. We shall see whether the team for the replay comes from the same left-field direction.
For Exeter City, however, tonight was a job very well done. The club has previously benefited from earning draws against elite opposition in this competition – in 2004 a goalless draw at Old Trafford just about saved the club, financially – and the finances of this supporter-owned club will be considerably surer for the estimated £700,000 that it stands to make from the replay. Romance is one thing, but all the flowers in the world won’t pay the electricity bill. No matter what happens, though… well, call me selfish, but I still hope they don’t get rid of the mud. I like the mud.
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