The FA Cup has had its share of detractors in recent years. In a football world dominated by the financial leviathan that is the Champions League, it’s perhaps no wonder that many managers – and fans – will say that they’d take a top-four finish in the Premier League over winning the FA Cup any day.
This weekend, though, has proved that the magic of the Cup is still as strong as ever. Five Premier League sides have been toppled at the hands of lower-league opposition. Chelsea face a replay after being held at Brentford. Oldham Athletic fingernails are down to the quick after a nail-biting finish at Boundary Park. What other competition offers such drama?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this weekend’s fourth-round ties is that there were so many strong teams out there. Brendan Rodgers hardly put out the reserves against Oldham (though he might now be wishing he had). Chelsea needed all £50m of Fernando Torres to avert disaster at Griffin Park.
It’s not just the Premier League sides that deserve praise for their team selection either. Look at Luton – a point shy of the playoff positions in the Blue Square Premier and desperate for a return to the Football League after four years of hurt, Paul Buckle could easily have elected to wave the Cup goodbye and rest some of his key players for Tuesday night’s vital league encounter with top-of-the-table Grimsby. Instead, the Hatters made history by becoming the first non-league outfit ever to knock a Premier League team out of the cup, and the first to knock a top-flight side out since Sutton United’s third-round victory over Coventry in 1989.
These are the moments that the FA Cup was made for. Perhaps the reason we still love it is because it embodies a sense of Britishness. Not just the heritage and history, but the abiding ethos that, on the day, the best team usually wins. Not to mention the fact that we British love an underdog, and the Cup is nothing if it is not for underdogs. The Champions League might have the glitz, the glamour and the cash; but it will never have the lumpy pitches, rickety stands and half-time oranges that are the soul of the English game.
Perhaps that is the reason why last year’s change to a 5.15pm kick-off for the final doesn’t sit right with me. The FA say that the later kick-off time means that fans (presumably those watching on television) will now be able to watch or participate in a game earlier in the day before settling down to watch the final; whilst I don’t deny that their logic is impeccable, the shift to an early evening start goes against everything the competition stands for.
Ironically, some of the staunchest opponents of last year’s late kick-off were Liverpool fans, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get back home from Wembley after the game. Chin up lads, at least that’s one dilemma you won’t have to worry about this season.