The FA Cup third round was finalised (aside from replays) on Monday night as Leeds overcame Cambridge.
Usually, the third round is where the magic truly begins. Premier League sides can be drawn against non-league outfits in special occasions, with modest stadiums packing spectators in like sardines. But as an increasing number of top sides start to field weakened sides, I ask, has the FA Cup lost its magic?
The problem is that the majority of us are immersed in the Premier League way of life. Unless you regularly attend football matches in the lower tiers, you are subjected to England’s top flight on television and radio. The televised matches ignored the competition’s special stories: Barrow, Sutton United, Stourbridge, Eastleigh and Lincoln. Whether we like it or not, we view football through a Premier League lens.
That means that when the FA Cup finally comes around, it appears as more of an interruption and distraction than an occasion. We are frequently reminded that schedules are too busy, players are tired and managers must adapt to these influences. England is the only top league in Europe where clubs keep playing over the Christmas period.
When the third round comes in early January, we are presented with an awkward situation. Suddenly, the BBC and other media outlets remind us of the importance and ‘magic of the cup’ despite devoting little appropriate coverage to the previous rounds. Yes, there is a highlight show dedicated to the previous rounds but very seldom are we provided with enough to justify this ‘magic’.
In the early rounds this year, Solihull Moors saw off Yeovil Town and Whitehawk were robbed against eventual third-rounders Stourbridge, as they scored a goal in the final seconds, only for the referee to blow for full-time as the volley bulleted into the goal.
We know so little about the backstory attached to the likes of Stourbridge, Barrow, Lincoln and Sutton United that when their ‘big’ game arrives, the media bundle all of their stories into one weekend. As we have our own commitments to Premier League and Football League sides, we acknowledge very little about the teams that make it special. Habitually, the third round passes us by more and more each year.
On the pitch, the story is similar. Managers, often foreign ones (Jurgen Klopp more so than Eddie Howe), face the brunt of criticism as they field weak sides who they believe have enough to overcome less well financed clubs.
But that is just the case with the Premier League affairs. Liverpool, though weakened, were held by League 2 Plymouth in an occasion that will live long in the memory of the Pilgrims’ fans. As for Liverpool, the majority of their fans won’t remember who they faced in the third round this time next year. We see glimpses of the aforesaid ‘magic’, but not enough to justify taking the tournament truly seriously.
Bournemouth made eleven changes, Liverpool ten, Tottenham nine. Millwall and Wolves both saw off Premier League opposition but the most disappointing aspect of it all is that for Bournemouth and Stoke, these defeats bear very little significance. Now they can focus on their beloved league campaigns.
If you were to try and tell a Lincoln City fan that the FA Cup has lost its importance in English football culture, they would laugh at your ignorance. As National League Lincoln broke in the dying seconds of their match against Championship side Ipswich with the score at 2-2, both commentator and fans alike could barely contain their excitement. The consequent feeling of ‘what if’ is, for me, what makes the FA Cup so exciting. At least for the lower level clubs. What if Lincoln had scored? What if Stourbridge had found a way against Wycombe? Fans can hold onto those moments for years.
Don’t let the ignorance of the Premier League skew your ideas. The FA Cup remains the crux of English football, it’s just that the top tier clubs’ vision is being blurred by modern day issues in football. Ticket pricing, scheduling and financial rewards to a club are just some of the variables confusing clubs.
If you’re still feeling bleak about the future of the competition, watch Wycombe Wanderers’ players react to their away draw at Tottenham Hotspur in the fourth round and then try telling yourself that this competition has lost its soul.
Stuart Fagg, Pundit Arena