By Michael Burney
For years now it has been said that the ‘Magic of the Cup’ has been dying. Ever since Manchester United pulled out of the competition to play in the inaugural World Club Championship in Brazil at the turn of the century, this line has been trotted out. It would be fair to say that due to the riches on offer, both in the Premier League and the Champions League, many clubs now regard the FA Cup as somewhat of a secondary competition.
In recent years we have seen many clubs field second string sides, especially in the earlier rounds of the Cup. It has gotten to the stage where even mid table Premier League clubs and also Championship clubs have decided to rest players when it comes to FA Cup weekend. The knock-on effect has seen apathy from some club chairman and managers regarding the world’s oldest knock out competition.
However, a couple of things have remained constant when it comes to the FA Cup retaining its mythical status. The first is the ability for non-League clubs to make it to the 1st Round proper, face Football League sides and even knock them out of the Cup. This season we have seen Marine from Liverpool, who play in English footballs 8th tier, nearly get knocked out by Barnoldswick in the Preliminary Round, beat Colchester United in the 1st Round proper and then go on to reach the 3rd round and will face Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur on their own turf.
In staging the game on Merseyside, there is the ultimate potential for a proper FA Cup ‘giant killing’. There have been so many upsets in the history of the Cup down the years from non-League Yeovil beating Sunderland back in the 1949, Ronnie Radford and Hereford beating Newcastle in the 1970s and a young Harry Redknapp’s 4th Division Bournemouth side beating Cup holders Manchester United at Dean Court in 1984. Arguably the biggest upset of all was Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ beating Liverpool’s ‘Culture Club’ in the 1988 Final. In more recent times we have seen Lincoln City reach the Quarter Finals, Oldham Athletic beat Liverpool in 2013 and of course Wigan Athletic shock Manchester City in that season’s showpiece.
One huge factor in any Cup upset is always the supporters. The covid-19 pandemic has robbed football fans up and down the land the opportunity to watch their side play now for almost 12 months. Although some limited numbers of supporters were allowed back into grounds this season, stricter government tiers and ultimately a third national lockdown has put paid to supporters attending this weekends’ FA Cup 3rd Round weekend, which is such a shame.
It is the supporters which really add to the ‘Magic of the Cup’ and without them at Marine, Stockport, or at Chorley this weekend the chances of a proper FA Cup upset diminish. If supporters were allowed into these grounds, of course the excitement for this weekends’ ties would build even more with the whole ‘anything can happen in football’ notion being believed by so many.
As it transpires the players of non-League Marine, Stockport, Chorley and others will now not get to play possibly the biggest games of their lives and careers in front of their own supporters, and ultimately their experience too will just not be the same. The reason that the TV cameras turn up at these grounds on FA Cup weekends is in anticipation of the ‘impossible’ becoming possible, and although we may well still see some unlikely results, the odds have been lengthened.
Another knock-on effect of the pandemic and the ‘new variant’ is that too many players are now returning positive tests. There have been calls in some quarters to curtail the season again whilst the situation is brought under control, although at this stage 3rd Round weekend is still set to take place. There has already been one postponement between Southampton and Shrewsbury, whilst the tie between Aston Villa and Liverpool may well go the same way with an outbreak confirmed at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath Training Ground.
Most clubs, despite many games in the Football League being called off, have decided to fulfil their ties, but perhaps in even more cases than usual, weakened sides will take to the field. It has already been confirmed by Derby County that Wayne Rooney’s side will pick from their Under-23 side and youth team players for their tie at Chorley, due to the number of affected players in the first team.
All of this adds up to a very strange FA Cup 3rd Round this season. The potential for upsets is still strong. However, with no fans to witness the games, cheer on the underdog, and with even more first team players set to sit out the action than usual, the ‘Magic of the Cup’ has been diluted even more this year by the ongoing covid crisis.