Though it would be fair to say that the past weekend of FA Cup football has not produced a great number of real shocks, it would be totally unreasonable to suggest that the smaller sides from the lower divisions have not been extremely tough opposition for some of the Premier League’s high-flyers. It would be just as unreasonable to say there have not been many magical moments that have captivated audiences across the country.
Hartlepool and Nottingham Forest may have provided the only two major surprise wins of the third round, when they defeated Premier League opposition in Stoke City and Manchester City respectively, but examples of lower teams holding their own have abounded throughout the past weekend of cup action.
League One side Southend stunned Chelsea by drawing at Stamford Bridge, whilst a near full-strength Liverpool side were pushed all the way in the second-half of their tie at Preston. Champions League contenders Aston Villa can consider themselves very fortunate to have overcome a spirited Gillingham performance that probably should have been rewarded with at least a replay, and other teams like Macclesfield and Barrow only lost out to top-flight teams by a single goal.
Seeing lower league sides, who spend far less money than the big boys of the Premier League, battle so hard and revel in the occasion of a classic cup tie makes you think that no romance has been lost in this great competition. Seeing jubilant fans packed in the terraced stands at League One and Two clubs, bouncing up and down with thrill, is also an extremely uplifting sight for lovers of the FA Cup. This competition still means an awful lot to people.
Nothing else provides such joy to die-hard football supporters who follow lower league clubs around the country than to finally gain some reward: a cup tie with the very best. Macclesfield had their moment on Saturday, when they were given the chance to take on Everton, and although the result did not go in their favour, it was a great occasion for the club and its loyal supporters. Blyth Spartans will revel in a similar opportunity later tonight when they welcome Blackburn Rovers to their tiny little ground. Pure magic it is guaranteed to be.
For any observers of the English game who still hold the opinion that the FA Cup’s romance is dying, just take a look at the faces of the joyful fans of lower league clubs getting their big moment. Look at Barrow. Look at Macclesfield. Look at Hartlepool. Look at Nottingham Forest. Look at Southend. Watch the game between Blyth Spartans and Blackburn Rovers tonight. There are too many examples of magical moments to say that the competition doesn’t matter any more.
And it is not just the smaller clubs that value this cup so highly. Just look at the teams that Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea fielded in their ties with lower sides. They were packed with regular starters and talented individuals. Apart from the goalkeeper, Liverpool began with pretty much their strongest eleven possible, maybe excluding Dirk Kuyt because he has played so many games recently. The big four are taking it just as seriously as the rest.
Another great example of how much the FA Cup means would be Martin O’Neil, who celebrated gleefully when his Aston Villa side scraped past the very tough challenge of Gillingham on Sunday. He jumped up and down manically when his team scored their two goals. It was pure joy embodied by a man who so desperately wants to add this trophy to his glittering collection of silverware.
The past weekend has provided so many great FA Cup moments that is impossible to argue that its romance is dying. There were too many elated supporters celebrating wildly at the final whistle of their side’s win. Too many great occasions at lower league clubs where more glamorous Premier League opponents came to town. Too many anxious mangers, players and fans watching the fourth round draw on Sunday, studying intently to see who their beloved club were drawn against.
The romance of the FA Cup is evaporating? No chance. More of the same in a couple of weeks please.