I admit it, I fell a little bit out of love with the FA Cup this past weekend.
Don’t get me wrong, if Everton were to win the trophy this season I’d be celebrating until the 2015 final, but that romantic notion that is attributed to this wonderful tournament wasn’t nearly as prominent this year for me; in truth, it’s probably been dwindling for a while now.
If there is any real stardust left in the early rounds of the FA Cup, it is perhaps the equivalent of the magic done by an aging magician showcasing the same, tired tricks at a scarcely attended show.
Typically, the third round weekend is one of the best days on the calendar for English football supporters. It’s supposed to be about lesser sides pitting their skills against more illustrious opponents and fans from all clubs sampling different stadiums and experiences at various ends of the football spectrum. There’s a collective dream of a Wembley final amongst all, no matter how unfounded or unlikely.
It’s a competition that many like to think as preserving the soul of the English game; keeping ‘proper football’ going whilst the financial imbalance within the Football League continues to disillusion supporters and fans alike.
But did anyone really enjoy this weekend of FA Cup football just gone?
Managers moaned and rotated. Players ambled about. Supporters just didn’t turn up. It feels as though the essence of the FA Cup has shifted from “footballing leveler” to “unnecessary, unwanted burden”.
Heading to the Everton game this weekend, there certainly wasn’t that same buzz about the ground. There never really is when you’re at home against a team from a lower division (QPR), and I suppose that’s natural.
For season ticket holders, games in the early stage of either domestic cup mean there is a possibility you won’t necessarily be sitting near the people that surround you during a Premier League match day. The cup games don’t come part and parcel of a season ticket (Manchester United aside, I believe) but you can choose to sign up to an “auto-cup scheme” that secures your usual seat for those games too.
Some regulars attend the League Cup and FA Cup games, but some don’t. Subsequently you get sporadic match goers who turn up and they can sometimes be a little grating. They shout out some peculiar things, they’re up and down out of their seats and shuffling along the row during the game to get food or go the toilet.
It’s only a minor gripe, but one the best things about having a season ticket is interacting with the people around you. When I walk up to my seat, there’s always a bloke on the end of the row who stops me for a chat and always makes a jovial remark about me needing a haircut or a shave. My dad always walks down to the very front row (a really awful view, right behind the goal) before the game or at halftime to chat to one of his mates.
They’re just a couple of the seemingly insignificant routines and unique instances that contribute to the day, and they aren’t always there during the cup games. The atmosphere as such is a little disjointed and the noise from the crowd is pretty muted.
There were no qualms about the performance on the pitch though, as Everton took QPR to the cleaners. Ross Barkley was typically marvelous but 19-year-old defender John Stones really caught the eye. His composure and anticipatory skills were supreme for one so young, not to mention the forceful and authoritative nature of his defending.
After the game, if the televised late match looks a decent contest, we’ll shoot straight home to catch that. But Arsenal vs. Tottenham wasn’t on at the usual time of 5:30pm, but moved forward to 5:15pm. So any person heading back from a 3pm game was sure to miss a huge chunk of what was undoubtedly the tie of the round.
Moving that kick-off time forward 15 minutes really does beggar belief and supporters would sometimes be forgiven for thinking the FA go out of their way to hamper them, such is the baffling nature of some decisions. Just think back to last season’s final, where Wigan and Manchester City supporters had to attend a final that kicked off at 5:30pm and there no trains running back to the North-West post game.
Aside from that North London derby, the 3rd round draw was relatively uninspiring. So what better opportunity to give some television time to some of the non-league sides who were left in the draw?
Fat chance. Instead the usual suspects Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United were the televised games. Non-league Grimsby, who hosted Huddersfield Town in a 3-2 thriller, would have surely been a better option for UK TV (although it was shown in the US)? As would Macclesfield, a club riddled by financial woes, who took on Sheffield Wednesday at Moss Rose (another game shown on US TV, but not UK TV alas).
Supporters as a whole seem to be getting a little fed up with the FA Cup. And is it any wonder?
It was such a boost to see a packed out West Ham away end against Nottingham Forest. But after Sam Allardyce hung a host of young players out to dry, how many supporters will be making another FA Cup away trip under the tutelage of ‘Big Sam’?
Seemingly every game across the country was littered with huge blocks of empty seats and it’s so apparent that interest in the cup during these early rounds just isn’t there. And that is a by-product of fielding teams like the one Allardyce sent to the slaughter against Forest, as well as comments demeaning the tournaments significance, like those from Paul Lambert.
There are some managers that might be forgiven for decrying the detrimental effect these extra fixtures have on their squad, but Lambert isn’t one of them. Villa look almost certain to finish in mid-table — they’re currently six points clear of the relegation zone. And with no League Cup games and no European football to sap the legs of his squad, Lambert should be going all out for this competition, shouldn’t he?
Villa have 18 games to play in 126 days before the end of the season, which equates to one every seven days. If they’d beaten League One outfit Sheffield United, they would have had a potential further five games to play if they were to reach the final, equating to a game every five-and-a-half days.
It’s remarkable that Lambert didn’t fancy a run in such a prestigious competition. A cup run would have given everyone at the club a massive lift and would have surely kept spirits high towards the end of the campaign.
By playing a weakened team and losing to Sheffield United – a team that have won once on the road all season – the manager has merely plunged the mood of the club back into the doldrums. Now, Villa supporters have nothing but mid-table obscurity and the occasional cautious glance over their shoulders to enjoy as the season winds down.
The magic of the cup indeed.