It is impossible to talk about the FA Cup third round without sounding like Ron Manager. ‘Ahh the magic of the cup isn’t it….Ronnie Radford….parkas on the pitch. Hmm?’
Radford’s rocket is just one of a hundred memories that are steeped in folklore from this most glorious weekend in the football calendar. They are ingrained in us all.
The truth is however that the magic is starting to resemble smoke and mirrors. There will still be the occasional slaying of giants of course – it’s the third round’s party piece as the big boys join the fray – but it is doubtful we’ll ever again witness a team made up of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers going toe-to-toe with the top flight’s elite. This is because the conflation between the Davids and Goliaths has narrowed significantly in recent times. The plucky underdogs are now largely professionally run outfits with decent stadia while the behemoths of the Premier League view the tournament almost as an inconvenience and routinely field weakened sides.
The closest we can get to an old-fashioned fairytale in the making this weekend is at Goodison Park where lowly Tamworth take on Everton. Alas, although the Lambs (an unfortunate nickname should they get slaughtered on Saturday) are semi-professional all of their first eleven who are expected to play are full-time footballers. David Moyes meanwhile will surely select from the periphery of his thin squad against opposition that should be comfortably disposed of following an inevitable brave fight. Incidentally, rumours that Tim Howard is starting up front remain unconfirmed.
If Tamworth secure a highly unlikely result it will be slightly cheapened though by knowing that their illustrious opponents had some of their big-names watching from the stands.
Contrast this with an almost identical scenario that played out nearly thirty years ago at Goodison when the Toffees took on Telford United in a latter round. Not only were the non-league underdogs staffed almost entirely by part-timers who held down other occupations but the Everton team that day contained all of the sublime talents that collected so much silverware in the mid-eighties. Telford lost 3-0 but if an upset had occurred it would have been made all the more memorable against a midfield made up of Steven, Bracewell, Reid and Sheedy.
We as fans except that prioritising is commonplace in the modern game.
The increasing professionalism of lower league clubs is something that – save for nostalgia – should be celebrated. The cheapening of the oldest football tournament in the world by the big clubs fielding weakened sides however is a truly depressing state of affairs that borders on the scandalous.
We as fans except that prioritising is commonplace in the modern game. We’re acutely aware of just how much money is at stake for the avoidance of relegation or the securing of a European spot and the fixture congestion that can build up as a consequence. This is why grumbling is kept to a minimum when we see what is essentially a youth team fall to inferior fare in the Carling Cup.
But surely the F.A Cup is different? Sacred even?
For one thing – unless you’re Liverpool, Man City, Spurs or Everton – there really is no excuse for resting players this weekend as those four are the only teams with important fixtures mid-week. Which means the other sixteen top flight sides all have at least seven whole days to recouperate from the taxing demands of playing a single football match.
Another reason for deploying a full strength side is the unique lustre and standing of the tournament itself. Here though we come to perhaps the real reason why the F.A Cup has become so devalued in the estimation and aspirations of Premier League clubs and why even mid-table outfits such as Sunderland and Villa will no doubt put out their second string on this landmark day. Without wishing to come over all Alf Garnett the influx of foreigners into the British game (something that has had an untold positive effect in many, many ways) has meant that what makes the competition so special has conversely been its downfall. Its very uniqueness has meant that it is largely unappreciated by gaffers and top level players from overseas no matter how much lip-service they pay to watching the finals as a boy in their home-land. It is only in England that such importance and value is placed upon our domestic knock-out tournament.
Perhaps that is why the fans cherish it so much and why it continues to evoke such stirring nostalgia – because it is akin to an endangered national treasure. For all the cliché and tired old soundbites about the ‘magic of the cup’ it remains a quintessentially English pheonominon; a bastion of what once was and will never be again.
If only the big guns could recognize that – and stop for just one moment obsessing over commerce and league placings – and we’d be back in business to experience more of these great moments…..