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The FA Cup is a kiss of life for a stagnant sport

If a third round tie against Derby County did not tickle their fancy there was nil chance of the BBC abandoning Manchester United a second time in 12 years at Yeovil, even before Alexis Sanchez decided United were his favourite team.

If ever a tie expressed the essence of the oldest cup competition in football this is it, a draw that revives something of the lost romance that had been seeping out of the competition in the early years of the new millennium.

The concentration of competitive interest among an ever decreasing circle of wealthy clubs is proving a real issue in the game. The identity of the Premier League’s top six has become achingly predictable and the ruinous retreat of the teams outside the elite when mano-a-mano with the major powers has led to some mind numbing encounters.

As beautiful a team as Manchester City are there is no joy to be had from the stranglehold on possession they assume in too many of their matches. Not their fault, of course, if Newcastle United and the like park the bus at home, but football needs dynamic tension to endure. The damage inflicted by Newcastle et al with their pacifist tone is universal as well particular.

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Kiss Of Life

Thank heavens for the domestic cup competitions. The performances of Championship toe tappers Wolves and Bristol City at the Etihad in the Carabao Cup not only showed how others might make City shiver, they were received like the kiss of life by an audience slowly reclining into a permanent state of inertia on the sofa.

Coverage of the FA Cup third round was dominated by the winning goal on his Liverpool debut by the world’s most expensive centre half, Virgil van Dijk, and the exit of holders Arsenal at Nottingham Forest, described by one Fleet Street correspondent as being in the top one of FA Cup shocks.

That told me both how young he was and how old I am getting. Also in the category of top-one, third-round shocks was that engineered by holders United 33 years previously at Bournemouth’s Dean Court. The idea that Bournemouth, then struggling at the wrong end of the old Third Division, might one day be a top-tier side was as fanciful as Burkino Faso winning the World Cup.

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They Don’t Fancy It

As long as United turned up, the result would be a formality was the view commonly held in 1984. In his first managerial posting, one Harry Redknapp wasn’t listening. “They didn’t fancy it,” Redknapp said after the 2-0 win, a view he later expanded thus. “We’d been to Windsor & Eton in the previous round and got kicked to pieces.

We got a draw and brought them back to ours knowing that whoever won the replay was going to play United. It was a proper, old-fashioned Cup tie, a real tough game that we just scraped through. To be honest, we had less trouble with United than we did with Windsor & Eton.”

United manager Ron Atkinson described his side as “awful”. The regal George Best harrumphed that United’s superstars should not be allowed to draw their wages. In effect, that was the fate of Lou Macari, who played his last game for United that day, coming on as a second half substitute, though to no avail.

How marvelous that Arsenal’s defeat should conjure a similar reaction 33 years later. And how ironic that United should be playing their part in the Cup’s renaissance.

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Brazil Nuts

When United elected not to defend the Cup in 2000 in order to contest something called the World Club Championship in Brazil the blow appeared fatal for the prestige of the once pre-eminent pot. With the creeping spread of the Champions League obliterating all before it, football’s old certainties were being steadily eroded.

The group format leading into the later knockout rounds of Europe’s premier cup competition had by 2000 become the game’s ultimate reference point, forcing the FA Cup to accept a lesser ranking in the ambitions of the game’s nobility.

Interestingly United were lent upon by the FA themselves to compete in South America as part of a wider PR campaign to bring the World Cup back to the mother country in 2006. The move not only damaged the status of the FA Cup it failed to progress England’s position one iota, the World Cup eventually being awarded to Germany.

Wycombe Wanderers v Leatherhead - The Emirates FA Cup Second Round

1872 And All That

Now the pulse of a trophy first contested at the Kennington Oval in 1872 is returning.

Wanderers FC, an ensemble of former public school boys, including the old Harrovian Charles Hancock, who as secretary of the fledgling Football Association had proposed the idea of a cup competition a year earlier, were the inaugural winners.

Though contested by just 12 teams, with the winners guaranteed a bye into the final the following season, the Challenge Cup was considered a success and would prove pivotal in the expansion of the game both at home and abroad.

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Within a decade football would be professionalised, a response to a practice already happening in northern industrial towns, where clubs were increasingly finding a way to entice the best players to join them using undeclared financial inducements.

Blackburn Olympic’s hat-trick of cup wins from 1883 traversed the amateur and professional eras and ushered in a period of unprecedented growth, at the centre of which was the FA Cup. The Final established itself as the game’s annual showpiece, generating huge crowds.

The spread of empire took the game oversees, carried in the hearts and boots of ex-pats, engineers, administrators, civil servants and others representing British businesses abroad.

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Of Pies And Men

United’s visit to Huish Park is suffused with a visceral quality hard to find in sanitised games on perfect pitches played by teams who know each other so well.

It is the difference inherent in a competition that pitches teams from different spaces onto the same turf that has an endless capacity to fascinate, as Wolves, Bristol City and Forest have already shown this season.

The capricious nature of the contest, the tantalising rewards associated with winning, climbing ever closer to some halcyon goal, washes over the whole experience, the atmosphere rising from the stands like steam off a pie.

I recall covering one such tie at the Hawthorns many years ago. The chap sitting next to me in the Press box was none other than Sir Bobby Moore, who had a newspaper column at the time. That for me was the FA Cup in essence, football royalty rubbing up against the hoi polloi. And there is no feeling in football quite like it.

Topics:
Arsenal
Yeovil Town
FA Cup
Football

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