I generally don’t like trading in clichés but sometimes the very cliché itself strikes a nerve. The magic of the cup. Its FA cup third round weekend and it’s when the might of the Premier League gets unleashed on all that have got this far.
No other cup is like the FA cup. It’s the classic footballing soap opera, an unravelling narrative of excitement, heartbreak and intrigue. With even the earlier rounds now getting a bit more television coverage, it is no longer just about the start of January and the third round. Football fans can now follow the travails of some unfancied side from the 7th tier that might put out Bury in a grizzly 1-0 affair. Salford City this year captured the initial spirit of the cup. Admittedly aided by the BBC documentary about the ownership of the club by the class of ’92, Salford’s first round victory against Notts County was the spirit of the FA Cup encapsulated as the difference of all 59 league spots was thrown out the window for the non-League part-timers 2-0 victory.
Another noteworthy mention for the non-league was Whitehawk’s own little run into the second round. Exactly like Salford against Hartlepool, Whitehawk would lose their subsequent reply to Dagenham and Redbridge but the very fact both teams went to reply meant one thing. Inclusion in the third round draw.
Any draw is exciting. I get excited by the Champions League draw after Gianni Infantino has done his compering, but the FA Cup third round is the best of the bunch. 64 numbered balls and two ex-pro’s or people associated to some FA Cup folkloric tale conjure up the most drama without a ball being kicked bar transfer deadline day. The numbers are called. This is man bingo. Fans up and down the country wait on the edge of their seat for their clubs big money game. Whitehawk get called out. If they make it through their reply against Dagenham and Redbridge they will be venturing up North to face Everton. Salford could be welcoming Derby County. Whilst these games were never to be, for a week or so, fans and players alike were dreaming.
The ‘Third Round Proper’ is when we really can start talking about ‘cup upsets’ and brand teams ‘giant killers’ for a little while longer also. The FA cup is as clichéd as your school trip to the pantomime at Christmas, littered with unavoidable nostalgia of ‘that upset’ all those years ago. This year’s potential shocks include Eastleigh against Bolton and Oxford United playing host to Swansea. Eastleigh, in the Conference Premier welcome a Bolton side floundering in confidence and financially hamstrung by debt. These are two clubs on two very different trajectories. Whilst Bolton’s players and staff have struggled being paid on time, Eastleigh are one of the richer non-league teams around and harbour ambitions that next season league football will be played at the Silverlake Stadium. The latter has all the hallmarks of an upset. Potential league winners from the fourth tier against a managerless albeit improving Premier League side. This is even before we acknowledge table topping clashes like Middlesbrough against Burnley or Tottenham against Leicester. The Third Round just always seems to have the ability to generate great games of football.
People said a couple of years ago that the magic of the FA Cup was starting to wane. The gap between the top and the bottom was ever growing as the money from the Premier League trickled barely down to the Championship and then stopped there. Yet when the draw was being made I ‘oooood’ and ‘aaaaarrrrd’ as my Mum and I made a ‘thing’ about watching the draw. The magic is waning? Nonsense. In that 30 minutes of prime time TV of two grown men pulling out 64 numbered balls there was more magic than Harry Potter.