A shiny, much loved pot has emerged like a Phoenix from the Flames this year. Bedecked in ribbons it has emerged from a flaming wreckage that still lays claim to the souls of other once loved trophies such as the League Cup, the UEFA Cup and….well I’m sure the Intertoto Cup is lying around somewhere too. May this season be remembered as the year that the FA Cup threw off the Premier League imposed shackles. Let this season be the year the FA Cup finally burst out from the money-laden shadows of the Champions League and reclaimed its place as a competition that is treasured the world over.
This was a decline that many claim began with Manchester United’s decision to relinquish their place in the competition some fifteen years ago. However, in reality the rot set in three or four years before that with UEFA’S ridiculous idea to expand the Champions League to allow multiple clubs from countries to take part. The decision claimed the life of the Cup Winners Cup and has pretty much left the UEFA Cup as beaten, bloodied, unloved mess, something it almost did to the FA Cup.
The Premier League’s elite allowed the FA Cup to tumble down their list of priorities with the immense financial rewards of a Champions League spot now their primary focus. A competition that has made so many heroes, no make that icons, at clubs around the country was disregarded as an unnecessary distraction, unless of course you reached the semi finals and a day out at Wembley was a win away.
The FA Cup is the competition where the names of Estate Agent Tim Buzgalo of Woking sits alongside that of Argentinian international Ricky Villa. Or where Sutton United’s Matthew Hanlon can claim headlines normally reserved for the elite of English football. Yes, the FA Cup has already provided shocks but maybe their relevance declined in recent years, lost in a game rapidly drowning in ridiculously lucrative TV deals and inflated ticket pricing.
This season has seen the FA Cup show enough magic to tease JK Rowling into writing another Harry Potter novel, although given the nature of some of the shocks maybe even she would think it was too far-fetched for even the brightest of imaginations.
A whole host of Non-League clubs emerged bleary eyed from the ridiculously ignored Qualifying Rounds ready to face the “proper” rounds of the competition. It began with a humbling for Exeter City, Evo-Stik First Division North side Warrington handed out the first upset of this year’s competition, it wouldn’t be the last. Two days later Coventry City, still wearing the scars of a defeat to Sutton United almost a quarter of a century ago, were left to rue the magic of the cup. Worcester City, inspired by the former of forward Sean Geddes and the noise of their impressive band of supporters shocked the Ricoh Arena to its core to send the Sky Blues out.
The Second Round brought more romance. This time it was in the traditional hotbed of football that provided the shock of the round. A famous giantkiller of the past emerged once again. Blyth Spartans won a topsy-turvy North East derby away at Hartlepool United as a young lad who works in his parents newsagents – Jarrett Rivers – hit the headlines with a late, late winner for the Northumberland outfit.
The Third Round saw the “big clubs” enter the competition and put paid to the chances of the Non-League clubs. Spartans and the other North East Non-League side Gateshead sent crashing by Midlands clubs Birmingham City and West Brom respectively. Derby County also knocked out a Non-League club in Southport and the final club from outside of the Football League were sent packing as Crystal Palace beat Dover Athletic. Had the competition lost its sparkle this season?
A magical weekend of football was played out in Round Four. Normally Cambridge United holding Manchester United to a brave draw and subsequently an Old Trafford replay would top the bill, but this was not a normal weekend. Saturday 24th January will go down as one of the greatest days in the competition’s illustrious history.
Bradford City, a club with a fine record of recent cup upsets, made a mockery of a half time two-goal deficit at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s billionaires humbled by the Bantams but not beaten by dogged determination. No, this defeat was inflicted on José’s boys with a touch of elegance and a fair old whack of sublime finishing. A disgrace Jose? The only disgrace is that such a description of a potential upset was ever used.
And what of English football’s other oil-rich club Manchester City? A home tie with an admittedly in-form Middlesbrough should have been straightforward for a City squad bursting with talent. But this is the FA Cup and a fearsome defensive performance from Boro set the foundations for a win that only the bravest of the brave predicted. Aitor Karanka’s men deserved their win and the former Real Madrid defender deserves the highest of accolades for the way he set up his side.
Then the final tie of a remarkable day saw one last shot of magic, albeit a temporary one. Bolton Wanderers, once an established Premier League outfit, ventured to one of the most famous stadiums in world football and came away with a highly credible draw. Liverpool were their hosts, in a fixture few expected anything other than a Reds win. It was another Red who hit the headlines as flame haired Wanderers keeper Adam Bogdan produced several top class saves to earn his side a replay.
If we return to the original, somewhat laboured metaphor used at the start of this article, it seems that the FA Cup Phoenix has hit full flight and is leaving the scattered ashes of its years in the wilderness behind. Long may the magic of World Football’s most famous club cup competition continue to enchant everyone who holds it close to their heart.