Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cup Fever Revisited

Well, that was a frantic few days - but then the Christmas and New Year period always is, isn't it? Were it not for the vagaries of the Premiership's fixture producing computer (which inexplicably decided that Chelsea and Arsenal should get an extra twenty-four hour's break at the end of an exceptionally busy week), we'd have a few days free to gird our metaphorical loins for the FA Cup Third Round. Just in case you were wondering, Arsenal, predictably enough, stuffed Charlton 4-0, whilst Chelsea continued their one-team mission to hand the league championship to Manchester United by contriving to fail to win away against the recently woeful Aston Villa.

But that's not the reason why we're not here. It's the Third Round of The Cup next weekend and, as such, this week will be FA Cup week on this little, incompetently written, appallingly spelt corner of the internet. Over the course of the week, I'm going to be running through every detail I can think of that I think that you lot should know about the FA Cup because, if there was a truism about football that holds up in this cynical, cash-drenched age, it is that the original is the best. The FA Cup is the oldest, purest football competition in the world, and it is still the best. There were a few years when we forgot how lucky we were. We allowed ourselves to believe that the straight drama of a knock-out cup tournament was too random, that we needed mini-group stages, play-offs and home and away legs to validate everything. We allowed Manchester United to wander off to the other side of the world to play in the World Club Championships and forsake it. We allowed the FA to tinker with the format and shift the dates of it about. Having said that, though, we remembered again, and it felt like an old friend coming home.

Last year, it all hit some sort of crazy peak. For one thing, only one of the self-perpetuating Big Four made so far as the semi-finals. Arsenal were dumped on their backsides in the fourth round at Bolton, Manchester United went out in a thrillingly tense match at Liverpool in the fifth round, and The Reds also accounted for Chelsea in the semi-finals. The third round was the best that I can remember, with Liverpool having to come from 3-0 down to beat Luton Town at Kenilworth Road, Leyton Orient beating Fulham 2-1 at Craven Cottage, Leicester City defying their terrible league form to come from two down to beat Spurs 3-2, Manchester United needing a replay to see off Conference side Burton Albion and Middlesbrough conceding a magnificently unnecessary last minute penalty to allow Conference South side Nuneaton Borough a replay against them at The Riverside Stadium.

The final itself, between Liverpool and West Ham United, was surely the best since "The Matthews Final" between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers in 1953. Steven Gerrard's performance was exceptional enough for us to almost be able to forget everything else that happened, whether it was Jamie Carragher's own goal, Jose Reina's fumble for the second, players falling like flies through cramp, Paul Konchesky's unlikely third West Ham goal or Marlon Harewood's open goal miss in extra-time. Watching it at home, it sounded John Motson's head was going to explode - sadly, I was unable to find the BBC's coverage of anywhere, so you'll have to settle for Sky Sports' highlights of it instead (although Martin Tyler and Andy Gray do a pretty mean line in hyperbolic squawking themselves).

Time enough, I think, for a quick re-cap of this season's competition so far. Prior to what you may believe, the FA Cup starts in August with the Extra Preliminary Round, and teams such as West Allotment Celtic and Norton & Stockton Ancients pitting their wits against each other (Norton & Stockton won 6-1 after a replay, in case you were wondering). They then pass through a Preliminary Round and four Qualifying rounds (the bulk of Nationwide Conference clubs come in at the Fourth Qualifying Round), before the teams from League One & League Two come in at the First Round Proper stage, played over the second week of November. By now, the stakes are high for the non-league clubs, with the BBC and Sky Sports each paying a fat pile of money to broadcast a live match, but the structure of the FA Cup is such that it makes every round important. For example, in the Fourth Qualifying Round, the non-league clubs are playing for a possible live TV appearance and the money that comes with it. The same follows in the First Round, and in the Second Round they're playing for a possible match against a Premiership club. The way that the money can add up is, for a small club, extraordinary. For the last two years in a row, Manchester United have been forced to a replay by clubs from the Nationwide Conference. Unlike League football, the gate receipts for FA Cup matches are split 50/50, so Burton Albion and Exeter City (the two Conference teams that pushed United to a replay) both made an estimated minimum of £750,000 each from their matches at Old Trafford, along with a further £150,000 for a live TV appearance. This sort of money is anything up to a couple of years' worth of wage bill paid for clubs of this size.

We love the drama and the unpredictability of the FA Cup. In an ideal world, the big clubs would remove the knock-out element of it and have group stages to ensure that the likelihood of them being upset would be minimised. They would keep the home gate receipts all for themselves, and, if given the chance, they'd drop out of it entirely at the drop of a hat if they were given a sniff of a European Super League in its place. We should be eternally grateful that none of this is going to happen and, next Saturday, with Tamworth vs Norwich City, Liverpool vs Arsenal and Manchester United vs Aston Villa live on the BBC, and Cardiff City vs Tottenham Hotspur live on Sky Sports, we'll all get the opportunity to see exactly why this is.


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