Last chance for FA Cup romance

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If there is life left in the FA Cup, it must show it now. Exeter travel to Manchester United, Yeading face Newcastle and Scunthorpe go to Chelsea this weekend not merely dreaming of an upset that will echo through the generations, but with the opportunity to reinvigorate the oldest tournament in world football.

The FA Cup has long been ailing, the clearest sign of which was United's withdrawal to play in the Club World Championship in 2000. If even this third-round draw, pregnant with promise, cannot deliver, then romance in football truly is dead. Fail now and future generations will not care enough about the FA Cup for upsets to reverberate through them.

With all 20 Premiership clubs facing lower league opposition, some, almost inevitably, will be beaten. It is not enough, though, for Bolton to lose at Ipswich or Crystal Palace at Sunderland; what the FA Cup needs is a bone fide shock, the equivalent of Hereford's victory over Newcastle in 1972.

The image of Ronny Radford after scoring Hereford's equaliser that day, arms aloft, sprinting away delirious as hordes of parkas swarm around him, is the FA Cup. In such moments lie football's unpredictability, a tradition that allows every club, no matter how small, to fantasise that one day it might be them.

Given the Newcastle chairman Freddie Shepherd's comments last year about the desirability of a natural wastage that would see the extinction of several smaller clubs, it would perhaps be fitting if one of those minnows were to turn round and bite him tomorrow.

Yet football's class divide is such now that were Yeading to beat Newcastle it would be a greater surprise even than Hereford's victory. It will not help their cause that the game has been switched from The Warren, their ramshackle home in west London, to the plusher surroundings of Loftus Road, sparing Newcastle the kind of muddy surface on which they succumbed at Edgar Street 33 years ago.

For Scunthorpe, too, history provides both hope and evidence of how the game has changed. It was in the League Cup admittedly, but in 1988 Scunthorpe beat Chelsea 6-3 over two legs. Their goalkeeper that day, as it will be on Saturday afternoon, was Paul Musselwhite.

"They're a team of international stars now so it's slightly different," he said on Friday. "A lot of their foreigners probably haven't even heard of Scunthorpe."

Scunthorpe, whose starting 11 will have cost precisely nothing, are expected to make at least £250,000 from the tie, and, like Exeter, are in the curious position of knowing a draw and a replay against one of Europe's biggest sides is probably worth more to them than a win. That is not to suggest that either side would deliberately spurn a victory, but the fact that potential gate receipts are even an issue is a sad reflection on modern football.

Indeed, the most accurate assessment of the third round was probably given by Yeading's leading scorer DJ Campbell, who, with depressing but hardly atypical materialism, seems not even to be considering the possibility of victory. "It's a chance," he said, "to put ourselves in the shop window."

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