Debating the future of the FA Cup has become almost as much of the ritual of third-round day as the clichés of postmen players having to juggle their shifts to make kick-off. Yet a recent study at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico suggests more reason for alarm this year than at any time since Manchester United were forced to spurn the competition to compete in the Club World Championship in 2000.
Historically, the research revealed, football has been the sport that has produced the most shock results, but over the last decade it has lost its position at the top of the unpredictability table to baseball. Given much of the appeal of the Cup, at least in its early rounds, is its potential for upsets, that is worrying news, although since the five clubs that represented England in the Champions League this season have shared the Cup between them every year since 1991, it is perhaps not that much of a surprise.
Yet this, for all the concerns about the decline in competitiveness caused by the increasing polarisation of wealth within the game, has the makings of a vintage year for the Cup. United’s withdrawal in 2000 coincided with the final’s move to Cardiff as Wembley was reconstructed, and just as those two factors combined to detract from the competition then, so circumstances seem to be conspiring to inject it with new zest now.
For one thing, the return to Wembley – completion of the stadium permitting – restores romance and adds historical significance; just as Bolton’s victory over West Ham in the White Horse final of 1923 is remembered as the first Wembley final, so this season’s will be recalled as the first at the new stadium. For another, the fact that Chelsea apparently have the Premiership sewn up means that the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal can afford to give the competition their undivided attention; Chelsea too may feel that their lead is such they could afford to shift focus to the Cup in the later rounds.
The third-round draw has also been kind this season, pairing no two Premiership sides. That both maximises the potential for shocks and should ensure a healthy Premiership representation in the later rounds. Titanic struggles between top sides are all very well, but they are best reserved for the closing stages; as the 2002 World Cup proved, if too many good teams go out too early, the tournament can fizzle into anti-climax.
For all the talk of increasing predictability, Premiership sides have lost 26 of 150 games against lower league opposition in the Cup in the past 10 years. If that ration is repeated, three will be embarrassed this weekend.
Bolton, depleted by injuries, suspensions and African Nations Cup commitments, must be vulnerable against in-form Watford, while Aston Villa and Charlton – sides which have made a habit of early exits – can hardly be relishing trips to Hull and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. Newcastle, meanwhile, are so concerned by the visit of Mansfield that their manager Graeme Souness has admitted he cannot afford to rest Alan Shearer.
The greatest disparity comes tomorrow when Burton Albion take on Manchester United on a pitch to which 50 tons of sand were added this week in an attempt to ease drainage problems. “It’ll be the biggest day of my life,” said Burton’s goalkeeper Sean Deeney, a welcome indication of the enchantment the FA Cup can still inspire.
Roger Ashby, the Nuneaton Borough manager, was in similarly awestruck mood as he contemplated his side’s game against Middlesbrough. “I’ve been in the non-league game for 40 years and you start to wonder if you will be lucky enough to get something special like this,” he said.
Romance, though, is far from universal, and Northwich Victoria’s attempt to inflict the final indignity upon the corpse of Sunderland’s season has been overshadowed by a squabble over ticket prices, with the Conference North side apparently more concerned about profit – even if it means playing in front of 30,000 empty seats – than in the occasion.
The clubs, fortunately, have reached a compromise on a relatively cheap £10 for adults but, on a day whose charm is so dependent on the blurring of class boundaries, the dispute is a sad financial intrusion. However, if Nuneaton or Burton or even Hull can slay their giants, all that, for once, can be forgotten.