With two non-league sides featuring in the last sixteen of the FA Cup for the first time since 1920, the narrative was set for this year as the year when the magic of the FA Cup was restored. As impressive as Lincoln City’s win away at Burnley was, and the way that Danny Cowley’s men clinically executed their smartly conceived game plan was certainly something to be admired, it has to be considered within the context of Burnley making six changes to the side that had proven so obstinate against table-topping Chelsea the previous weekend.
The other National League side Sutton United were in the end unable to scale the heights of their 1989-vintage predecessors and ultimately succumbed to an Arsenal squad that just about did enough to justify their place in the quarter finals. As an Arsenal supporter I found myself with a conflicting viewpoint from the majority watching the match, in that I wasn’t concerned in the slightest with the romance of the underdog story and just wanted us to get the job done and get out of there. In the end the plastic pitch, cramped surroundings and allegedly fervent crowd weren’t enough to halt the Gunners’ progress and the story that eventually was to dominate the following day’s headlines was Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper eating a pie on the sidelines as part of an alleged betting stunt involving the team’s shirt sponsors, an action which ultimately ended in the player’s resignation, the magic of the FA Cup indeed!
Millwall did it again by eliminating Premier League opposition for the third consecutive round; the Lions’ feat made all the more impressive by the fact they were reduced to ten men for the majority of the second half when Jake Cooper was shown a second yellow card.
So on the face of it the FA Cup would seem to be alive and well with two more major upsets and fairytale stories aplenty and yet it doesn’t feel like it. As discussed after the previous round the upsets don’t feel like upsets due to the increasing tendency for teams in the top two divisions to rest players prioritizing the riches and potential riches of the Premier League; while a quick scan of the line-up for the quarter finals suggest that in all likelihood the competition will become a competition for four of the Premier League’s top six, with the winner being one of Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal or Tottenham.
The other major story to emerge this week was the hardly unexpected sacking of Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. As someone that loved every minute of Leicester’s title-winning story last season, I have deliberately shied away from discussing the Foxes’ plight this season and the elephant in the room that was how their manager has continually allowed the players to buy into their own hype and singularly failed to hammer home the message that they are now in a relegation fight and have been for a number of months? The reaction to the news has largely been one of shocked indignation that a man who was holding aloft the Premier League title just nine months ago should find himself shown the door; yet as we are continually told football is a results business and if the results aren’t there ultimately it is the man in the hot seat that pays the price. It is a decision that smacks of player power with rumours emerging of dressing room bust-ups, criticism of tactics and an apparent loss of faith in the manager; but perhaps those self-same players, who were all too ready to reap the rewards of their incredible achievement of last season, need to take a long hard look at themselves and their swollen egos and admit that they have failed to step up to the plate this year. Equally perhaps owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha ought to cast his eye across the stadium car park on a matchday with the fleet of top of the range BMW’s he purchased for each member of the squad and wonder where it all went wrong? Ultimately it feels like Ranieri is taking the fall for a club that has become infatuated by its own success.