Even in the money-driven world of modern football, FA Cup Third Round weekend normally serves to re-fire the souls of football obsessives who are growing increasingly weary of modern football and its incessant, unwavering focus on commercial interest. The world’s oldest cup competition normally has the uncanny knack of conjuring up a refreshing underdog story, or indeed several, that remind us why we love the game and its traditions so much.
Over recent years I have bemoaned the bigger clubs, and more recently most from the top two tiers, opting to select reserve sides in the early rounds of the FA Cup in order to prioritise their league commitments as inevitably that has taken something away from the grand old competition, a tournament that lest we forget that for most of us of certain vintage was the competition when we were growing up. Increasingly the FA Cup has slipped from prominence as the money on offer for qualification for the Champions League gravy train means that a fourth-placed finish is a greater prize both financially and from a status perspective, than winning an actual trophy at Wembley.
This year it has got even worse thanks to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, with fans locked out and squads disseminated by Covid and fatigue related withdrawals. Despite the best efforts of Chorley, Crawley and Marine all of whom have given some happier stories to remind us of more positive times, this year’s Third Round has seemed almost surreal: an echo of something that was strangely familiar but oh so very different to what we are used to.
The first bizarre and unprecedented twist came when it was announced last week that the tie between Southampton and Shrewsbury was called off as a result of an outbreak of the virus at the League One club. Worse still, if the Shrews are not able to field a team in order to get the match played before the Fourth Round, scheduled for next weekend, they risk being thrown out of the competition altogether. Just to fulfil the tie may require Southampton moving their Premier League match against Leeds, scheduled for the 20th of January, to create space but thereby disrupting another competition. Those of us with affiliation to Leyton Orient will have great sympathy for Shrewsbury having suffered a similar ignominious exit from the League Cup in the autumn.
To avoid a similar fate, Aston Villa and Derby County were both forced to field teams made up of youngsters after similar outbreaks within their clubs, the joke on social media after Villa’s relatively respectable, given the circumstances, defeat to Liverpool was that most of the players had to get a minibus to drop them home after the match as they weren’t old enough to have passed their driving tests. Even though both teams were defeated at least they were able to fulfil their commitments, at least of a fashion.
While Villa may not have had massively high hopes of repeating their hammering of Liverpool in the league, even with their first choice XI, the makeshift nature of the Derby side meant that non-leaguers Chorley from the National League North, suddenly found themselves as favourites to progress to the next round and with that a different pressure to deal with. The fact that they were able to see themselves through does mean that we are likely to see the footage of them belting out Adele’s ‘Someone like you’ in the changing room at least a few more times in the build up to their Fourth Round match against Wolves. Maybe the magic of the FA Cup isn’t quite dead just yet!
While Chorley provided an expected upset, so to speak, then Crawley Town provided a bona fide one when they smashed Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds 3-0, the real shame of that game was that no fans were allowed in to the ground to witness it, this is after all what truly makes a cup upset: the humbling of a high profile team in more rudimentary and unusual surroundings.
The following day thanks to a quirk of stadium layout, Merseyside minnows Marine from the eighth tier of the English Football Pyramid did have the benefit of some actual live in-person fan support, given that some of the surrounding houses’ gardens back directly onto the ground and allow a decent view of the pitch for their inhabitants. Of course, the noise and atmosphere that they were able to generate was nowhere near what it would have been if supporters had actually been allowed through the turnstiles to fill the ground, but it did serve as a reminder of what makes the FA Cup so special. Sadly, despite a spirited performance, Marine were seen off fairly comfortably by Spurs.
Another impact of the pandemic on the FA Cup has been the removal of replays, with games having to be settled on the day, even if that required a penalty shootout. In the end there were three ties that were settled from the spot; however I can’t help but wonder whether even Blackpool who beat West Brom wouldn’t have preferred an income generating replay? A further impact of the tightness of the fixture schedules in this condensed season was that we had the unusual situation of the Fourth and Fifth Round ties being drawn within minutes of each other on Monday evening, for me winning through and then having the anticipation of who you will get in the draw is just another special element of the competition that has been diluted.
Beyond the FA Cup, the ongoing impact of the virus is continuing to bite football, just as it is most familiar elements of life as we used to know it. Tragically the number of deaths from the virus in this country is now in excess of 86,000 and infection rates continue to surge. The postponement of the game between Aston Villa and Everton scheduled for this weekend brought the total number of games called off as a result of the virus across England’s top five divisions to more than sixty. As much as we all love the game and it gives us something to cling onto in these very dark times, surely there has to come a point when not only is it not viable to carry on, but in the words of Newcastle manager Steve Bruce, it becomes “morally wrong” to even to try to do so.
While there were obviously significant financial implications for clubs and their employees to not do so, to try to fit a full season into the period from the middle of September to the 23rd of May so that it can be completed ahead of the delayed Euros, was always going to be massively ambitious (foolhardy?). Might we have been better served to develop a vastly reduced fixture schedule such as requiring teams to play each other only once and either removing or spreading the cup competitions throughout the year to allow greater flexibility and pauses to the campaign as required?
Such an arrangement would certainly have required the 2020/21 to be marked with an asterisk in the record books, but so were the seasons played out during the Second World War. Why football thinks it is still able to carry on regardless is anyone’s guess.