We’ve been hearing for a number of years that the FA Cup is dead. We’re told that the big teams rest too many players, the fans don’t care about it much, and it’s lost its magic. But in 2018, 147 years after it was founded, the FA Cup is well and truly and alive.
I’m not going to sit here and say that the FA Cup means a lot to every team in the country, because it doesn’t. Clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League will care more about ensuring survival than making a trip to Wembley in May. Some of the bigger clubs will prioritise qualification for the Champions League. But for me, along with many football fans, FA Cup Third Round weekend, the round where Premier League and Championship teams enter the completion, is one of the highlights of the season.
Last season’s FA Cup was lit up by the incredible runs of non-league Lincoln City and Sutton United. Sutton bowed out at the round of 16, and unfortunately their achievements were overshadowed by the fallout from substitute goalkeeper Wayne Shaw eating a pie on live TV to fulfil a bet from The Sun.
Lincoln City went one further, and became the first non-league club for 103 years to make the quarter finals. Being from Lincoln, I know how much that meant to the fans, the club, and the city as a whole. The game away at Ipswich, where nearly 5,000 fans made the trip down to East Anglia for the third round game, will live long in the memory of many. The game itself finished as a draw, but it created a good feeling at the club, and this spread throughout the city.
Even then, that was nothing compared to the stir created when the Imps knocked out Premier League Burnley. I was at Turf Moor that day, and of the numerous sporting events that I have attended in recent years, I have never seen anything quite like the emotion shown in the away end that cold February lunchtime. Wild celebrations, grown men in tears. Try telling them that the magic of the FA Cup has gone.
These fans won’t remember the 2016/17 FA Cup for Bournemouth making 11 changes away at Millwall for their third round match. They won’t look back at the likes of Sunderland and Middlesbrough sacrificing their chance of Wembley glory in favour of fighting for Premier League survival. They will remember their days out at Ipswich, Burnley and Arsenal. Maybe for some the FA Cup is nothing more than a distraction, but for others it is where dreams come true.
There will be FA Cup games where fans wonder why they bother making the trip across the country. Last week I went to the City Ground to see Nottingham Forest dump Arsenal out of the cup at the third round stage for the first time since 1996. Forest are a club who have struggled in recent years, and are unrecognisable from the club who won back-to-back European Cups at the beginning of the 1980s. The feeling around the club wasn’t one of positivity, especially after the sacking of manager Mark Warburton.
But by the end of the game, there was a totally different feel about the place, with Forest coming out on top in a memorable tie. On the pitch, it probably won’t mean too much in the long term. Forest were beaten on their return to league action against Aston Villa, and it is unlikely they will be in the hat come the business end of the competition, but the memories of what was a brilliant cup tie will live on.
There will be the feeling amongst some supporters, and maybe even some players, that the magic of the FA Cup has gone. But as I have seen first hand, for many fans and clubs, that spark remains.