The magic of the FA Cup. A phrase too commonly used by journalists and commentators who lack the imagination and linguistic dexterity to say something insightful or original. And what are they implying is so magical about a competition whose main selling point is its history? Like an Andy Warhol “painting”, it’s deemed valuable because we’re continuously informed of this value by the aforementioned hacks. In reality, its value has been severely undermined by a contracted format which interferes with the schedule of the top Premier League clubs who have bigger fish to fry.
In 1999 Manchester United famously withdrew from the competition so they could compete in the World Club Championship in Brazil, a competition which itself carries minimal prestige in this part of the football world.
Even the Carling Cup can be seen as a more preferable target. It offers the same day out at Wembley and the same route to the Europa League. It’s done and dusted before the league and Champions League move in to their squeaky-bum periods and, perhaps most importantly, it’s not clogged up with plucky lower-leaguers who win praise for preventing better sides from entertaining the paying public.
How dare Over The Line insult the world-famous battling British spirit, that never-give in attitude which makes the English game so great? This fallacy holds even less water than the magical qualities of the FA Cup, with the Premier League being packed with foreign players and the English national side reeling from one predictable disappointment to the next.
Magical is perhaps the most apt adjective to use, for it is a mere illusion, a sleight of hand to fool us soft-headed sentimentalists. The distraction needed to take our eyes off what the hands are really doing is the continuous rehashing of iconic underdog incidents from FA Cup competitions past. One of the most iconic is of an ageing Mickey Thomas reeling away having scored the equaliser in a third round clash with Arsenal in 1992. Wrexham, who finished bottom of would go on to win 2-1, knocking out the First Division champions (that’s the Premier League in old money). That was pretty magical, in fairness to Wrexham. Getting knocked out by West Ham in the next round wasn’t.
In 1971 Fourth Division Colchester defeated Don Revie’s famous Leeds side in the fifth round, only to be hammered 5-0 by Everton in the next game. In 1972, Hereford United dumped high-flying Newcastle in a third round replay but again the magic quickly wore off and they were ousted by West Ham. In more recent times, struggling Championship side Barnsley came from behind to knock out Liverpool at Anfield in the fifth round, then added Chelsea in the next round as they made an inspired run to the semi-finals. Where they lost to Cardiff.
Perhaps the only true underdog success story is Wimbledon’s win over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final. A solitary Lawrie Sanchez header and a John Aldridge penalty miss handed Vinnie Jones a winners’ medal. Though the two clubs were in the same division at the time, so dominant were Liverpool at that period that nobody gave the Crazy Gang a chance that day.
And that perhaps is where we find the true magic of the FA Cup. For most clubs, it’s not really about lifting the trophy. There are several far more achievable opportunities for lower-league teams to do that in the form of the Vase Trophy and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. The last time a non-league side won the FA Cup was in 1901 when Tottenham Hotspur took the honours. In fact, since the competition’s inception in 1871 just eight teams from outside the top flight have won the FA Cup, the last of these being West Ham who were in the second tier when they lifted the trophy in 1980.
The magic for the vast majority of the 736 clubs who entered this year’s competition lies not in the possibility of going all the way but rather in the hope it offers of achieving more than is expected of them. The slaying of a Premier League Goliath is something which will live on more vividly in the memories of the fans of clubs like Crawley and Stevenage than whoever goes on to Wembley glory. Beating Tottenham in front of their own fans this weekend would be a greater accomplishment for Stevenage than it would be for Spurs. Stoke may not be the most glamorous opponent but you won’t know that from the faces of Crawley fans should they witness their David find the mark with his pebble and slingshot at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
– Martin Luther King Jr
Without the lower-leagues, the Sunday pub-teams, the unrewarded love of the fans who stand amongst crowds of mere hundreds to cheer on their team of part-timers, there would be no Premier League. Without grass roots, there’s nothing. If the FA Cup gives these players and fans a chance to stand on the peak and breath that rarefied air, if only for an afternoon, then, whisper it, the FA Cup is pretty magic after all.