Like the bike gathering dust in the garage after its owner learned how to drive, The FA Cup has been mistreated, devalued and would have been forgotten about had it now been borrowed for a bit in May.
The Premier League’s big boys would rather rest players in preparation for their pre-season tour of the world and surrounding districts, the TV companies are more attracted to the unromantic Chelsea Vs Stoke City than a tie with any whiff of value and the FA have decided that the final should be played on the same weekend as Premier League games for the previous two seasons.
However, despite being cornered on all sides by those at the top of the English game, the FA Cup is far from dead. In fact, those below the top flight are propping it up and helping to fight back.
Although two fifth round ties are still be completed, five sides from outside the Premier League remain in this year’s FA Cup. At least three will definitely be in the last eight, and at least one side will play at Wembley in a semi-final; an occasion that can’t be underestimated.
FA Cup fever is alive and well in fans of the Championship and League One clubs who remain in this season’s competition; dreams of Wembley pushing league concerns to one side.
Nowhere is the FA Cup more alive than in the city of Sheffield. Both Steel City rivals remain in the competition and could face each other in the sixth round should the blue half beat Charlton Athletic in their rearranged fifth round tie.
After beating two Premier League clubs and a Championship club, SHEFFIELD UNITED are already in the quarter-finals. The FA Cup means a lot to Blades fan JORDAN NOBLE, who has suffered semi-final heartbreak on three occasions.
“My first memory of the FA Cup was playing Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final at Wembley in 1993,” recalls Noble
“I was only six at the time and didn’t realise the importance of such a game, but still remember it clearly in my head. We lost that game 2-1 in extra time and my dad was crying; that’s when I realised the importance football would play in my life.
“I’ve been lucky enough to experience two semi-finals since then. One in 1998 against Newcastle and the other against Arsenal in 2003, both matches played at Old Trafford and both ending in 1-0 defeats. I’ll never forget Alan Shearer breaking our hearts and David Seamans’ amazing save from Paul Peschisolido.
“I’m dreaming this year could be our year to overturn those results and make a final, it would be a fantastic achievement for a league One team.”
As you might expect, Noble is loving every moment of this year’s run to the quarter-final stage.
“We’ve come through six games to get to this stage of the cup, I think that makes our achievements all the more remarkable and highlights how important a cup run is to teams in our position,” says Noble.
“You only have to look at how both our fans and players have reacted to recent wins to see how important this competition is to us.
“The magic of the cup is that it can throw up the unknown every so often and this year it’s our turn for that little bit of success.”
Little is an understatement. After wins against Colchester United and Cambridge United, 6,000 Blades saw their side dump Aston Villa out of the cup at Villa Park. That was followed by 210 nervy minutes against Fulham, before a Shaun Miller goal in the last minute of extra time at Craven Cottage set up a home tie against Nottingham Forest. Another last minute goal, this time from Chris Porter, against Forest propelled Sheffield United into the last eight.
The reward is that possible Steel City Derby; a tie so typical of the FA Cup. However, Noble is finding it hard to feel anything but anxious about it.
“The possible tie with Wednesday is certainly a mouth-watering prospect to the neutral, however as a Blades fan it does fill me with nerves that our neighbours could be visiting Wembley at our expense.
“To see them claim bragging rights, especially with no league fixtures against them on the horizon to claim revenge would be depressing.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather play Charlton due to a loss against Wednesday being too hard to take.”
But, whoever wins the rearranged tie, Noble believes the draw has been kind to them.
“In terms of ties it was the best we could hope for at this stage and gives us a huge chance of making the last four.
“Charlton have obviously suffered due to the January transfer window, losing key players Stephens and Kermorgant, while Wednesday no longer have Connor Wickham and have suffered recent defeats following a good run.”
However, United themselves are struggling themselves in the division below both their possible opponents, and a drop to League Two could be on the cards.
But Noble sees the cup run as beneficial to their survival prospects:
“I’m still optimistic that we will stay up this season, we have games in hand, confidence from a cup run and added quality players in Scougall and Brayford to the ranks.”
Whilst many clubs view the FA Cup as unnecessary distraction, it would appear as if the cup has given Sheffield United an unstoppable amount of confidence; they followed up their incredible win over Nottingham Forest with a league victory at Gillingham that has lifted them out of the relegation zone.
But their confidence matters little to their neighbours, with SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY fan JOE SHEMELD dreaming of Wembley.
“There’s something special about the FA Cup that is a little bit magical,” says Shemeld, another FA Cup admirer.
“When I was a kid I’d dream of playing in an FA Cup Final at Wembley more than anything else. You’re brought up to love it in this country.
“I believe we’re the only Yorkshire team who hasn’t featured at the new Wembley, so it’d be nice to change that.”
But before Wembley, and even the Steel City Derby, comes the rearranged fixture against Charlton; one Shemeld is cautiously optimistic about.
“It’s definitley one of few good chances we could have got at progressing to the next round, but there’s never an easy game in the FA Cup.
“Charlton may have poor league form and lost a few of their very good players but with Sheffield United in the next round and a game closer to Wembley they’ll be right up for it. It’ll be one of those horrible, gritty, scrappy games.
“We have the players in our squad to cause damage, it’s just a case of if they’ll get the chance.”
However, Shemeld wouldn’t want the cup run to go on any further if it meant sacrificing Wednesday’s Championship status.
“I can’t take going down again, I’m tired of relegation, and League One is a tough league to get out of, so I’d take losing to Charlton and staying up any day of the week,” says Shemeld, slapping the cup loves right across the face.
That said, since Stuart Gray has replaced Dave Jones, Wednesday have moved clear of trouble and, whilst they’re not safe yet, have a comfortable barrier between themselves and the bottom three. As a result, Shemeld isn’t seeing this cup run as a distraction.
“I think Gray is a good enough manager to be able to guide us to safety.
“When you’re constantly spending your time in the Championship battling away against relegation, the FA Cup is something there that gives you that extra buzz.”
Almost forgotten in all of this, by the majority of individuals in Sheffield, neutrals and the media, are CHARLTON ATHLETIC. The Addicks are going through uncertain times and supporter DAN WEBSTER views the cup run as the perfect chance to relieve a bit of pressure from around SE7.
“This run Charlton are on has really brought home just how excited you can get about the Cup,” says Dan, a firm believer in the cup’s magic.
“It’s not like the grind of the league campaign where you’re constantly checking the scores of other teams and worrying about things. It’s just 90 minutes of football between two sides, with a stadium of people all dreaming of Wembley.
“The pressure of the league situation won’t disappear overnight, as games still need to be played and won, but the FA Cup offers something that no other competition comes close to.
“Wembley beckons with victory, but in defeat you are not punished by losing ground on rivals.”
Such as Webster’s love of the cup, not even the original tie’s postponement has managed to cure his FA Cup fever.
“It took away a lot of the excitement at the time, but as I have managed to find a way to make the rearranged game, that’s all come flooding back.”
But it would appear as if the FA are intent on finding new ways to devalue the cup, despite fans like Webster treasuring it.
Owing to a UEFA directive, no top flight or domestic cup games are allowed to be played on the same night as Champions League fixtures. This means that Charlton’s rearranged tie with Wednesday will take place on a Monday night; two days after a crucial league game with QPR.
“It just shows you how pathetic bodies like UEFA have become in trying to do what’s best for advertisers and revenue instead of the game of football itself,” says an infuriated Webster.
“No sane person on earth would dream of a rule that stipulates that domestic cup matches cannot take place on the same night as a Champions League game. It should be up to the FA to decide what is best for the teams it governs, not UEFA deciding what would harm advertisement revenue.
“I chose to go and watch a local Conference game instead of staying in for the Manchester City vs Barcelona game – is that allowed? It is sad that football has to be commercialised so much.”
However, Webster’s verbal volley at those who plan to harm his pressure cup competition can’t take away from his dreams of Charlton lifting the trophy. Despite the Addicks sitting 22nd in the Championship and facing the real possibility of a drop to League One, Webster would take relegation if it meant his side became FA Cup winners.
“I wouldn’t wish for relegation, but when compared with the chance of seeing your heroes travel to Wembley, defy the odds and win the FA Cup, it pales into insignificance.
“The FA Cup is a piece of history that will forever be remembered. Would Wigan have rather stayed in the Premier League for one extra season, or have that Cup victory with all the brilliant memories to go with it? The sense of achievement is greater for those smaller clubs who haven’t spent hundreds of millions of pounds assembling a team.
“From that perspective, it would be an even more heroic effort to win the Cup. It offers a chance to create history that generations of Addicks would enjoy, remember, and cherish. “
But Webster, an experienced pessimist, isn’t even considering booking his tickets to Wembley just yet.
“The opportunity of getting to Wembley is huge, especially given that the two teams that lie ahead aren’t sides from a higher division.
“That said, I view Wembley as a distant possibility rather than a certainty. The motivation for Wednesday is huge, given the potential Sheffield derby that awaits in the sixth round, and our away form has been patchy this season.”
If Webster and his fellow Charlton fans, not to mention those from both sides of Sheffield, need a source of belief, they should look no further than fans of WIGAN ATHLETIC. The Latics won the FA Cup against the odds last season, and find themselves in this campaign’s sixth round.
But the first question to supporter SEAN HEWITT, would he hand back the FA Cup, and all the memories, if meant his club hadn’t suffered relegation last season?
“Not even once,” affirms Hewitt.
“Staying up every season was great, and obviously beneficial for the club, but winning the cup was a historical moment which will be remembered forever.
At the end of the day, Wigan were going to get relegated eventually as you can’t finish 14-17th every year without putting yourself in danger of it happening. Going down with the FA Cup win meant we went out with a bang and with lots of positivity.”
But, rather surprisingly, it was only last year’s cup win that made Hewitt fall in love with football’s oldest competition.
“To be honest, up until we got to something like round five last year, the FA Cup meant very little to me,” admits the teenage supporter.
“In my lifetime Wigan had never got past round four, and the draws were usually against mediocre opponents from the other side of the country away from home.
“However, last year, apart from the less than inspiring original third round 1-1 draw vs Bournemouth, it was just so different.
“Since last year my whole perspective on the cup has changed. It’s given me the best moment I’ve experienced as a football fan and has given Wigan a massive bit of history which everyone will always remember.
“It’s fair to say I love it now.”
For a previous doubter of the FA Cup, who supports a club that has enjoyed so many wonderful moments over the past few years, to say the cup victory was the best moment he’s ever experienced in football is quite something. There’s genuine passion when Hewitt explains the moment when Ben Watson’s header went in.
“Nothing, and I mean nothing, can even come close to that feeling when Watson scored.
“It was complete chaos. Literally nobody could believe what was going on! Even my dad who is a Liverpool fan lost it at Wembley when it happened.
“I was literally stood shouting “OH MY GOD” for about half an hour after it happened.”
And what about this season? Surely one cup win is enough and the focus now should be on returning to the Premier League? Not quite.
“Retaining the cup would be insane,” says an enthusiastic Hewitt.
“It would be historic, not just for the club, but for the whole of football. I’d happily spend another season in the championship under Rösler if it meant we could do that!!
However, standing in Wigan’s way in the sixth round is the might of Manchester City. A daunting prospect, but City were the side Wigan beat at Wembley last year to win the cup, and the Latics have already disposed of two Premier League sides (Crystal Palace and Cardiff City) in this campaign.
But even Hewitt is clutching at straws.
“I suppose what happened last year always gives you the feeling that anything Is possible.
“However, the FA Cup Final at Wembley is a totally different situation to the quarter final at the Etihad. I can’t help but think if City do start a full team and score the first goal, that will lead to the flood gates opening and the match finishing 4 or 5-0.
“On the other hand, city have Barcelona 3 days after the cup match so they may rest a few players. With a bit of luck, maybe we could capitalise on that and somehow get the win.”
Whether Wigan outdo Manchester City again or not, it’s safe to that the club have shown there’s still plenty of value in football’s oldest competition; so much so that the Latics are more than willing to take Championship football in return for FA Cup glory.
Another club battling away at the top end of the Championship who remain in the FA Cup are BRIGHTON AND HOVE ALBION. Lifelong supporter HARRIET FULLER is certainly an advocate of the value of football’s oldest competition
“Some say the Cup has lost its magic, but I personally disagree,” says the teenager who had Brighton’s 1983 FA Cup Final defeat to Manchester replayed to her many times in her youth.
“The FA Cup will always be a staple part of the football season, and ‘FA Cup fever’ is present every year. This year is no exception, and we have an incredible chance to get to Wembley.”
But, like Charlton fan Webster, Fuller is furious with UEFA and the FA ruling stipulating that an FA can’t be played on the same night as a Champions League game.
The ruling means that Brighton will take on Wigan in a crucial league clash between two play-off contenders on the Saturday, before the Seagulls travel to Hull for their FA Cup fifth round replay.
“I do not understand how Hull v Brighton may somehow affect anything to do with the Champions League,” says Fuller.
“Unfortunately due to this decision, the league game (on Saturday) will take priority, and will take away the importance of the replay on Monday. That in itself is a shame for the competition.”
But Fuller, who will be sacrificing her university study to travel north on Monday night, still has hope that the heart-break following Hull’s late equaliser at the Amex can be overturned, and that the cup can provide a showcase for a club that’s on the up.
“This year we have a great opportunity to go far (in the cup), and we can really show everyone that we do mean business, and that we are a top quality side that can be competitive in the Premier League in a few years’ time.”
With Gus Poyet, the manager credited with taking Brighton to the next level after their time spent at the Withdean Stadium in League One, potentially bringing his Sunderland side to the Amex should Brighton beat Hull, the draw has thrown up something of a classic cup tie that makes getting that win over the Tigers even more important.
“The game against Sunderland will have that bit extra in it, and should make for a cracking sixth round tie,” says the Albion fan, who still holds Poyet in high esteem despite his acrimonious departure after being knocked out by Crystal Palace in the play-off semi-final.
But, for Fuller, dreams of Wembley’s arches are far more enticing that joining her club’s rivals in the top flight.
“The FA Cup is so iconic, I would put winning the FA Cup over promotion any day. A day out at Wembley to see your team win the actual FA Cup is just a dream. The Premier League can wait!”
With thanks to:
Jordan Noble: @Jord1986
Joe Shemeld: @Joeswfc_
Dan Webster: @RamblingAddick (http://ramblingfan44.blogspot.co.uk/)
Sean Hewitt: @WafcSean
Harriet Fuller: @HattieLFuller (http://fullersfinalfurlong.wordpress.com/)