The first weekend in January is a magical date in the diary for nearly all football supporters. Traditionally, it marks the third round (proper) of The Football Association Challenge Cup, to give it its correct name.
It may be a surprise to some, but as a Chelsea supporter I still have the same tingle of excitement about the FA Cup third round that I had as a small boy. We may have won the Premier League five times and even the Champions’ League, but the FA Cup is still special to us.
Perhaps it has something to do with a whole generation of supporters falling in love with the ‘Boys in Blue’; the ‘Kings of the Kings Road’ when they put ‘dirty’ Leeds in their place after a replay in the 1970 FA Cup final. There may have only been 62,000 at Old Trafford to witness David Webb’s winning goal but there were 28 million watching on TV, still the second most-watched sporting event behind the 1966 World Cup final.
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No surprise, then, that the bulk of Chelsea’s die-hard support point to the 1970 final as their defining moment as a fledgling supporter. In fact, it has a lot to do with the fact that the average age of a Chelsea season ticket holder is around 55 years of age.
In many ways, the FA Cup defines Chelsea supporters. Many who witnessed Cup glory in 1970 had to wait a long, hard 27 years before winning it again. These were lean times when an FA Cup trophy meant a lot more than it does in the over-hyped world that we see in modern football now. It also represented a time when the best a club like Chelsea could hope for was a run in the Cup.
Whilst expectations may have changed over the last 20 years with league titles and Champions’ League campaigns setting the bar, the FA Cup and winning it is still cherished by Chelsea supporters.
Perhaps it is the very fact that it is a proper cup competition which stirs the emotions. There is no divine right to winning the FA Cup. You never know quite what to expect. It has a wonderful nostalgic flavour with the hope of an away trip to old, seldom-visited rivals or lowly clubs whom you have not yet visited. It is a lovely reminder of a better, sadly lamented football time, now passed.
Drawing Norwich away was therefore something of a disappointment for Chelsea supporters hoping for a tie against Sheffield Wednesday, Fleetwood, Rochdale, Doncaster or, dare I say, Millwall.
This season, Chelsea will hopefully be determined to make up for the huge disappointment suffered last season in the FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. With the rare chance of a league and cup double up for grabs, Chelsea was a ghost of the side that had just won the Premier League and were soundly beaten. Chances to win the FA Cup do not come round too often and the chance to win the double even less so. Hopefully, it will not be too long before Chelsea get another opportunity to win both.
Chelsea has been so successful in the FA Cup in recent times that they now sit in fourth position of all-time winners, together with Liverpool and Aston Villa, and behind Tottenham, Man Utd and Arsenal. The chance to climb higher in this particular table would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
Chelsea has not lost a third-round tie since the surreal 3-5 defeat as FA Cup holders to Man Utd in 1998. The last time Chelsea lost to a second division team in the FA Cup third round was to Oxford United in a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in 1991, nearly 30 years ago.
The portents for Norwich on Saturday, therefore, do not look very good. One would hope that Antonio Conte is still smarting from losing the FA Cup final last season and is determined to put things right this season. After all, with the chance to win the Premier League gone, a round of 16 tie in the Champions League against Barcelona, and semi-final ties to come in the Carabao Cup against Arsenal over the next couple of weeks, the FA Cup might just be Chelsea’s best chance of a trophy this season.
While Norwich are likely to play a full-strength side, as they did against Arsenal in the Carabao cup earlier this season, Conte may well make changes mindful of the fixtures against Arsenal coming up.
Whatever side he picks should be good enough to despatch Norwich, languishing in 13th place in the Championship, provided they are not complacent. Hopefully, Alvaro Morata will not be rested; judging by his missed chances against Arsenal this week and Stoke the weekend before, he could benefit from a chance to ‘get back on the bike’ and find the back of the net. Restoring the confidence of Chelsea’s best striker would seem to be imperative given Conte’s lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi, and the Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal coming up.
At 5.30pm on Saturday, the magical roller coaster ride of the FA Cup starts again. Let’s hope it concludes on May 19, with Chelsea lifting the trophy for the eighth time.
David Chidgey @StamfordChidge
David Chidgey presents the award winning Chelsea FanCast podcast which can be heard live every Monday at 19.00 at mixlr.com/chelsea-fancast/ or downloaded from Acast, ITunes, Soundcloud or chelseafancast.com @ChelseaFanCast