The FA Cup third round felt like a proper weekend of enjoyable football, which makes previous reports of the tournament’s imminent demise sound premature.
It’s not quite over at the time of writing, but with 31 of the 32 ties in this season’s FA Cup third round played, it seems reasonable to suggest that the weekend was a success. A mixture of interesting stories, sub-plots weaving into broader narratives and good old-fashioned big clubs getting biffed on the nose made this particular weekend feel a little like FA Cup weekends of old.
Eight Premier League clubs have already been eliminated from the competition, while either one or two more will fall in the replays. Meanwhile, the National League had a highly successful weekend. All three of the non-league teams in the third-round draw were also in the fourth-round draw, with Wrexham winning at Coventry and both Boreham Wood and Chesterfield earning creditable draws against League One and Championship opposition respectively.
The imminent death of the FA Cup has been predicted for at least the last two decades. In a world in which the financial rewards of the Premier League and the Champions League are so huge, each round had started to feel a little like dancing around a maypole when there will be a rave next week. It remained as close to impossible as could be imagined that everyone would simply jettison the cup, but its decline was clear and a world in which it didn’t matter in the slightest could certainly be ideated, even if it hadn’t arrived yet.
But this year’s third round seemed to catch the public imagination. Sure enough, there were still empty seats at matches; cup matches aren’t usually included in season tickets, and in case anyone had got distracted by the media moving onto the domestic squabblings of the royal family, there is still a cost-of-living crisis going on. Teams weren’t at full strength, but such is the increasingly squad-orientated nature of the game that this felt less noticeable.
And in the age of internet anger, it’s difficult to push the line that fans just ‘don’t care’ about it anymore. The incandescent reaction to Chelsea’s abject performance at Manchester City shows that the FA Cup can still fit very tidily into broader narratives about the season. Would Chelsea fans rather win the Champions League or the Premier League than the FA Cup? Of course they would. It’s not the 1970s anymore. But that doesn’t mean that the sting of getting thrashed by Manchester City isn’t real, no matter who was on the pitch in a royal blue shirt. These feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
That matter of settling into a broader narrative felt like a substantial part of the weekend. Newcastle United have come a long way over the last 14 months or so, but the work still required to be done on the squad was laid bare by an understrength team going to Sheffield Wednesday and losing.
Newcastle haven’t won a major trophy since 1969, and part of the Faustian pact agreed by all who’ve signed up to that sportswashing project is that ‘run’ coming to an end. They’re still in the EFL Cup, the race for the Premier League title and a place in next year’s Champions League but the FA Cup, just as it has annually since 1955, will have to wait another year.
But why should this all be happening in this particular year? Perhaps its close proximity to the World Cup has given the general public a taste for knockout football that can be pushed to one side in the hurly-burly of a normal season. It might also be that the television deal agreed by the FA with the BBC and ITV has also made a big difference. Having games on free-to-air television, whether on traditional linear broadcasts or through streaming apps, also seems to have made a difference, just as it does with the World Cup.
Selling out to pay TV is an obvious may of increasing money into competition organisers, but it also necessarily restricts who can see it. Simply being accessible to more people seems to make a huge difference. Those who may not care enough about the FA Cup to go to the pub or a friend’s house to watch it may – when it’s just a few clicks of the button away on their remote control – switch it on and enjoy it (or not enjoy it, obviously).
And perhaps it matters that the FA Cup doesn’t matter quite so much. Football in the 21st century has become incredibly self-important, and it may be good for all of us to have a few weekends throughout the seasons when what matters isn’t a future tens of millions of pounds of money that will not be yours or the machinations of perceived status, but the possibility of seeing your team dancing around the Wembley turf, with the lid of the trophy balanced precariously on the top of one wag’s head.
Sometimes winning for the sake of winning and getting your name added to a list of winners that stretches back 151 years – the past and the present over the future – can take precedence for just a while.
Because in amongst all the talk of how important football is, it does sometimes feel as though that pressure has extended down to supporters. It doesn’t take much searching on social media to find fans who make you think, ‘I’m not even sure why you’re bothering with this; you don’t seem to actually enjoy it very much’. In a world of performative anger and outrage, something that doesn’t matter quite as much starts to feel valuable.
For all the talk of its imminent demise – and there has been a lot, over the years – this weekend certainly felt like a reminder that the FA Cup still has a crucial place in England’s football calendar.
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