Deputy Sports Editor
The FA Cup stands in the dock on an annual basis. It is accused of failing to live up to former glories.
The courtroom is split between two camps. The defence, occupying a sizeable majority of the seating, and the prosecution, backed into a corner by the aficionados of the world’s oldest football association competition.
The judge enters, quietens the verbal ping-pong and allows the prosecution to speak first.
They are quick to point out that several Premier League clubs choose to field their reserves, instead of their strongest outfit, when they enter in the third round.
We, in the gallery, are told that the cup spirit has been consigned to the history books by the financial juggernaut of top-flight TV broadcasting.
And that famous upsets, such as Division Four Wrexham knocking out English champions Arsenal in 1992, are a thing of the past.
Can we please put this lazy, worn-out jargon to rest, shouts the defence defiantly. Accepting the judge’s final warning, the defence begins to pick holes in the evidence presented.
Manchester United, prompting much furore, did not compete in 1999/2000 in order to play in the Club World Championship in Brazil. But they also had support from the FA, which was planning England’s bid for the right to host the 2006 World Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson later admitted that he regretted the decision to withdraw.
League matches have become a priority for many clubs – notably those in the top flight – because of the financial bonuses on offer for higher-placed finishes in the table. In this season’s third round, QPR manager Harry Redknapp made seven changes to his team, which was convincingly defeated by League One side Sheffield United.
Fielding a weakened side while in the midst of a relegation dogfight is understandable. But, if the replacements offer little or no hope of a victory, it is inexcusable. BBC pundit Steve Claridge said that he could not understand why managers would not want to encourage a winning mentality.
Newly-promoted duo Leicester, who won against Newcastle, and Burnley, who drew against high-flying Tottenham, refused to wave a white flag. Yet both are languishing at the foot of the table.
Newcastle are the most peculiar of the sides to crash out of the competition with a weakened team. Sitting comfortably in mid-table, there is neither an immediate threat of relegation nor a realistic hope of a high-place finish. So what is the raison d’etre of the club for the rest of the season? Such a glaring lack of ambition means that the Geordie faithful’s 60-year wait for a domestic cup final win looks set to continue, much to the annoyance of club legend Alan Shearer.
The Premier League era has spawned clubs which are satisfied to cement their top division status and nothing else.
The FA Cup provides a clear reminder that ‘real football’ – in a world where clubs rely on enticing supporters through the turnstiles – still exists in full force.
Representatives of Blyth Spartans are called by the defence as witnesses. From the seventh division of English football, the minnows navigated their way to the second round, when, on live TV, they defeated League Two side Hartlepool United. Despite, in the following stage, holding a 2-0 half-time lead against Birmingham City from the Championship, Tom Wade’s men fell to a narrow 3-2 loss.
But the money earned from the cup run has ensured the club’s financial safety for a number of years and allowed several players, such as 21-year old Jarrett Rivers, to attract the attention of scouts for full-time teams.
It is clear, says the defence, that the FA Cup still provides a platform from which to turn the most distant dreams into reality.
At the start of the season, fans of Yeovil Town would have considered the possibility of seeing Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria lining up at their beloved Huish Park non-existent.
Ditto the support of Wigan Athletic, watching as their team conquered Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final to win the club’s first major silverware in 81 years.
Add to that the joy of the Luton Town faithful, then of the Conference, in the defeat of Norwich City, then of the Premier League, in the same year.
But the FA Cup made it all possible.
The prosecution, on the back foot, attempts to hit back by suggesting that it is viewed as a second rate competition by the Premier League’s high-flyers.
But the desperate claims are swotted away with ease.
Arsenal, Chelsea and the Manchester two all fielded strong sides in the third round.
At a time when managers are increasingly under pressure to deliver, the FA Cup has cemented its status as a major competition.
Would Arsene Wenger still be in the Arsenal dugout without last year’s cup win ending a decade devoid of silverware?
The BBC’s showing of AFC Wimbledon vs Liverpool on Monday was a fine example of the magical aura surrounding the cup.
The build-up gave much-deserved publicity to the hosts, who rose from the ashes of Wimbledon FC in 2002 to claim five promotions in nine years en route to League Two. The clash also evoked memories of Wimbledon’s shock FA Cup final win over the Reds in 1988.
Befitting to the romance of the competition, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, in the week that he announced that he would leave Anfield at the end of the season, scored twice in a thrilling 2-1 win.
Gerrard, in a post-match interview with Mark Chapman, said: “I’ve always enjoyed the FA Cup. I grew up loving the competition. If I weren’t here playing for this team, I’d probably be in the stands watching.”
Should Liverpool go all the way, Gerrard would lead his beloved club into battle for the last time in the FA Cup final on his 35th birthday.