14th April, 1999 – perhaps not a date that immediately triggers a response. If I were to say it was the date a flying Welshman picked up on a misplaced pass from one of France’s greatest centre midfield players of the modern day, it will certainly reawaken the memory. Ryan Giggs’ trickery, balance, composure and his venomous left footed drive that bedazzled the watching millions, let alone the majority of the Arsenal team, helped United on the way to an unprecedented treble. The greatest FA Cup goal of all time? That is open to some debate. What is without question is that ever since this moment of wizardry, the cup seems to have lost its edge...until now.
Returning to Wembley has certainly helped fuel a renewed interest and excitement in the Cup. English football’s showpiece event, despite being in safe hands in Cardiff’s impressive Millennium Stadium, was beginning to stagnate. I am not saying the alternative venue was the sole reason for the cup’s diminishing profile on the world stage, far from it. One must extend their deepest thanks to those at the upper echelons of the Welsh FA for allowing their neighbours the breathing space to dig their way out of the farce that was the new Wembley’s belated development. However, despite the 74500 capacity proving more than an adequate platform for an event of such magnitude, it just was not the same. No climbing of the stairs to lift the cup, no twin towers, and confusion up and down the land with how to slip in ‘Cardiff’ or ‘Millennium’ into those Wembley chants. The move to Cardiff, despite a decent contemporary venue, was merely a contributor to a slumber that had its wheels in motion for some time.
After guiding his side to a since unrivalled treble in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson withdrew Manchester United from the FA Cup to concentrate on the World Club Championships in Brazil. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was a ridiculous notion at the time, and with the valuable hindsight, an even more ridiculous decision. From Brazil, the obstinate Ferguson commented:
“It's been fantastic here - what a chance for us to come out and get some sun," he told the BBC. "Back home we would have been freezing our toes off. Playing in the Maracana stadium - that's an experience that probably 90% of the top players in the world don't get.”
Whilst I agree with the last sentiment, the above excuse for why he swapped arguably the biggest club cup competition in the world for an up and coming world club championship – that has since been rescheduled to a diluted version in order for no future clashes – does not cut it with me. A chance to get some sun? Give me a frozen pitch and Bovril any day ahead of a retreat to the Maracana in the pursuit of the FA Cup. The fact that Ferguson thought otherwise proved the magic of the cup was beginning to elude some. He was not alone.
When Reading took their side to Old Trafford in the fifth round of the cup in the February of 2007, few could argue with Steve Coppell’s decision to field an under strength team. They were newly promoted to the Premier League, and their priorities lay with cementing their status as a top flight side. However, would this have happened before the financial rewards of staying in the top tier arose? I would be inclined to suggest not. As it was, Coppell’s side managed to pull off a 1-1 draw to force a replay, so our argument does suffer a slight setback. However, once more, what this does prove is that managers were not showing the FA Cup the respect it deserves. The once cherished road to Wembley was seemingly set to lose its panache, and stagnate to an extent where managers were not fielding their strongest eleven. That sparkle that once existed was beginning to dim. Cue the renaissance.
This weekend saw several David versus Goliath encounters, and not one proved to be as conclusive and as straightforward as form and class would suggest. Everton, riding on a crest of a wave that has seen them re-establish themselves as a top six Premier League outfit in recent weeks, travelled to lowly Macclesfield, currently mid table in league 2 and sixty-eight places lower. Despite a moment of brilliance from Leon Osman that sent Everton through to a mouth-watering fourth round tie with local rivals Liverpool, further adding gloss to this year’s competition, Macclesfield produced a display that deceived their lower league status, and could well have earned them a replay.
On Monday, non-league Blyth Spartans took on Blackburn Rovers, winners of the competition six times. This should have been a whitewash. Instead, the minnows produced a dogged display that belayed their semi-professional status, and gave the millionaires a run for their money. If only Andrew Wright had converted five minutes from time to earn Blyth a replay, and hopes of a similar cup run they experienced in 1978, where the club made it to the fifth round.
Elsewhere, more pertinent shocks took place. Southend secured a lucrative replay at home to Chelsea by looting an injury time equaliser at the Bridge. Forest Green, currently in the relegation zone of the Blue Square Premier League, gave Championship side Derby a scare in a 7 goal thriller, before finally succumbing 3-4. Middlesbrough could only beat Barrow at home 2-1, Forest trounced Manchester City 3-0, and Jeff Stelling’s Hartlepool humbled Premier League boys Stoke 2-0.
Who said the magic of the cup had disappeared? This weekend’s fixtures proved that on the day, anything can happen, and despite the gulfs in supposed class and lifestyles, football is a game played by eleven against eleven, on grass and not paper. Unfortunately a spark has left this year’s competition, with Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes’s side completely humiliated at home by Nottingham Forest. However, the true spark of the FA Cup remains and I for one look forward to witnessing the march to the twin towers, urm sorry, the arch.