Maidstone United became the first sixth tier team to reach the FA Cup fourth round since Havant and Waterlooville in 2008 by beating Stevenage on Saturday. Not that anyone watching from home saw this from their armchair. Instead, several ties involving Premier League teams were picked to be shown on TV.
This gave the impression of a subdued, even dull, FA Cup third round. Crystal Palace played out a goalless draw against Everton on Thursday before Tottenham Hotspur’s home tie against Burnley was decided by a single goal (albeit a very good one from Pedro Porro who found the back of the net from distance).
Saturday’s Tyne-Wear Derby had potential as a memorable cup tie, but Newcastle United made it a one-sided encounter, winning 3-0. Manchester City were dominant in their 5-0 thumping of Huddersfield Town, as were Chelsea against Preston North End, and while Middlesbrough were competitive against Aston Villa, the Premier League team still prevailed.
Arsenal and Liverpool produced an exciting match at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, but even that was lacking some of the sparkle the same fixture in the Premier League might have had – Mikel Arteta gave second-choice goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale a start while Jurgen Klopp gave two youngsters (Conor Bradley and Bobby Clark) an opportunity off the bench.
On the basis of the matches picked for TV, the magic of the FA Cup no longer exists. However, it was certainly evident in several matches elsewhere in the third round. The fabled ‘magic of the cup’ still exists, but not in the places it used to be found. The competition has changed over the decades.
Premier League clubs have such a financial advantage over the rest in the English football pyramid that they are almost untouchable in the early rounds of the FA Cup – at least in ties against lower league opponents. Indeed, not a single Premier League team was beaten by a lower league side in this season’s third round (Blackpool and Bristol City earned replays).
At a lower level, though, upsets still happen. The aforementioned Maidstone United win over Stevenage was one such result, as was Wrexham’s win over rivals Shrewsbury Town. These are the matches that should have been broadcast on TV to truly highlight the appeal of the FA Cup in the modern age.
The standing of cup competitions like the FA Cup in modern football is open to debate. To most fans, they remain an important part of the sport’s landscape. Most Premier League managers, however, would surely prefer not to have cup matches clutter up the schedules of their teams, at least in the early rounds.
Some countries have got rid of cup competitions in recent years. France abolished its League Cup to clear some space in the schedule after pressure from players and managers who argued too much was being asked of them season after season. MLS recently announced its clubs wouldn’t be fielding full-strength teams in the US Open Cup – the USA’s FA Cup equivalent.
It could be the case that the Carabao Cup is streamlined in future to help ease some of the demands now being made of elite level teams, but the FA Cup has something special. It embodies the spirit of English football, from top to bottom and increasingly from the bottom up, as the weekend’s third round ties illustrated.
Maybe BBC and ITV will alter their match-picking strategy for the fourth round. A clash between Tottenham and Manchester City might be the glamour tie, with Chelsea set to take on Premier League rivals Aston Villa in the next round, but these places aren’t where the soul of the FA Cup can’t be felt.