The FA Cup: Same Old, Same Old?

As the oldest football competition in the world – the FA Cup has seen its fair share of highs and lows. Here in 2008 we are awaiting the quarter-finals, with only four top flight teams left and only two of the perceived ‘Big Four’.

Last year saw those same two teams – Manchester United and Chelsea – played out what can be kindly described as a lacklustre final. No football fan has much of an appetite for a repeat so we need some fresh blood to come out of the tunnel at Wembley on Cup Final Saturday.

The general consensus was that Portsmouth were the team that could provide that something extra. Harry Redknapp has built a strong, powerful and skillful squad. With a large and loyal fan base who are year in, year out voted as one of the most passionate in the game, it seemed like the perfect match. They had faced three Championship teams without impressing, it would be fair to say that they were lucky to scrape past Preston North End in round five, but they were still in the hat.

Sadly though the balls were against them, as they drew Manchester United away for the third time in six years in the Cup and for the fourth time in all in that span. They lost 2-1 at Old Trafford last season and went down 4-1 in the third round in 2003. The odds are stacked against Harry Redknapp’s men but all hope it not lost.

Redknapp has defeated Manchester United in the FA Cup twice before, once as the manager of AFC Bournemouth and also as the gaffer at West Ham United when a Paolo Di Canio goal saw the Hammers through at Old Trafford. Also Pompey are due a victory at Old Trafford, it hasn’t happened in over half a century, but Pompey have the best away record outside of Chelsea in the Premier League, that must count for something right?

I know, I know, I’m trying but I’m not convincing anyone, let’s have a look at who else could break the stranglehold of the big boys, who have won every FA Cup Final since a Paul Rideout goal took Everton to victory back in 1995.

The other Premiership side still in the hat are Middlesbrough. This is the same Middlesbrough who lost at the weekend against a Reading side who had lost eight on the spin before Saturday. However they have won a trophy in the recent past, having taken away the Carling Cup the last time we had a leap year – could this be an omen?

I’m sceptical but the draw has been kind to them. On Sunday they’ll entertain Championship side Cardiff – a mid table side who have beaten the giants of football that are Chasetown and Hereford before recording a decent victory over Wolves in the last round.

If you, like me, sat through the 210 minutes of football that Middlesbrough served up in the last round then I doubt that appetite has been whetted for more of that. They though are the best option for a winner outside the two big boys – or are they?

The wildcard are West Bromwich Albion.

The Baggies might not be sitting at the top of the Championship table but they have been the team that have impressed me the most. In Ishmael Miller and Kevin Phillips they have two top drawer front men. Miller is a product of the same Manchester City youth setup that brought through the likes of Micah Richards and new starlet Daniel Sturridge. A big, strong, powerful centre forward, he batters the defence leaving space for the wily Kevin Phillips to exploit. The former England front man is the leading scorer in the second tier and has looked like he could still ply his trade at the top table.

They travel to Bristol Rovers on Sunday in the only game that guarantees a non Premiership club walking out at Wembley for a semi-final. The home side are the only club from league one left in the competition and are aiming to get to the final four just like Chesterfield did 11 years ago. With the club stuck in mid-table, they are able to really go for it in the cup. Could a league one club making it all the way to the final be what this competition needs?

I don’t think so.

The last tie to be discussed is the game picked for prime time by the BBC, Barnsley v Chelsea. The home side dumped out mighty Liverpool in the last round with a last minute winner in front of the Kop. They’ll be delighted to face up to one of the biggest clubs in the world for the second consecutive round, it’s a game that the away side might not fancy. You’d still think however that Chelsea would have enough to pass on through to the semi-finals.

The FA needs a great final. After last years glamour match-up that turned into a dour affair between two very tired clubs, the game needs something different. First of all it needs to be competitive, a repeat of Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Millwall is not a preferred option. Secondly it needs to break free of the perceived big four shackles, Spurs’ win in the Carling Cup was good for the game as would another club winning the FA Cup. The big four have dominated for far too long and have taken the silverware away from the other 88 league clubs. Spreading the trophies around is good for the game.

The FA will deep down want to get Manchester United and Chelsea in the final once again, it will put more bums on armchairs all over the globe, but it isn’t what the British public want to see. Come next Monday, should they get through, we’ll see if they avoid each other in the semi-final draw. If they do then eyebrows will be raised all over the country and the conspiracy theorists will be back out in force.

The competition this season has not seen a fair share of great games. The glamour and enthusiasm seems to of gone and as a huge fan of the FA Cup, it hurts me. It needs a couple of great semi’s and a terrific final. Next year when the rights switch over to the Setanta/ITV double-act it’ll be interesting to see if that arrests the slide. With such big money flying around the Premiership and the Champions League, the FA Cup has been seen as a second-rate competition for far too long, the sad thing is, you can see why.

For this year though it looks like we’ll be getting a repeat of what was served up last year, we can only hope that the weekend is full of surprises, sadly I just don’t see it.

Written by Neil Monnery, the editor of Talk Football.

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