The FA Cup is one of the most prestigious accolades in sport. Since its foundation in 1871, 43 different clubs have lifted the trophy and players of all backgrounds, ages, shapes, and sizes have written themselves into English footballing folklore.
For many fans, the weekend in early January designated for the Third Round is circled, underlined and highlighted in their team’s colours on the kitchen calendar months in advance. For 90 minutes, or longer where required, anyone can beat anyone. All the clichés are reeled out as supermarket workers take on transfer market record breakers, decorated managers pit their wits against coaches who are decorators and Golden Boot winners face off against lads who wear steel-cap boots of a weekday.
This Cup, and the Third Round in particular, is a Petri dish for giant-killings. It is the first stage in the competition when Championship and Premiership sides play, with top tier sides regularly encountering opponents much further down the footballing pyramid. In 1989 non-league Sutton United downed First Division Coventry City, three years later fourth-tier Wrexham took the scalp of George Graham’s Arsenal and in 2010 Jermaine Beckford fired League One Leeds to victory over the imperious Manchester United.
This season, under a backdrop of national fatigue, deflation and anxiety, the FA Cup delivered a temporary break for many from the struggles of the last year. For the fans of 64 teams, for the duration of a football match, the sole focus was on kicking every ball, winning every header and feeling the crunch of every tackle alongside their heroes from their armchair, rather than the terraces.
Rituals, such as pre-game breakfasts with family, a pint with friends at the local, or even the furious last-minute wrapping with tin foil of a cardboard cut-out FA Cup were abandoned this year. Even without the fans, those who are the beating heart at the very centre of English football, however, ‘the magic of the cup’ still coursed through the weekend with vigour.
For many, the highlight of the Third Round came on Friday night, as a group of youngsters went to-to-toe with the reigning Premier League and Club World Cup holders. Whilst Aston Villa and Liverpool are historically level on 7 FA Cup trophies, and the former beat the latter 7-2 earlier in this season, a Coronavirus outbreak in the Villa ranks left this matchup looking extremely lopsided.
Whilst the likes of Jack Grealish, Ross Barkley and Tyrone Mings usually run the show for Villa, the entire first team, senior coaching staff and several Under 23 players faced self-isolation leaving the prospect of facing Jürgen Klopp’s relentless Reds to a team with the average age of 18 years and 294 days. Every single Villa player who featured was a debutant, only the second time this has occurred in the club’s illustrious history.
Liverpool fielded a strong side, and world class talents like Mo Salah and Sadio Mané were called upon. The six-time European champions raced into an early lead in Birmingham as 2019 African Player of the Year Mané headed into the net.
This early goal had been predicted by pundits and it was suggested that a ‘cricket score’ would ensue by the likes of Michael Owen. What the experts did not account for, however, was the fearlessness of youth, something which former England forward Owen should know better than most. The young Lions’ battled away and on the stroke of half time they got their reward. A brilliantly timed slide-rule pass, as straight as a ruler used by the Villa youngsters still in education, from Callum Rowe set the prodigious Louie Barry away.
The 17-year-old boyhood Villa fan looked every inch the seasoned pro as he dispatched the ball into the far corner and wheeled off in celebration. Even neutrals would have celebrated such a goal with glee. For Villa fans, this explosion onto the first team setup by Barry is unrivalled since a fellow local lad known as Jack Peter Grealish impressed in a cup tie against the same opponents in 2015. To date, the playing career of England international and club captain Grealish has not gone too badly, and Louie Barry will be hoping to emulate this on-field success at his hometown club.
Whilst Villa’s youngsters ran out of steam late on against a world class side, they proved Daltrey and Townshend were correct in their assertion that ‘The Kids are Alright’. Whilst the entire team did their club and families proud, it was Barry, Rowe, skipper Dominic Revan and Kaine Kesler-Hayden who stood out. Not many youngsters can say they have performed with distinction in a game against a side of Liverpool’s calibre.
Elsewhere, National League North outfit Chorley delighted fans of singer Adele following their defeat of a youthful Derby County. The non-league side had gained attention on Twitter when their players performed renditions of ‘Someone Like You’ following impressive upsets against Wigan and Peterborough. After knocking out a second former FA Cup winner in Derby, the Magpies’ players once more produced a vocal display only bettered by their slick performance on the pitch.
Further surprises followed as Blackpool beat a wounded West Bromwich Albion, whilst the legendary Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa, who boasts runners up medals in the Copa América, Copa Libertadores and Europa League was put to the sword by John Yems’ Crawley Town. The scorer of Crawley’s first goal, Nick Tsaroulla, who suffered injuries from a car crash in 2017 that halted his career for a period, epitomised everything so brilliant about this grand old competition. His moment of ingenuity against one of England’s most famous clubs is a comeback story for the ages, a man who thought his career was over but now whose name will reverberate for years to come through the corridors and terraces of the Broadfield Stadium.
One of the final games of the weekend provided plenty of intrigue as the great José Mourinho took his Tottenham superstars to Crosby, Merseyside to take on Marine, managed by Neil Young. The fixture was record-breaking in that the two sides had the greatest gap in league standings in FA Cup history, a whopping 161 spots separated the giants from the capital and lowly Marine. Under the watchful eye of the neighbours whose houses backed onto Rossett Park, Mourinho’s charges ran home a 5-0 victory, but only after Marine’s Kengni rattled Joe Hart’s crossbar with a rasping long-range strike. Only in the FA Cup, could a manager as successful as Mourinho watch Gareth Bale take on a P.E. Teacher, a bin man and a Sainsbury’s till operator, whilst sat at the end of a Liverpudlian’s garden in a chair that would not look out of place in a primary school assembly. The whole of Crosby stood still as Spurs gnashed their way through Young’s side.
Despite all the challenges that the last year has posed, and the many changes that we have all had to make to our ways of life, many will take solace in the important continuity that sport provides. This weekend proved that the ‘magic of the cup is still alive and well.’