The magic of the FA Cup is dead. That’s what I’m told, anyway. This was once the greatest cup competition in the world, they say, eyes misting over as they recall Ronnie Radford, Bob Stokoe and Dave Beasant. This was the tournament that made part-timers household names. And now look at it. An afterthought, an inconvenience, a waste of time. Little more than a distraction from what really matters – survival, promotion or European qualification. The FA Cup is yesterday’s competition.
It depends how you look at it. On the one hand, it’s hard to disagree. Reduced attendances and weakened teams offer little attraction to the average spectator, and it’s hard to summon up the requisite enthusiasm for the competition when even the managers seem to treat it as a nuisance.
On the other hand, I support Lincoln City.
Lincoln’s record in the FA Cup has traditionally been so poor that a certain gallows humour has developed around it. It doesn’t matter who we are drawn against – if it’s the FA Cup, we will find a way to fail. So it’s fair to say that none of us were expecting City to suddenly embark on one of the most remarkable FA Cup journeys in living memory this season. Oldham, Ipswich and Brighton all fell prey to the Imps’ brand of counter-attacking football in rounds two, three and four, however an away draw at Burnley in round five looked like a bridge too far. But, after 88 goalless minutes and a heroic draw on the cards, a late corner was headed in by Sean Raggett, sending the 3000 travelling Imps supporters into raptures, and Lincoln into the quarter-finals – the first non-league side to go that far in over a century.
Two days later, Sutton United welcomed Arsenal to Gander Green Lane, a stadium which holds just over 5000 supporters; Arsenal’s away end alone holds 9000. There is no other sport in which teams so drastically different in every way can meet on a level playing field. Sutton already have their own slice of FA Cup history thanks to a dramatic triumph over Coventry in 1989, and a deserved win against Leeds in the previous round. Could Sutton replicate Lincoln’s achievements? Sadly not, as Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners, but what an occasion it was for the part-timers. This really was a classic case of David vs Goliath. Arsenal had Alexis Sanchez on the bench, Sutton had a fat man who eats pies – that sort of thing. You don’t get that in the Champions League.
Is the magic of the cup really dead? Lincoln and Sutton have suggested not, and they are not the only sides to breathe new life into this sleeping giant in recent years, with Bradford’s 4-2 win away at Chelsea in 2015 springing to mind. I recall writing a blog entry at the time about how, by most measures, it was the greatest cup upset ever. It was from 2-0 down away from home against the runaway Premier League leaders who had not lost at home all season. I fail to see why Wrexham’s giantkilling of Arsenal or Wimbledon’s famous victory over Liverpool deserve greater attention than this just because they happened years ago. At what point does nostalgia kick in and elevate events to ‘magical’ status?
For the big boys, it is sadly true that legendary status is unlikely to be forged in the FA Cup. Louis van Gaal lifted the trophy shortly after eight o’clock on the 21st of May last year, and by nine it had been announced that Jose Mourinho would be replacing him in the Old Trafford hotseat.
And do you remember who scored the winning goal? It was Jesse Lingard. Well done if you remembered that, but in twenty years’ time, when they ask that in the pub quiz, will you still remember? Probably not. But you might remember the name Sean Raggett. You’ll see that goal every year, and you’ll be reminded of the moment when a non-league side overcame all odds to boldly go where no non-league side has gone before.
The magic of the cup, then, lies not in seeing the same teams contest the semi-finals year on year, or in the glitz and glamour of Wembley, or in the managers who care more about a couple more league points than memories and silverware. It lies in Sutton fans, young and old, witnessing a spectacle that none of them has known the like of before, or will again. It lies in seeing my dad, a Lincoln fan of four decades, punching the air in unbridled, disbelieving joy at full-time at Turf Moor. It lies in myself, barely able to talk or stand after Raggett’s header crossed the line, knowing that I had just witnessed history.
If the magic of the cup is dying, it’s going out with one hell of a bang.