English football’s affection with the FA Cup continues to grow. Over the last few season’s many have said that the FA Cup has lost its spark, dwindling attendances, big teams fielding weakened sides and moans from the terraces of “What’s the point?”
However, this season, the magic of the iconic cup competition is well and truly back and in truth, it had never left.
The oldest club competition in world football is into its 145th season and it still continues to conjure up surprise results and some of the most memorable games of football ever seen. This season, the likes of Sutton United, Lincoln City and Millwall have written their names into the FA Cup archive of giant killers alongside the likes of Havant & Waterlooville, Crawley Town and Bradford City before them.
It is a cup like no other. A chance for a giant killing for clubs who could only once dream of playing at the likes of Old Trafford, Emirates Stadium and Anfield - 90 minutes of living the dream. The financial reward on offer also has a mammoth effect on for those at the top and the bottom of the football ladder. Those at the top would love a cup run, trip to Wembley and chance to add to their cluttered trophy cabinets, whereas the smaller clubs are just wanting to be pitted against one of the big boys.
Only in the FA Cup could you see such a gulf and this is why football fans love it and why FA Cup tickets continue to be in high demand year after year. Lincoln became the first non-league side in 103 years to reach the quarter-finals with a dramatic last-minute win over Premier League side Burnley and have been rewarded with a trip to The Emirates Stadium to face 11-time winners, Arsenal in the last eight.
No one would have given Lincoln, who leads the National League - the fifth tier of English football - a sniff of reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Likewise, no football pundit would have given the Imps any chance of defeating Oldham, Ipswich, Brighton and Burnley - all teams above them in the league system.
Sutton United's bubble finally popped against Arsenal. The non-league side put up a brave fight before going down 2-0 against The Gunners. Despite the defeat, football was the real winner and always has been.
Wolves’ fifth round clash at Molineux against Chelsea was their highest home attendance since 1981 which saw 30,193 fans packed into the stadium to witness their valiant defeat against the Premier League leaders having already beaten two other top flight outfits in Stoke City and Liverpool at Anfield.
Lets not forget Oxford United of League Two either. The U’s gave Middlesbrough a fright in the fifth round before Boro edged out 3-2 winners. Oxford had their day in the sun at The Riverside after beating Merstham, Macclesfield Town, Rotherham United and Newcastle United on the memorable cup run - A great advert for lower league football in England.
Last August, a mammoth 736 clubs began in the famous competition with the preliminary rounds being a chance for some of the lesser sides to make a name for themselves and a shot at the big-time. Now, six months on, only eight remain.
Earlier this month Gary Neville claimed that the FA Cup needed a “new identity.” Is he mad?
The three-time FA Cup winner suggested that the competition needed to be revitalised because it is not seen as a priority for most Premier League clubs. Try telling that to Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs - all of whom are in the last eight and have fielded strong sides throughout.
On the flipside, it is these so called ‘football experts’ claiming that young players from academies need to be given a fair chance, so why not give them the perfect platform to blossom on the biggest stage in the FA Cup? Anyway, that is a debate for another day.
The FA Cup is something of a national treasure and continues to capture the hearts and imagination of the nation every season just like it has done for the past 145 seasons and hopefully many more. The competition has become integrated in the identity of English football and is very much part of the furniture we have become accustomed to as we continue to expect the unexpected.
One of the Premier League big boys are more than likely to emerge as the 2017 FA Cup champions in May, but for the neutral we hope that an even bigger prize could be on the horizon for one of these lower league sides come Saturday 27th May at Wembley. The magic of the FA Cup continues to thrill and surprise us each season and as football fans, we wouldn't want it any other way.
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