Do England Deserve to be in World Cup Semi-Final?

Since England qualified for the World Cup Semi-Finals by beating Sweden there has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not the country deserves to be there.

“They’ve only beaten lesser teams”, “they haven’t been tested”, “they only scraped through against Tunisia”, “they lost to Belgium’s B Team” – these are some of the many accusations against the England team evidencing why they are unworthy World Cup Semi-Finalists. “They’ll come unstuck against a stronger side” is the final message of doom conveyed.

Well, here’s some news for you. Many of the so-called ‘stronger’ countries are out. Brazil? Gone. Argentina? Gone. Germany? Gone. Portugal? Gone. Italy? Didn’t even make it. If they are better than England why are they not in the last four of the World Cup? The luck of the draw? Pish. Faced stronger teams? Pish.

Let’s put aside the fact that you can only defeat what’s put in front of you, or any perceived luck of the draw, or any overt plan to manipulate fate to have an easier run in the competition, and imagine what would, or rather would not have been said should Sweden have beaten England rather than the other way around (aside from all the histrionics and personal attacks that would be spouted by the red-tops).

If Sweden had won against England to make the World Cup Semi-Finals would there have been an outcry of ‘they’ve only beaten lesser teams’ and ‘they haven’t really been tested’? Probably not (there would be too much focus on why England were out). But it is interesting to analyse what that scenario would have meant with regards to England’s quality if those statements had or had not been made.

If people did bemoan the fact Sweden had only beaten ‘lesser’ teams, then by insinuation England must have been regarded as one of them. So, if England was considered to be a ‘lesser’ team then the mere fact the country has in actuality made the World Cup Semi-Final means they are over-achieving and producing out-of-this-world performances. This is something to be celebrated and who’s to say that they would not do so against supposed stronger teams, too. After all Sweden could be classed as a stronger team as they did see off both Holland and Italy, and beat France, in qualification, and progressed at the expense of Germany in the Finals. Conclusion: England deserve to be in the Semi-Final.

If people did not believe Sweden had beaten ‘lesser’ teams to make the World Cup Semi-Final then by implication England must not be one of them. England must have been regarded as one of the ‘better’ teams. If England are regarded as one of the ‘better’ teams then it is irrelevant whether or not they have played other countries also regarded as ‘better’ teams to get to the Semi-Final. The mere fact England have only faced ‘lesser’ teams is a moot point. Again getting to the Semi-Final should be celebrated. Conclusion: England deserve to be in the Semi-Final.

So England may not necessarily have the best players to have participated in this World Cup, although Harry Kane and Kieran Trippier would make any World Cup XI, and they may not have faced the supposedly strongest opposition to get to the Semi-Final, but what they have been is one of the strongest TEAMS at the World Cup. The synergistic performances have come about through playing as a team, for the team, rather than relying on one or two superstar individuals to drag the team on.

Just look at England’s first goal against Sweden. Harry Kane clearly selflessly spoke to Harry Maguire saying he would pull his marker away with a false run to leave space for Maguire to attack. A player gunning for the Golden Boot giving the opportunity to score to someone else for the benefit of the team? Take note Ronaldo, Neymar, Sanchez.

It is refreshing that the World Cup is re-establishing the fact Football is a TEAM game and that it is the better ‘teams’ that progress the furthest. Whatever happens against Croatia (another country where their total is greater than the sum of their parts) in the Semi-Final we should be celebrating the fact that England reached the last four of the World Cup rather than questioning whether or not they deserve to be there.

Do England deserve to be in this year’s World Cup Semi-Finals? Of course they bloody do!

 

Advertisements

No Co-Commentators, Thank You

The 2018 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching and I can’t wait for the tournament to kick-off. I love everything about the World Cup – the often scintillating football from some of the world’s best players, the unusual match-ups between nations, the highs and mainly lows of watching England, the emergence of an unknown nation or superstar, the four games in one day, the controversies etc etc etc.

Well, when I say I love everything about the World Cup, there is one notable and significant exception – the use of co-commentators when showing the live matches.

Now I have absolutely nothing against those people who take on the role of co-commentary. In their own right Mark Lawrenson, Glenn Hoddle, Jermaine Jenas, Martin Keown et al are fine footballing pundits. What I am against wholeheartedly is the use of co-commentators at all.

Having a second person commenting during a live match adds absolutely nothing to the experience of watching it. In fact, it actually does more than that, it devalues the experience of watching it. First there are the ‘welcomes’ needed at the start of a match. Totally unnecessary, and included as if nothing ever happens in the first two minutes of a game. There is a high number of occasions a co-commentator has been prattling on about the weather or their dinner or their view, when suddenly there is an attack or a goal which is completely missed by the main commentator in terms of describing it, or at best an interruption just as the ball flies in to the back of the net.

That missing of describing the action in a build up to a goal is my major gripe about the use of co-commentators. When on their own the main commentator usually does a wonderful, professional job of describing the action and their soundtrack adds to the experience and the memory of the goal. Just watch a highlights package to see how it should be done. But when there is a co-commentator alongside them then a large proportion of the verbosity spouted has absolutely nothing to do with what is happening on the pitch and adds nothing to the viewers enjoyment of the game.

Quite often what the two of them babble on about doesn’t even have anything to do with football. And then there’s a sudden interruption as the main commentator shouts ‘goal’ or ‘oooh’ depending on what just happened. The commentator options should be: just describe the action or be quiet.

Additionally, what is the actual role of a co-commentator anyway. I’m assuming that they are there to bring insightful analysis into what we have just witnessed, an explanation of a particular skill or game play that we may have missed. But that is not what they do. All they actually do is describe again what we can see on the replay. No insight as to what caused the play to come about, just a description of what the viewers can see for themselves in slow motion.

During the 2014 World Cup there were two matches when there was no co-commentator. Seek them out, they were the best commentated on games of the tournament. There was a match that was broadcast at 1.0 am UK time, and another where the co-commentator was ill and couldn’t make the game. Both of these matches were commented on as if they were to be shown as a highlights package on Match of the Day. Expertly described, brilliantly enthused, wonderfully enhanced experience of the game.

So ITV and BBC, ditch your co-commentators for the benefit of the viewing public. If there is nothing happening on the pitch then it’s OK to keep schtum. Silence is a million times more preferable than the inanity offered up when there are two commentators.

Commentating on live matches is definitely a case of less is more!

FACupFactfile Facts & Stats in 2018 FA Cup Final Programme

To follow are all my FA Cup facts and stats that were included in the 2018 FA Cup Final programme, plus as many again that could not be accommodated.

If you would like to use any of these facts & stats in your club’s own programme then please seek permission from @FACupFactfile on Twitter beforehand

Untold stories-page-104-105

 

How Odd!

Seven hundred and thirty-seven clubs participated in the 2017-18 FA Cup. An unusually odd number of entries caused by Bostik Isthmian League One South side Guernsey opting out of participating so they could ‘focus on the league’. As a consequence there were an odd number of ties in the Extra Preliminary Round, too, 185 in total. And the last club drawn out of the hat in that odd 185th tie? None other than the appropriately named Toolstation Western League Premier Division club Odd Down!

 

Berko’s Dozen

In the Extra Preliminary Round Berkhamsted ran riot and won 12-1 at fellow Spartan South Midland Premier Division side Stotfold. That result is the largest margin of victory away from home in the FA Cup in the 21st Century. Six different players were on the scoresheet for the Comrades that day. Skipper Jon Munday and Stacey Field both netted hat-tricks, alongside a brace apiece from Alex Campana and Tom Carter and goals from Dan Jones and Frankie Jowle.

 

Lightning At-Tack

Flackwell Heath beat fellow Uhlsport Hellenic Premier Division side Burnham 5-0 in the Extra Preliminary Round with Liam Tack scoring their opening goal. The significance of that goal? Well it was timed at 7.51pm on the 4th August, and is the earliest in any season an FA Cup goal has ever been scored, beating the record set just last season on the 5th August by Thame United’s Lynton Goss.

 

Shaftesbury Shock

Goals from Charlie Browne and Danny Finnigan (in extra time) gave Toolstation Western League Premier Division club Shaftesbury a 2-1 victory at Exmouth Town of the Carlsberg South West Peninsula League Premier Division in the Extra Preliminary Round. The goals earned the Dorset club its first FA Cup victory for 67 years. The Queen was still known as Princess Elizabeth the last time Shaftesbury won a game in the FA Cup!

 

Just Like Buses

You wait 130 years or more to play your first FA Cup match and then two come along at once. Chipping Sodbury Town of the Toolstation Western League were formed in 1885 and Framlingham Town of the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League were formed in 1887. Both clubs entered the FA Cup for the first time in 2017-18, and both won their respective opening ties 3-1, to then play again in the competition just two weeks later in the Preliminary Round.

 

 

 

No Victor Victoria

Hallmark Security North West Counties League Premier Division side Northwich Victoria were knocked out of the FA Cup in the Extra Preliminary Round for the first time ever in their 109th campaign. To rub salt into the wound the exit came at the hands of local league rivals 1874 Northwich in a replay.

 

Fawley Awful

A 3-2 loss at Combined Counties Premier Division side Farnham Town means it is now six FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round defeats for Fawley of the Sydenhams Wessex League Division One in the six FA Cup campaigns they have had. They are now second in the list of clubs who have failed to go beyond the Extra Preliminary Round in any of their FA Cup campaigns. Five seasons ahead of them, with the all-time record of 11 Extra Preliminary Round defeats in just 11 FA Cup campaigns, is a Birmingham based club named Headingly, who achieved their record run of consecutive losses in the 1920s/30s.

 

Pitt Start

Several players scored four goals in one FA Cup match this season but Ollie Pitt, of Uhlsport Hellenic Premier Division outfit Brimscombe and Thrupp, had the stand-out four-bagger. In his side’s 4-0 Extra Preliminary Round victory over Sun Sports of Spartan South Midlands Premier Division, he scored all his four goals in a 12 minute blitz, between the 12th and 23rd minutes of the first half!

 

Wood You Like to Call

When the two captains joined the referee for the toss of the coin and pre-match handshake ahead of an FA Cup Preliminary Round tie he could have been forgiven for doing a double-take. Twenty-nine year old Shane Wood was the captain of Spartan South Midlands Premier Division side Leverstock Green whilst his younger brother Jack Wood, twenty-five, was captain of Aylesbury United of the Evo-Stik Southern League Division One South East. It was the younger sibling who ended up with the family bragging rights in the end, as the Ducks of Aylesbury won 4-1 in a replay.

Untold stories-page-106-107

 

Seven Mins Four Pens

When Southern Counties East League side Erith Town went 2-0 up at home in their Preliminary Round replay against their higher level opponents, Whyteleafe of Bostik Isthmian League One South, thanks to a Ryan Golding penalty in the 38th minute of the first half, no-one could have anticipated what would come next. Three more penalties would be awarded and all three would be scored before half time! Two converted by Sam Clayton of Whyteleafe to level things up before Sam Golding slotted home his second spot-kick to give the home side a 3-2 lead. Of course Whyteleafe eventually equalised causing the tie to require even more penalties to resolve it. Erith Town triumphed 4-1 on penalties, meaning Whyteleafe actually scored more penalties in normal time than they did in the shoot-out!

 

 

New Faces

Before the 2017-18 FA Cup had begun Kettering Town of the Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division held the record for most FA Cup goals scored (870) and most number of different clubs faced in FA Cup matches (175). Unsurprisingly the Poppies added to their record goals tally (now 879) but more surprisingly they remarkably managed to be drawn against four teams they’d never faced in the competition before. Evo-Stik Northern Premier League One South side Romulus were beaten 3-0 in the First Qualifying Round. Then Kidsgrove Athletic from the same division were defeated 2-0 in the next round and fellow league members Basford United beaten 3-2 in the round after that. Finally Kettering Town lost 1-0 in a replay at another new opponent, Nantwich Town from the Premier Division of the same league.

 

You’re having a Wath

Evo-Stik Northern Premier League One North side South Shields beating York City of Vanarama National League North by four goals to two is one of the FA Cup upsets of the season. However, for the Minstermen of York City the shock is even greater than just that defeat itself. It is the first time the former Football League club has been knocked out of the FA Cup at the Third Qualifying Round stage of the competition since they lost 4-1 at Wath Athletic in the 1925-26 season!

 

Long Way from Home

When you are involved in a regional FA Cup draw you don’t expect to have to endure a 670 mile round trip. But that is exactly what happened to AFC Sudbury of Bostik Isthmian League One North in the Third Qualifying Round when they were paired with Truro City of Vanarama National League South. To make matters worse they were on the wrong end of a 4-1 defeat. Sky Bet League Two side Carlisle United had a similar distance to travel in the Second Round ‘Proper’ when facing Gillingham of League One. A one-all draw required the Gills to have to make the same trip but in mid-week, and a late night return after a 3-1 defeat would have been less than enjoyable. Only League Two side Grimsby Town had a more miserable longer journey with 211 fans having seen their side lose 1-0 at League One Plymouth Argyle in the First Round in between two 346 mile journeys.

 

Cornish Pass Tie

Vanarama National League South side Truro City became the first club from the county of Cornwall to reach the FA Cup First Round ‘Proper’ for 48 years, and only the second ever club to do so. Noah Keats scored the historic goals that won the match at League rivals Hampton and Richmond Borough in the Fourth Qualifying Round. Tyler Harvey then scored the White Tigers first ever FA Cup ‘Proper’ Round goal but unfortunately they were beaten 3-1 at Sky Bet League One side Charlton Athletic.

 

Fourteen Hours

1874 Northwich of Hallmark Security North West Counties League Premier Division played the most amount of football in this season’s FA Cup. Having been involved in four replays in the five rounds they competed in, the club were on the pitch in the FA Cup for a total of 840 minutes (14 hours), eventually losing 6-5 on penalties in their ninth match at Ossett Town of Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division One North.

Seven Seconds

Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division side Slough Town lost 4-1 against Sky Bet League One club Rochdale in the FA Cup Second Round. It was the seventh time out of seven Second Round appearances that the Rebels had been thwarted at that stage of the competition. No other club has lost so many times at that stage without ever making it through to the Third Round.

 Untold stories-page-108-109

The Non-League No Show

When Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division side Hereford lost 2-0 at home to Sky Bet League One Fleetwood Town in a Second Round replay on 14th December 2017, the loss was felt much wider than within the hordes who follow that phoenix club. The whole of the world of non-league football was in mourning, as not only were Hereford the last non-league club standing in the FA Cup, their defeat meant that only ‘English Football League’ and ‘Premier League’ clubs would be involved in the Third Round. This became the first season since 1950-51 that there were no non-league teams in the Third Round of the FA Cup, and was in stark contrast to the record breaking runs of Sutton United (5th Round) and Lincoln City (Quarter Finals) in the competition just last season.

 

Hello Neighbour

Merseyside rivals Everton and Liverpool were drawn to face each other in the FA Cup Third Round at Anfield. It was the eighteenth season the two clubs would meet in the FA Cup, including two memorable FA Cup Finals, a record high for the competition ‘Proper’. Liverpool had won 10 of their previous encounters, but this would be the first season the Reds would be victorious in a Merseyside derby in the FA Cup at home, having been held to a draw on all four previous occasions.

 

Every Cloud

When Sky Bet Championship side Norwich City lost to Premier League Chelsea 5-3 on penalties in their FA Cup Third Round replay it was the fifth successive season that the Canaries had failed to win an FA Cup match. That put the club level with the current winless FA Cup run for fellow Championship side Queens Park Rangers who lost 1-0 at home to Milton Keynes Dons from the league below. It is the second longest winless run in the competition of all 92 League clubs. The good news for Canaries’ fans is that it is also the second longest run without an FA Cup victory in East Anglia! The holder of that particular current record is Championship side and arch rivals Ipswich Town. Their 1-0 home defeat to Sheffield United means it is now eight consecutive seasons without an FA Cup win.

 

Just Gr8

Premier League Swansea City hosted Sky Bet League Two side Notts County in a Fourth Round replay and went on the rampage winning the match 8-1, equalling the club’s highest ever win in the FA Cup, last achieved in the 1913-14 season against Caerleon Athletic in a Qualifying Round tie. The result also equalled Notts County’s worst ever FA Cup defeat last suffered in the 1926-27 season at Newcastle United. Six different players scored for Swansea City in the rout but Sam Clucas was not among them. That was surprising given the last time a club won 8-1 in the FA Cup (Mansfield Town 8-1 St Albans City, four years ago), Sam Clucas scored four of the goals!

Extra! Extra!

When this season’s Quarter Final tie between Premier League sides Leicester City and Chelsea ended one apiece after 90 minutes the game went into extra time rather than what historically would have happened and gone on to a replay. However, even though the ‘no replay’ rule only came into fruition last season, it wasn’t the first time an FA Cup Quarter Final game had utilised extra time to try to settle the tie at the first time of asking, but it had been 70 years since it last happened. Following the end of World War Two vital resources such as fuel were scarce and so clubs were encouraged to play extra time in all rounds rather than go straight to a replay if the scores were level after 90 minutes. The last time this happened in a Quarter Final tie was in the 1947-48 season when Queens Park Rangers and Derby County drew one-all. Unfortunately an extra 30 minutes proved futile and a replay was required anyway. Derby won the replay then, and Chelsea won this season without the need of penalties. That’s a stat for future FA Cup competitions!

 

Not So Gr8

Premier League Tottenham Hotspur were beaten 2-1 by Manchester United in this year’s FA Cup Semi-Final. It was the eighth consecutive FA Cup Semi-Final Spurs had lost since beating Arsenal in the 1990-91 last four. That is a very unwanted record of eight straight Semi-Final defeats!

 

Will Griggs on Fire, Jack Midson’s Higher

The top individual goal-scorer in the ‘Proper’ Rounds of this season’s FA Cup is Will Griggs of Sky Bet League One side Wigan Athletic. He has fired in seven goals in total including the winner against Premier League Manchester City, a victory that meant Wigan Athletic were only the second club ever from the third tier to knock out three top-flight clubs in the same FA Cup run. Realistically only Romelu Lukaku of Manchester United is in a position to potentially pass Will Griggs’ total, but he would need to be only the fourth person ever to score an FA Cup Final hat-trick in order to do so. However, there is one player who has already been more prolific in front of goal in the FA Cup this season, but only if taking Qualifying Round matches into account. Jack Midson of Bostik Isthmian League Premier Division side Leatherhead has hit the back of the net a dozen times in total, although only four of them came in ‘Proper’ Round matches.

 

Hot-Shot Hotspurs

Premier League Tottenham Hotspur are the current top scorers in the ‘Proper’ Rounds of this season’s FA Cup having scored 18 goals en route to the Semi-Finals. It would require a record breaking FA Cup Final scoreline for either of Manchester United or Chelsea to outgun them, necessitating beating the 6-0 win posted by Bury when beating Derby County in the 1902-03 Final. However, three Bostik Isthmian League clubs did already score more goals than Spurs throughout the whole competition this season. Premier Division Leatherhead netted 20 times. Division One North Heybridge Swifts hit the back of the net 24 times. But top goal-scorers in the whole competition are Premier Division champions Billericay Town with 25 goals.

 

 

Lucky 13?

This season’s FA Cup Final could quite easily be brought to you by the Number 13 in the style of kid’s TV programme Sesame Street. Chelsea are into the Cup Final for the thirteenth time. Amazingly this is their seventh visit in just 18 years of the 21st Century. They only managed six Finals in the 95 years since forming in the last century. It is also the thirteenth different season that Manchester United and Chelsea will face each other in the FA Cup, with the Red Devils holding an eight to four win ratio against the Blues in the past. And Manchester United are vying to lift the Trophy for a record equalling thirteenth time. They are already equalling a record just by reaching Wembley, with this season being their 20th appearance in an FA Cup Final.

 

Who’s No. 1?

The record for most FA Cup Final wins (13) is currently held by Arsenal, who are also the joint holders of the most FA Cup Final appearances (20). However, if Manchester United were to lift the Trophy this season for a 13th time, who out of the two would be regarded as the best FA Cup club of all time? Their stats are remarkably similar even outside of Cup Finals. Both clubs have 29 FA Cup Semi-Final appearances to their names. And both clubs have appeared in the Quarter Finals 43 times each. However, by virtue of having appeared in four more Fifth Round matches, Arsenal would remain the No. 1 FA Cup club even if Manchester United were to be triumphant this year. If they did win it, there’s quite a nice symmetry in the fact that Arsenal won their 13th FA Cup Final by beating Chelsea last season and Manchester United could do the same by beating the same opponents this year.

Phil with Programme front cover best

Haven’t We Met Before?

This is the third time that Manchester United and Chelsea will contest the FA Cup Final having both been victorious once each in past clashes. Manchester United won 4-0 in the 1993-94 Final (Eric Cantona becoming the only player to date to score two penalties in one Final), and Chelsea gained revenge in 2006-07 with Didier Drogba scoring the only goal late in extra time. This is only the fourth time that the same two teams will meet in an FA Cup Final for the third time. Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion were the first to do so way back in the 19th Century (Villa ahead two wins to one), then Arsenal and Newcastle United (Newcastle up two-one), and most recently Arsenal and Liverpool (Arsenal ahead two to one).

 

Repeat, repeat, repeat!

This year will see the third consecutive ‘repeat’ FA Cup Final as Manchester United and Chelsea meet for the third time, following Arsenal versus Chelsea last season and Manchester United versus Crystal Palace the season before that. It is the first time that three successive FA Cup Finals will involve two clubs who have met in the Final before.

 

 

 

 

Blue or Red is the Colour

Whichever team lifts the FA Cup Trophy this season they will be a club that plays their home matches in predominantly a red or blue kit. It will be the 27th consecutive time a club which wears one or other of those two coloured shirts will win the FA Cup. The last club to be triumphant in an FA Cup Final which didn’t wear red or blue was white-shirted Tottenham Hotspur in 1990-91 when they beat the red-shirted Nottingham Forest.

 

Two Long

If Manchester United win the FA Cup this season it will create a new record for the most consecutive number of years with the fewest number of clubs winning the Trophy. Over the past five seasons only Arsenal and Manchester United would have won the FA Cup.

 

Guaranteed Record

If Manchester United win the FA Cup this season they will equal the record number of FA Cup triumphs along with Arsenal (13). If Manchester United lose in this season’s FA Cup Final they will equal the record number of Cup Final defeats along with Everton (8). Either way, an FA Cup Final record will be equalled this season!

 

 

The FA Don’t Care About the FA Cup

Anyone who thinks the FA gives two hoots about a club playing an FA Cup Semi-Final at home negatively affecting the integrity of the competition needs to think again.

The supposed custodians of the world’s oldest cup competition have been denigrating this famous competition for years now with decisions made based upon maximising revenue and/or benefitting other parties, all at the expense of the FA Cup.

In 1999, the FA sanctioned the Cup holders, Manchester United, not to have to defend their title. Was this decision based on benefitting the FA Cup? Of course it wasn’t; it was all done in the futile attempt at winning the rights to host the World Cup. What made it worse was that it was perfectly possible for Manchester United to play in the inaugural World Club Championship as well as in the FA Cup simply by delaying when they needed to play their Third Round tie, but the FA decided upon a ‘lucky loser’ option instead.

One of the reasons why the FA Cup is still regarded as a competition worth winning by many in the game is that if you lose a match you are out. There are no second chances. The only exceptions to that rule have been 1) whenever the FA declares a result as being void, 2) the exceptional circumstances of the first competition after World War II where games were all two legged affairs, and 3) when Darlington were drawn out as the lucky loser after losing 3-1 at Gillingham in the Second Round in 1999-2000 season. Even then the FA could have reverted to previous ways of managing odd numbers in a Round by just giving one club a bye in the Third Round instead of allowing a defeated team a second chance!

Many commentators on our beautiful game cite that decision in 1999 by the FA to agree to Manchester United not defending their title as the day the FA Cup was fatally wounded; the day it lost its status as the prestigious competition it once was, and the beginning of a long, slow path to death.

To be fair to the FA, though, whilst the FA Cup was being belittled at the business end of the competition, they made a decision to begin opening it up to more lower-level clubs, and since the Year 2000 there has been a steady increase in the number of non-league clubs participating in it (capped based on ground grading rules). The high regard for the FA Cup is alive and well amongst the hundreds of these non-league clubs. It’s a pity that those in charge of top tier clubs do not feel the same. Maybe they just need to experience football at this lower level.

In 2007, the FA sanctioned the use of Wembley for Semi-Finals on a permanent basis. There had been sporadic use of the old Wembley for Semi-Finals prior to its demolition, and even one season use of the Millennium Stadium in that stadium’s last tenure of hosting the Final, but the current norm didn’t come about until a season after the first Final was held at the new Wembley. Football fans up and down the country bemoaned the fact that getting to Wembley was being devalued, but the FA had a big bill to pay and Wembley had to be used as much as possible. So now the media and clubs trumpet reaching Wembley as a major achievement even though it’s just at the Semi-Finals stage, although this season that achievement has been trumpeted even earlier in the competition (more on that later).

In 2015, the FA sanctioned a change to the name of the competition. The FA Cup became the Emirates FA Cup. And why did they sanction this name change instead of calling it ‘The FA Cup sponsored by Emirates’ as they had done with previous sponsors? Well, money, of course. The words ‘The FA Cup’ stood for something. It re-enforced the standing of the competition in the eyes of the world, re-iterating how it was ‘The’ cup competition, the original and the best.

By allowing the sponsor to have their name integrated into the name of the FA Cup has done irrevocable damage to the competition’s position. No doubt Emirates paid a much higher sum to allow the competition to be known as ‘The Emirates FA Cup’ rather than ‘The FA Cup sponsored by Emirates’, but did the FA really need to sell its soul to get the sponsorship? There’s no doubt that Emirates would still have paid a large sum to be sponsors of the FA Cup without having to integrate their name, an amount the FA would still have been able to utilise to benefit the competition, but the FA were greedy, putting the maximisation of profit ahead of the reputation of the FA Cup itself.

In 2016, the FA sanctioned the removal of replays in the FA Cup Quarter Finals. Was this decision made to benefit the FA Cup? Of course it wasn’t. It was made at the behest of the Premier League who wanted to free up more available days in the latter part of the season, in particular to help those clubs competing in the Champions League. Like them or hate them, replays have been an integral part of the FA Cup from its very early days. Designed to give away clubs the opportunity to counter the bad luck of being drawn away from home, their removal in a Round where a club still has home advantage showed how little the FA cared for the integrity of their crown jewel tournament.

In 2017, two things were sanctioned by the FA that were yet again not to the benefit of the FA Cup. The first was agreeing to allow Tottenham Hotspur to play their ‘home’ games at Wembley without any provision for what should happen if they were to be drawn at home or reach the Semi-Finals or Final of the FA Cup. Allowing Spurs to play home ties at Wembley in the FA Cup, just by itself, shows the FA has exhibited a complete dereliction of duty, but allowing any club to play a Semi-Final at the ground they have played their home league matches throughout the season shows utter contempt for the competition.

Whilst there has never been a rule that says Semi-Finals and Final should be played at neutral grounds, it has actually always been the case. The FA council decides where the games should be played, but for the interests of fairness at such a critical stage of the competition, no club has ever had an advantage. One hundred and forty-six years of FA Cup history discarded at the drop of a hat, or should that be at the opening of a chequebook.

The second thing the FA sanctioned this season that has been detrimental to the FA Cup has been to allow the competition to be used as a trial for VAR, Video Assistant Referees. Whatever your thoughts on VAR, and I’m no fan, to have some ties utilise it and others not means that not all clubs have been treated fairly in the competition. Moreover, what message does it send with regards to the standing of the FA Cup when it can be used as a trial for new technology. The trial of VAR has been chaotic to say the least. Yes, most things have teething problems, but in the case of the VAR trial there appears to be very little understanding of what potential issues there might have been and how to handle them. It’s been a very visible case of a badly handled trial and error, and the FA Cup has suffered as a consequence.

So, no matter the volume of voices decrying the home advantage afforded to Spurs in this year’s Semi-Finals (and potentially the Final itself), the FA will do nothing, having proved time and time again that they care not one jot about the FA Cup. All they seem to care about is how much money they can make!

Third Tier Clubs in Last Four of FA Cup

A record fourth Premier League scalp for Wigan Athletic in this year’s FA Cup, adding Southampton to the already vanquished AFC Bournemouth, West Ham United and Manchester City, would take the North West club into the Semi-Finals to become only the tenth third tier club to make it to the last four of this historic competition.

All nine of the previous third tier clubs to make it that far all fell at the final hurdle potentially giving Wigan the opportunity to become the first club from that level to make it all the way to the Final itself. However, for many of the previous nine clubs, it is a tale of ‘what might have been’ as bad luck, nerves or blatant mistakes prevented the ultimate glory of a Cup Final appearance.

The whole concept of a third tier didn’t come to fruition until the second season after the cessation of hostilities in WWI when the Southern League was assimilated into the Football League to create Division Three. The following season, 1921-22, a northern equivalent was integrated into the League creating a Northern and a Southern Division at the third level. A few years later the FA Cup was re-aligned to reflect the expansion of the Football League and from the 1925-26 onward third tier clubs have been exempted in the FA Cup until the 1st Round ‘Proper’.

Millwall had been an FA Cup Semi-Finalist twice as a Southern League club at the start of the 20th Century, and had twice made the last eight of the competition as a Football League side prior to the 1936-37 season when doing so again as a Third Division South club. To get to the last eight Millwall had scored 20 goals and conceded just two in defeating third division sides Aldershot and Gateshead, second division Fulham, and two First Division clubs, Chelsea and Derby County.

The Quarter Final draw pitted the Lions at home the Champions elect Manchester City. It would be a tough task to overcome such superior opposition, but Millwall had in their ranks a prolific goal-scorer in the shape of Dave Mangnall who had already netted seven times in the current Cup run. And it duly was Mangnall who scored either side of half-time, in front of 42,000 spectators, to create FA Cup history and make Millwall become the first ever third tier side to reach the Semi-Finals.

In the Semi-Final at Leeds Road, Huddersfield, Millwall were up against the previous season’s First Division champions in the shape of Sunderland. Dave Mangnall bagged his tenth goal of the campaign to give Millwall a tenth minute lead and a fleeting glimpse of Wembley, but goals by Bobby Gurney and Patrick Gallacher ended their fine run at the last hurdle.

Port Vale never had much of an FA Cup history prior to the 1953-54 season, and haven’t had much to sing about in the competition in the 60+ years since, but in that one glorious Cup run the Valiants came within one game of Wembley. And they had goal-scorer Albert Leake to thank that it was they and not Third Division South Leyton Orient who made it to the last four.

Port Vale had a memorable 1953-54 winning the Third Division North at a canter and remained unbeaten at home throughout the whole season. Their FA Cup run saw victories over Division Three sides Darlington, Southport and Queens Park Rangers, as well as beating Division One clubs Cardiff City and FA Cup holders Blackpool. And in that run Albert Leake grabbed five of their 11 goals including the double that saw off Stanley Matthews et al in the fifth round.

Leyton Orient had made the Quarter Finals without facing a top-flight side. Albert Leake scored the only goal of the Quarter Final, but the Valiants had their ‘keeper Ray King to thank for ensuring the victory. In the Semi-Final Vale were drawn to face West Bromwich Albion, a side that year vying with Wolverhampton Wanderers for the First Division title. The tie was played at Villa Park, a neutral venue yes, but just a stone’s throw from the Baggies’ home ground.

Yet again it was the lower league side’s top scorer who opened the scoring in the Semi-Final when Albert Leake netted in the 40th minute to give Vale a half-time lead and dreams of Wembley. The Baggies came out all guns a-blazing in the second half but reverted to a long ball game that saw Jimmy Dudley equalise off the back of Vale defender Tommy Cheadle’s head just after the hour mark, and former Port Vale player Ronnie Allen covert a heavily disputed penalty eight minutes later.

York City had made the FA Cup Quarter Finals in 1937-38 season losing 2-1 at Division One side Huddersfield Town in a replay, but that aside their FA Cup record is one of ignominious failure (the odd notable top-flight scalp aside). However, in just the very next season after Port Vale had an FA Cup run out of the blue, so did the Minstermen of Division Three North in 1954-55. And their goal-scoring hero was an Englishman called Arthur Bottom.

York City joined the 3rd Division later than most others, not becoming a member of the Football League until the 1929-30 season and would be destined to remain in the Division Three North for the remainder of that division’s existence, not gaining promotion until finishing third in the first ever Fourth Division season. Their League record was as nondescript as their Cup form.

Three non-league clubs had been dispatched (Scarborough, Dorchester Town and Bishop Auckland) alongside two First Division clubs in the shape of Blackpool and Tottenham Hotspur before York City travelled to Second Division Notts County for their Quarter Final tie. And it was Arthur Bottom who scored the only goal of the game in the second half, his seventh of the campaign, to take York City into the last four for the first time ever where they would face First Division Newcastle United.

In atrocious conditions at Hillsborough, 65,000 spectators saw Vic Keeble give Newcastle United the lead, only for Arthur Bottom to equalise before half-time. The second half remained goal-less and so York City became the first third tier side to earn an FA Cup Semi-Final replay. There was to be no fairy-tale in the second game at Roker Park as Len White opened the scoring within two minutes for Newcastle. York City hung on commendably despite being reduced to 10 men through injury and were always in with a chance of equalising, but Vic Keeble settled the tie towards the end of the 90 minutes.

Norwich City were the next third tier side to reach the FA Cup Semi-Finals in the 1958-59 season. The Canaries had had a nondescript FA Cup record both before and after becoming a Football League side in 1920-21 when the Southern League was amalgamated as the Third Division. Despite five seasons in Division Two, the club had never gone beyond the 5th Round, but that was all to change in the first season they once again competed in what was called Division Three.

Unlike their three predecessors, the goals for Norwich City’s Cup run were spread across three to four notable players; Bobby Brennan, Errol Crossan, Terry Bly and Jimmy Hill (not that one). They had scored 13 goals by the time they were drawn to face Division Two side Sheffield United in the Quarter Finals having defeated non-league Ilford, Third Division Swindon Town, Second Division Cardiff City, and both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from Division One.

Canadian Errol Crossan scored the goal at Bramall Lane that brought the two sides back to Carrow Road following a 1-1 draw in the Quarter Final. Bobby Brennan opened the scoring for Norwich City and Terry Bly doubled their lead before the half hour mark only to be pegged back to 2-1 by half-time. Bly added a second before Sheffield United pulled another one back with 20 minutes to go, but the Canaries held on.

In the Semi-Final Norwich City were drawn to face Division One side Luton Town at White Hart Lane, a ground where the Norfolk club had already gained a memorable draw earlier in the competition. Allan Brown opened the scoring for the Hatters, but former Luton Town player Bobby Brennan equalised forcing a replay at St Andrews. Billy Bingham scored the only goal of the game in the replay to send Luton through. Norwich City have twice since made the FA Cup Semi-Finals, but have still yet to make it to Wembley. They are joint holders of the record of most FA Cup Semi-Finals without ever having made the Final itself.

Crystal Palace finally made the FA Cup Semi-Finals 104 years after their namesake did so in the inaugural FA Cup competition of 1871-72. Palace had been a First Division side but recent successive relegations saw them in the third tier just before the 1975-76 season, the year when they went on their best Cup run up until that time.

The club had faced just one First Division side en route to the Semi-Finals, a waning but still strong Leeds United side 1-0 in the Fourth Round, and had defeated two non-league clubs (Walton and Hersham and Scarborough), Division Three Millwall, and both Chelsea and Sunderland from the Second Division, the latter of whom was beaten 1-0 at Roker Park thanks to an Allan Whittle strike.

Palace were drawn to face Southampton in the Semi-Finals. Southampton were a mid-table team in the Second Division at the time and the tie was to be played in London at Stamford Bridge. They were the first third tier side to face non-top-flight opposition in their Semi-Final and would face them in their home city. On paper, Palace had the best opportunity of all third tier sides so far of making it to Wembley.

Alas, it was not to be. Second half goals from Paul Gilchrist and David Peach (from a debatable penalty) saw Southampton progress at their expense. Palace, therefore, became the first third tier side to fail to score in their Semi-Final.

Plymouth Argyle had no real FA Cup history to speak of before venturing all the way to the Semi-Finals in the 1983-84 season. A solitary 5th Round appearance 31 years previously the best the Pilgrims had been able to muster.

An inauspicious goal-less draw at fellow Division Three side Southend United gave no indication of the Cup run to come, but they were defeated 2-0 in the replay and this was followed up by victories over non-league Barking, Third Division Newport County in a replay, Fourth Division Darlington and a 1-0 win at First Division West Bromwich Albion, the winning goal scored by Tommy Tynan. And all that on the back of a fight against relegation in the Third Division.

Second Division Derby County visited Home Park for the club’s first ever Quarter Final tie, but the match ended scoreless. Derby were obvious favourites for the replay, but Plymouth had other ideas with Andy Rogers scoring the only goal of the match direct from a corner kick. Villa Park beckoned and a date with First Division Watford, a club on an upward trajectory to their best ever period.

It’s fair to say the Semi-Final wasn’t a classic, but Plymouth Argyle were never out of the tie throughout the whole 90 minutes. George Reilly scored a header from a John Barnes cross before the quarter hour mark and the rest of the game saw the two sides huff and puff without generating much else in terms of goalmouth chances, although it was Plymouth who took the game to Watford in the second half and were unlucky not to equalise.

Chesterfield fans will quite rightly say, ad infinitum, that it should have been them and not Middlesbrough to face Chelsea in the 1997 FA Cup Final. The 3-3 draw played out at Old Trafford was an FA Cup classic, the lead changing hands, a last gap equaliser, a sending-off, and a ‘goal’ that should have been given but was incorrectly ruled as not crossing the line. The forgettable 3-0 win for Middlesbrough in the replay paled into insignificance in comparison.

By the 1996-97 season the third tier was known as Division Two thanks to the re-naming of the top flight to the Premier League five years earlier. Chesterfield had never been beyond the 5th Round of the FA Cup before, and it was almost 50 years since the last time they ventured that far. Second Division Bury were beaten 1-0, Third Division Scarborough 2-0, Second Division Bristol City 2-0 and then First Division promotion chasers Bolton Wanderers 3-2 with Kevin Davies scoring a hat-trick against a side he would go on to star for when they were in the Premier League.

Chesterfield then faced Premier League strugglers Nottingham Forest in the 5th Round, a game settled by a Tom Curtis penalty. As with Port Vale 43 years earlier, Chesterfield were drawn against another third tier side in their first Quarter Final in the shape of Wrexham. Both sides were mid-table, but Wrexham had twice been Quarter Finalists in the 1970s. However, it was Chris Beaumont who settled the tie in favour of the Spireites just before the hour mark, and it was they who would become the seventh third tier side to make the last four of the FA Cup.

And then came the real drama. A goal-less first half saw Middlesbrough with the upper hand, but also reduced to ten men when Vladimir Kinder was sent off. Chesterfield sensed an opportunity and seized it soon after the re-start. Andy Morris scored the simplest of goals nine minutes into the second half, and Sean Dyche converted a penalty on the hour mark to seemingly book Chesterfield’s place at Wembley.

However, soon after Fabrizio Ravanelli bundled in to halve the deficit, but it all seemed in vain when Jonathan Howard cracked a goal in off the underside of the bar. Amazingly referee David Elleray deemed it had not crossed the line although television replays confirmed that it had. To add insult to injury, Middlesbrough were soon awarded a penalty for an ‘offence’ that appeared to happen outside the area. Craig Hignett duly despatched the penalty and the game went into extra time.

Despite being a man down, Gianluca Festa gave Middlesbrough the lead for the first time in the 100th minute and it seemed all over for the gallant lower league side. However, they were not to be denied a chance of putting wrongs to right, when Jamie Hewitt popped up to score a last-minute equaliser. However, the steam had run out of their engine by the time of the replay, and Middlesbrough won a more straightforward affair 3-0 at Hillsborough with goals from Mikkel Beck, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson.

Wycombe Wanderers’ run to the FA Cup Semi-Finals in the 2000-01 season will be inexorably linked to CEEFAX and Roy Essandoh.

The Chairboys had never even progressed beyond the 3rd Round of the FA Cup in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but almost went all the way in the first full season of the 21st Century. It started innocuously enough with a straightforward 3-0 win over non-league side Harrow Borough, and a sixth ever visit to the round when the ‘big boys’ join was secured after a 2-1 replay win over fellow third tier side Millwall.

Two Division One sides were sent packing in the next two rounds, Grimsby Town 3-1 in a replay in Cleethorpes and Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 at Adams Park, as Wycombe marched on into uncharted territory. Then came a massive test against Premier League side Wimbledon, FA Cup winners just 13 years previously. The Chairboys held their more senior opponents to a 2-2 draw, but only the most optimistic of Wycombe fans would have expected anything more in the replay. But more there was and in dramatic style. The game went to penalties, which seemed to go on forever eventually won by Wycombe 8-7, after a twisting and turning 2-2 draw that had seen a sending off, a late penalty miss and a last gasp equaliser.

By the time of the Quarter Final against Premier League Leicester City, Wycombe had a crippling injury list. A now infamous CEEFAX plea for a striker was answered by Essandoh’s agent and the rest is FA Cup folklore. Wycombe were doing well to hold Leicester to a 1-1 draw and thoughts were turning to a replay back in Wycombe when Essandoh was subbed on late in the game. And what a substitution, and what a story, as it was Essandoh who grabbed the late winner to send the Chairboys into the FA Cup Semi-Finals to face the might of Liverpool.

For over 75 minutes Wycombe Wanderers held Liverpool at bay before Emile Heskey opened the scoring at Villa Park. Robbie Fowler scored a second soon after and the dream of a trip to the Millennium Stadium seemed over. However, a late goal by Keith Ryan caused a tumultuous ending but in the end it turned out to be just a consolation.

Sheffield United are the only FA Cup winners to have also made the Semi-Finals as a third tier side. In 2013-14 the third tier was now known as Division One following a change in name for the old Division One to the Championship ten years earlier.

A 3-2 win at fellow third tier side Colchester United started the run off followed by a 2-0 win at non-league Cambridge United. The 3rd Round made people sit up and notice when Ryan Flynn grabbed a late winner at Villa Park after the Premier League side had equalised through Niklas Helenius following a Jamie Murphy opener.

Another Premier League side, Fulham, were held to a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane, despite the third tier side being reduced to 10 men. Chris Porter scored for the Blades with Hugo Rodallego equaliser with quarter of an hour to go. The replay was a dour 0-0 draw for 119 minutes before Shaun Miller claimed a last gasp header to send United through. The 5th Round was a more straightforward 3-1 victory over Championship side Nottingham Forest, and the Quarter Final saw a similar two goal victory, this time 2-0, over another Championship side Charlton Athletic.

The Blades’ Semi-Final against Premier League side Hull City proved to be a record equalling eight goal thriller. Sheffield United became the first third tier side to play an FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley and it was Jose Baxter who put them ahead on 20 minutes. Yannick Sagbo equalised for Hull four minutes before half-time to seemingly make it all square at the break, but Stefan Scougall restored the Blades’ lead a couple of minutes later.

Matty Fryatt grabbed a second equaliser for Hull City four minutes into the second half, and the Tigers took the lead for the first time through Tom Huddlestone just five minutes later. Stephen Quinn appeared to have settled the tie mid-way through the second half, but Jamie Murphy managed to half the deficit just as time was running out. The Blades sensed an opportunity to get an unlikely equaliser, but their hope was snuffed out by David Meyler adding a 5th goal for Hull deep into injury time. It was the first time in FA Cup history that eight different players scored in a Semi-Final match.

So Wigan Athletic are looking to become just the 10th club from the third tier to make the FA Cup Semi-Finals. Like Sheffield United they are former Cup winners and coincidentally were also in the other Semi-Final the year the Blades last appeared in it. But could the Latics become the first team from the third tier to make the FA Cup Final itself? Well they have to overcome Southampton first!

 

Time to Treat the FA Cup with Respect

The FA Cup doesn’t need ‘saving’, as many renowned and less-renowned commentators might suggest, it just needs to be treated with respect by those responsible for running it and for it to play to its strengths.

The FA Cup is not as highly regarded as it once was and that is down to a series of factors, some avoidable, some outside its control, and criminally many caused by mismanagement by those purportedly acting in the interests of it.

Money is all encompassing in football nowadays, and every decision made and innovation introduced since 1992 has had the pursuit of money at the heart of its objectives. Premier League, Champions League, World Cup expansion, stadia naming rights, VAR, the scrapping of FA Cup replays, B-Teams in Checkatrade Trophy; these have all come about because of wanting to make more and more money and never because it enhances the game we all love.

And the FA Cup has suffered because it’s not where the money is at, or rather it’s not where the TV companies and the football decision makers want the money to be. The FA Cup still maintains a worldwide appeal and audience, but it is being marginalised by the pursuit of money by the big clubs in Europe who care not one jot for anything else other than their own financial well-being. Scrap replays in the Quarter Finals to help English clubs who are in the Champions League manage their fixture congestion? Move FA Cup to mid-week to allow for Premier League exclusivity on Saturdays? Scrap replays altogether to allow for a Premier League winter break?

And the really annoying thing is, the FA say ‘yes’ to it all. They say yes despite the fact that not one suggestion is put forward to help the FA Cup be a success. There’s a veiled promise that by making these changes the clubs will be able to play their strongest sides, but history tells us in all walks of life that a promise today is a wish in the future.

Those in charge of the FA Cup have tried to maximise revenues by competing with the Premier League and Champions League at their game. Exclusive sponsors naming rights, world-wide TV rights etc are all well and good but compared to what the other two competitions can generate they pale into insignificance.

The FA should stop trying to be Premier League lite and start promoting the FA Cup based upon its own strengths, namely its tradition as the original and best Cup competition. The FA should stand up for the FA Cup and stop diminishing its worth by changing its rules or allowing it to be the test bed of potential new technology at the behest of the Premier League and its member clubs.

If the FA started treating the FA Cup with respect, then those that participate in it might start to treat it with respect, too. Return the Cup Final kick-off time to 3.0pm on the Saturday to please those fans in the UK ahead of those watching from afar. Return Semi-Finals to neutral venues other than Wembley Stadium to allow for more people from around the country to experience them and to keep Wembley as a revered place to play based on how difficult it is to get to play there.

Re-instate replays at the Quarter Finals stage (and scrap any ideas of removing them from other rounds). The whole point of replays is to provide clubs with the opportunity to counter the perceived bad luck of being drawn away from home. Admittedly, replays are now sought more by the lower level home side to get a cash-injecting replay at a Premier League side, but it will also incentivise the bigger clubs to try to win the tie at the first time of asking to avoid fixture congestion.

Promote the FA Cup as being something worth winning because of what it is and not because of what it can earn you either in financial terms or in access to a perceived bigger competition. It is the FA Cup, with over 140 years of history, and that alone should count for something. Make it the competition to win because of pride not price. Put some value back in to winning a competition just for the sake of being regarded as the winners in future football history books. Ask the majority of Wigan Athletic fans. Would they have taken avoiding relegation if it meant not winning the FA Cup? The answer would be a resounding ‘no’. No-one remembers who nearly got relegated, but everyone remembers who won the FA Cup.

It’s for prestigious moments like that that the FA Cup should be promoted and revered. The FA should protect its crown jewel, not by bending over backwards to appease the profit focused Premier League clubs, but by sticking to their guns and saying ‘no’ every time a half-assed idea is put forward that benefits other parties whilst being detrimental to the FA Cup.

2017-18 FA Cup 5th Round Bite-sized Review

Stat of the Round

Wigan Athletic have never lost an FA Cup 5th Round tie – 4 out of four now.

 

Cupsets

Level 3 beat Level 1 (h) – Wigan Athletic 1-0 Manchester City.

 

In 6th Round for first time in a while

Brighton and Hove Albion (32 years), Southampton (13 years), Leicester City (6 years)

 

Successive years making it into 6th Rd

Manchester United (4), Chelsea (3)

 

KO but reached 5th Rd for first time in a while

Coventry City (9 years)

 

KO and not gone further than 5th Rd for a while

Huddersfield Town (56 years), Coventry City (9 years)

 

Consecutive 4th Rd exits

Huddersfield Town (2)

 

 

Miscellaneous

Chelsea beat Hull City for the seventh time in their seven FA Cup meetings.

Manchester United are now joint second equal with Arsenal as clubs with most FA Cup Quarter Final appearances (43).

Brighton and Hove Albion are in the FA Cup Quarter Finals for only the 3rd time.

The last time Leicester City made the FA Cup Quarter Finals they were drawn to face Chelsea as they have been this year, too. The Foxes have yet to beat the Blues in the FA Cup.

2013 Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City when they were a Premier League club.

2014 Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City when they were a Championship club.

2018 Wigan Athletic beat Manchester City when they were an EFL 1 club.