The romance of the FA Cup

The FA Cup is the signature tournament in English soccer. It’s open to every team in the top four English leagues and also to “non-league” teams from all over the country. More than 700 clubs compete in it.

The romance of the FA Cup stems in part from occasional upsets of top teams by ragtag semi-pro clubs featuring barbers, landscapers, teachers, etc. Upsets of that magnitude rarely occur these days, but the games played in early January, when Premier League clubs enter the competition, still provide surprises.

This weekend, powerful Arsenal, fourth in the EPL, fell to Nottingham Forest, which sits ninth in England’s second tier. As is typical of early-round matches these days, the Gunners played a mixture of starters and reserves. Their defeat certainly counts as an upset, but hardly one of epic proportions.

If Arsenal’s north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur (sixth place in the EPL) had fallen to Morecambe, that would have added to the romance of the FA Cup. Morecambe, after all, is mired in 21st place in England’s third tier, and has allowed more goals than any other team in that division.

Yet, after 70 minutes, Morecambe was shutting Tottenham out and held a 1-0 lead. But Spurs brought on some their stars, most notably the great Harry Kane, and overcame that deficit to win 3-1.

One EPL team suffered a huge upset. Proud Newcastle United (or should I say once proud) is only 19th in the EPL, one spot from the bottom. But few would have expected the club to fall at home, before 46,000 fans, to lowly Cambridge United, 16th in the third tier.

Yet, Newcastle did fall, 1-0.

Nor can the result be blamed on Newcastle holding top players out. The starting 11 was about the best team the Magpies could have assembled from its available squad. It even included new signing Kevin Trippier, a member of the English national teams that nearly won Euro 2020 sixth months ago and reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup. Tripps might be wondering what he has gotten himself into.

The next round of the FA Cup will be played the first week of February. Cambridge United drew a home match against second tier opposition — Luton Town. Spurs will take on EPL rivals Brighton. Everton, which needed overtime to dispatch second tier Hull City, will face Brentford, also of the EPL. Spurs and Everton will both play at home.

Two non-league sides remain in the tournament — Boreham Wood from the fifth tier and Kidderminster Harriers from the sixth. The former defeated Wimbledon from the third tier and will now play Bournemouth, a top side in the second tier.

Kidderminster Harriers pulled off what I could call an epic upset by beating Reading, four leagues above them in the second tier. They will face high-flying West Ham from the EPL at home in what surely will be the biggest match this Worcestershire team has ever hosted.

It’s extremely unlikely that either Boreham Wood or the Harriers, or indeed any team from below the second tier, will advance much further in the FA Cup. But by making it as far as they, and even by making it until January, they are rewarded with big pay days and thrills for their players and fans that will last for many years.

Thus, the romance of the FA Cup persists.

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