FA Cup shiny again for happy weekend

Alex Livesey

It may not last (it might!), but the Fourth Round of the FA Cup was a wonderful reminder of the good old days.

Asked how it was that a side with one point from its last eight League One games could beat Liverpool, Oldham Athletic manager Paul Dickov replied: "It's the FA Cup. It's fantastic and it's what dreams are made of". Cliché-heavy (but thank your stars he didn't say Budweiser), Dickov's answer is nonetheless contrary to the current narrative, which holds that the FA Cup has lost its sheen. The TERRIBLE advert informing viewers of ITV that we have William Hill to thank confirms the narrative in a disgustingly ham-fisted and mundane fashion by "hiding" the famous old cup itself in the office of some trendy internet startup (a voice over says "that's not it, that's not it, that's not it). But - there is, mercifully, a but - this weekend, the FA Cup rediscovered its Dickovian dream-making capabilities.

Ever since the upset that wasn't a shock - Millwall knocking out Aston Villa in the weekend's first tie on Friday - the FA Cup Fourth Round lived up to its reputation: non-League Luton beat Norwich City; MK Dons were 4-0 at Loftus Road at one stage in dismissing Queens Park Rangers; Leeds United beat Tottenham Hotspur; Brentford "forced a replay" against Chelsea; Manchester City won at Stoke (HONK!).

"Just when I thought I was out", says Michael Corleone in Godfather III, "they pull me back in". That's what the FA Cup's done for me this weekend. Like Fernando Torres, scorer of a wonderfully shaped, first-time equaliser at Griffin Park (owned by a brewery, it has a pub on each corner) yesterday, the world's oldest cup competition has picked itself up, pulled the tubes out of its nose, called us all in to dance a quadrille and sent us home with the most thoughtful party favours.

Whether the recovery is temporary or something more lasting remains, of course, to be seen. I am hopeful (or perhaps deluded) in thinking the latter. Having watched a number of the games, my sense is that none of the upseters were especially fortunate - in my favourite of the weekends shocks, Brentford were unlucky not to win: Uwe Rosler, the manager, described himself as "disappointed". And I have a theory as to why.

As has been much lamented, the gap between the best and the rest in English football has become increasingly wide. Whereas the top English clubs supplement local talent with the best from around the world - see Oscar at Chelsea, or Luis Suarez at Liverpool, the rest have to suffer their top talent trickling upwards to swell the ranks of their betters - think of Aaron Lennon (who moved from Leeds to vanquished Tottenham), or Gareth Bale. It didn't used to be this way, more equitable income spreads and less legal contracts meant that lower-league teams sides were able to keep talented teams together as they moved through the divisions - hence upsets being more common when soon-to-be-top teams, like Wimbledon in the ‘eighties, beat higher-league opposition on their on way to the higher leagues. Since roughly the advent of the Premier League and certainly this century, the talent divide manifested itself as two sets of teams playing broadly the same way, where one set was simply much better than the others: think of Arsene Wenger's physical, Patrick Vieira-led Arsenal sides with whom he has won four FA Cups.

In recent years, however, the rareification of the top sides has taken a different, and more technical form: Mikel Arteta is Vieira now, for example. As a result, they play almost a different game - look a Oscar or Suarez again or try to find a Premier League equivalent to Oldham's Matt Smith. When these two worlds collide, then, a far more unstable match occurs than was the case a few years ago. The slippery, tv-friendly style of the little guys who trot around pristine pitches pinging passes off one other's outstep is far less applicable to the more rustic environs of lower-league grounds - where shed ends still look like sheds - in January - when relatively ill-preened pitches make balls pop up on the run and turn dribbles into an interminable series of first-touches and tackles.

This is great to watch and, to my mind, long may it continue. It may not, of course, or I may have been talking nonsense, of course. But it's not the time now to speculate on this Fourth Round's legacy (sorry!) - let's just enjoy it. This weekend, at least, the FA Cup was shiny again.

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