Maybe it’s because the FA Cup was won by one of the big four, or because the build-up was dominated by Portsmouth’s financial troubles, or because the Final brought together Premier League top versus bottom.
Whatever the reason, this year’s tournament didn’t seem to be weighed down quite so much by the media pandering to big clubs bleating about the Cup having run its course, lost its lustre, cluttered a fixture list packed with more important engagements. And that’s a good thing.
At the risk of sounding like Clive Tyldesley struggling to justify ITV’s investment, the FA Cup still retains a certain magic.
It matters to the small clubs because it gives them the chance of a crack at the big teams outside the realm of pre-season friendlies. It matters to the big teams as well, regardless of any decisions to field weakened teams in the early rounds.
Just ask Man United, who were knocked out by Leeds and almost ended the season with nothing. Or Liverpool, who were beaten at home by Reading and have only a place in next season’s Europa Cup to show for their season’s efforts – a place that would have gone to Wembley runners-up Portsmouth but for the administrative chaos that denied them qualification.
If the appeal of the Cup is somewhat reduced then that’s down to the explosion of interest in football, and the amount of live TV coverage. The FA Cup used to be the only live TV game of the year and it milked that status with pre-match antics starting earlier every year – special editions of A Question of Sport and It’s A Knockout.
On Saturday, Sky Sports showed three live matches, the previous Sunday two at once and during the week any number of play-offs and non-league finals. So the Cup Final has lost the exclusive place in the TV listings that made it unique, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing given that the modern day build up would be more likely to include Mickey Quinn’s Cup Final recipes and Phil Brown’s Wembley sing-along.
The enduring magic comes from the shock potential that was realised in the cases of Leeds and Reading. During the Premier League season Burnley beat Man United and Spurs, Hull City beat Man City, Portsmouth beat Liverpool – all shock but ultimately meaningless results in a relegation campaign.
But when the likes of Notts County beat Wigan, Northwich Victoria beat Charlton Athletic, Bath City beat Grimsby, York beat Crewe and Kettering beat Hartlepool it signalled the end of the road for a bigger club.
And Pompey came close to providing one of the shocks of the tournament. Score the penalty and take a one-nil lead against opponents who couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo; miss it and watch those same opponents sweep to the other end of the field and convert a more difficult opportunity than all those they had missed.
And so were Pompey denied a moment of glory that would have paid at least some of their bills. Win and go forward, lose and go home, no second chance. That’s why people like the FA Cup.
That and the bizarre sight of arch-whinger Didier Drogba squabbling with the post after Chelsea had unproductively hit the frame of the goal for a fifth time. If he’s learned one thing from his years of moaning to match officials it’s that you don’t generally get a yellow card for arguing with a goal post, and the goal post will probably pay more attention than the ref.