English football is not short of traditions and this weekend comes one of the most cherished.
Third round day
Sixty-four teams, ranging from European champions Liverpool FC to semi-professional Nuneaton Borough AFC, will take part in the third round of the FA Cup, as they have done in early January for many a decade. And whereas it was once fashionable to say the oldest major football trophy in the world was losing its lustre, the competition is again holding its own.
The low point was probably in 1999/00. Fixture congestion caused the move of the third round into December and the final to before the last league fixtures - anathema to many. Meanwhile, holders Manchester United FC withdrew, with the support of the UK government and Football Association (FA), to compete in the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil. With the final then leaving Wembley as the famous ground was demolished, some pessimists were predicting that the Cup would lose its special status.
However, that underestimated the residual love for the competition among English fans. After all, the history of the game has been spelled out through the FA Cup ever since the first ties on 11 November 1871. The examples are too numerous to mention; Blackburn Olympic FC's victory in 1883 that signalled the coming of age for professional football, or the 1923 final that inaugurated Wembley. By the 1970s, FA Cup finals were truly national events, shown simultaneously on both major TV channels, their broadcasts starting early on the Saturday morning. And something of that excitement was recaptured in 2005, culminating in an epic final between Arsenal FC and United to the delight of FA chief executive Brian Barwick.
Barwick told uefa.com: "The FA Cup enjoyed an incredible renaissance last season. Attendances in some rounds were the best for over 20 years and viewing figures on television were tremendous. We saw some classic encounters in the early rounds, not least Exeter City [FC]'s draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford in the third round, a tie that symbolised everything good about the FA Cup. The semi-finals then attracted the highest aggregate attendance for eight years and the final itself, Manchester United v Arsenal, ultimately went to penalties and nearly 14 million viewers saw Patrick Vieira clinch the FA Cup for the Gunners.
The FA Cup has been through choppy waters but I think it's come through them as strong as ever."
The revival began when Barwick's predecessor but one, Adam Crozier, switched the third round back to January and restored the final to the climax of the season, while broadcasters BBC and Sky vigorously promoted the tournament. When United were held by non-league Exeter last January, memories flooded back of the great 'giant-killings' of the past, such as Woking FC's 4-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion FC in 1991, when hat-trick scorer Tim Buzaglo became, briefly, a national celebrity.
Plenty of players could follow in Buzaglo's footsteps this weekend. Burton Albion FC, managed by Brian Clough's son Nigel, face Manchester United, while Nuneaton meet Middlesbrough FC. The 'non-league' entries from outside the four top divisions account for much of the Cup's charm. The lowliest 172, some as many as seven levels below the Football League, began in August's extra preliminary round. By November, when the first league teams entered, six rounds had already seen off 550 teams, and with the appearance of the top two divisions tomorrow, 64 competitors remain.
"This season we have had a record 674 clubs entering the competition," said Barwick. "I have been to watch matches from the early rounds of the Cup and there's no denying the magic of the competition for the players, managers and fans. It's also important to say that through the money distributed by the FA via the prize fund and broadcast payments, these Cup runs can make a huge financial difference to the smaller clubs who are the lifeblood of football in this country."
After several years in Cardiff, the final is scheduled to return to the rebuilt Wembley this May, another development that has given the competition fresh impetus. "We have seen some terrific FA Cup finals at the Millennium Stadium," said Barwick. "However
I think every English football fan would agree that Wembley is the spiritual home of the FA Cup."
Barwick concluded: "The FA Cup has had to fight for its place in today's football landscape, but I'm confident that it has regained its prestige for clubs of all sizes and holds a special place in our football culture. Knockout football has a particular drama and appeal, and you can see on the faces of winning teams, be they Burscough [FC] or Arsenal, how much an FA Cup victory means." In the 125th edition of the competition, that still holds true.
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