The FA Cup is football’s Deal or No Deal - and therein lies the wonder

The FA Cup third round is still a magical thing - don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
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The FA Cup is a bit like a game of Deal or No Deal; the early stages are largely dictated by pure dumb luck, a participant’s emotional investment in success is predominantly determined by the size of the personal wealth they already possess, and the accepted narrative would have you believe that nobody has truly cared about it since the late noughties at least. In fact, you pencil Noel Edmunds in to referee the final at Wembley in early June and you’ve pretty much got youself and exact imitation.

But the thing with accepted narratives is that they are never accepted by everyone. Truthfully, they don’t even have to be accepted by a notable majority to worm their way into ubiquity, just a handful of influential, oftentimes snobbish, tastemakers. The FA Cup is a fine case in point. If it were up to the oft-heralded, oft-resented quote-unquote top six, with their buckling schedules and bulging coffers, perhaps the historic competition would have been rebranded the Sweet FA Cup quite some time ago, such is its diminished priority in their respective agendas.

Sure, the likes of Manchester City or Liverpool will happily win the thing, and they’ll bathe in the adulation and confetti of their sun-streaked moment down in the capital, but nobody is losing much sleep if that particular jug-eared trinket evades their grasp for a season or two. With regards to both prestige and financial incentive, the FA Cup pales in significance compared to the Premier League and its continental Champions namesake. Last year, Liverpool pocketed a little over £3.4 million for their Wembley sojourn. A single group stage win in Europe’s foremost club tournament is worth around £2.8 million. That’s not to say that top six supporters don’t cherish the FA Cup in their own way, or that players couldn’t care less, but simple mathematics would suggest that the preferences of owners and their sycophantic underlings lie beyond romance or sentiment.

It’s important to remember, though, that football is a bit like a mallard duck. All the pretty colours above the waterline might catch the eye, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty going on beneath the surface too. And while a lot of Premier League clubs might view this weekend’s FA Cup third round as a necessary evil, or a brief hush in the cacophonous din of Sky Sports’ runaway ferris wheel, for many it still represents one of the most enchanting and wildly optimistic molehills in the sporting calendar. Giant-killings are like emerging indie bands being outed as benefactors of industry nepotism; there’s always a couple, and you never really know who it’s going to be until it happens.

Indulge your imagination, and envisage a weekend in which Portsmouth beat Tottenham Hotspur, or Gillingham see off Leicester City. Where Sheffield Wednesday oust Newcastle United, or where Tinseltown’s very own Wrexham bloody the nose of Coventry City. Try, in this fanciful alternate reality, telling any of those fanbases that the FA Cup is merely a rose-tinted distraction, or a meaningless exercise in nostalgia. You just bloody try it!

Because at the end of the day, that’s what the FA Cup, and especially the third round, is all about. It’s the wonder of possibility, the giddy naivety of hope. For the bigger clubs, entering the fray for the first time in their diamante-encrusted bother boots, such things might feel rote or menial, but for the rest of us, the swathes and swathes of unfortunates, this weekend is one of the only crucibles in which we still daydream that anything could happen. Just like Deal or No Deal.

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