This weekend, all league football in England took the week off to stage one of the biggest dates on the calendar— the Third Round Proper of the FA Cup. For some, this weekend is like Second Christmas. For others, it’s an excuse to catch up on chores around the house. For the hopeless romantics among us, the second-ish weekend in January captures everything wonderful (and awful) about English football. If you missed any of it this weekend, we’ll fill you in on the good bits.
The big driver behind the FA Cup’s romance and mystique is that any team can beat any other team on the day. Yet this year, most of the minnows either went out as expected or could only manage a— still improbable and admirable— draw to force a replay. Only a few of the genuine underdogs managed to grab a win. It’s unlikely there’s some satisfying explanation for that— like the balls coming out of the bag, sometimes that’s just how it shakes out. It just means we get some more free soccer in a week or so.
One or two lower division sides did manage to triumph against bigger fish. Probably the most memorable from the weekend was League Two’s Oxford United rolling Swansea and taking their lunch money. While it’s understandable that the Swans may not have had the FA Cup as a top priority— they’re currently fighting relegation while acclimating to their interim manager— losing even a close game to fourth division opposition is definitely not a good look.
With mounting injuries and a jam-packed schedule for January, Jürgen Klopp was low on options. Despite his professed respect for the FA Cup last week, Klopp was forced to leave pretty much his entire senior squad out of the teamsheet for their visit to League Two’s Exeter City. The Grecians, one of a handful of fan-owned clubs in the Football League, played host to a Liverpool team composed almost entirely of the Under-21s, plus Christian Benteke and Ádám Bogdán (who followed up his weak showing away at West Ham with another bumbling game). Of course, one can have deep respect and affection for the oldest competition in football and still want to use it as an opportunity to give the kids a shot— they’re not mutually exclusive. Still; Liverpool’s one objective was to avoid a replay and add to the fixture congestion, and they couldn’t do it.
The Third Round means a lot of attention trained on lower division (including semi-professional) teams. One of the sideshows that develops around that is the Will They Or Won’t They game played in the hours before kickoff to see if the pitch is in good enough shape to handle a game. This weekend, all eyes were on fifth division side Eastleigh as they played host to Bolton Wanderers.
The pitch has had better days, no doubt, but three inspections and some chewed-off fingernails couldn’t keep the day’s festivities down. Eastleigh managed to wrangle a draw and a replay in Bolton next week; whether home field advantage played a roll is a matter for speculation.
It’s fitting that on a weekend which is, if nothing else, a tender tribute to the history and tradition of English football, England’s newest Golden Boy helped salvage a result for his team to close the weekend. With Tottenham down 2-1 in the dying minutes of regulation, the home side were awarded a… let’s say dubious penalty after Nathan Dyer committed a handball foul in the box. Whether or not it was intentional or worthy of a call is a matter of debate, but regardless; the foul was given and Harry Kane converted from the spot for Queen and Country. (Or at least for Mauricio.) Regardless of your club loyalties (or lackthereof), those moments of high drama help make the FA Cup special.