LONDON: At the ripe old age of 131, the FA Cup appears to be back in good health after a weekend to match any in its long and famous history.
A classic act of giant-killing, one superlative match, tricky frozen pitches, the draw back in its traditional Monday slot and a dream pairing of a minor league team against the holders in the fourth round have combined to thrust the Cup back to the forefront of the English game.
It is a welcome return to form for the world’s oldest football competition, which was creaking badly as it entered its third century.
The growth of the Champions League started the rot as leading teams concentrated all their efforts on a top three or four Premier League finish to earn qualification.
While it remained a competition full of glory for the fans, for some managers – and chairmen – it became an annoying distraction that led to the fielding of weakened teams for others.
The competition’s bedrock was its tradition but that too began to be chipped away by the demands of TV.
Fixtures began to be spread from Saturday morning to Monday night with the draw moved from its longstanding Monday lunchtime berth, an event that had been savoured by generations of fans, to various times all over the weekend.
The ban on more than one replay also removed some of the romance from the event. While the late dramas of the 1979 final between Arsenal and Manchester United are remembered by fans the world over, the Highbury faithful will also never forget the third round, where they needed five matches to get past Sheffield Wednesday.
The biggest threat to the competition, however, came in 2000, when Manchester United, the holders, did not take part because of their commitments to the ill-conceived World Club Championship.
That, combined with the closure of Wembley, the home of the final since 1923, had the competition reeling.
However, the recovery began in earnest the following year when Roy Essandoh, an unknown striker signed after a desperate TV appeal, scored a last-minute winner as second division Wycombe Wanderers beat Premier League Leicester City in the quarter-finals.
The new home for the final, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, also proved a worthy replacement for Wembley as Liverpool beat Arsenal 2-1 in the final.
By the time this season’s third round swung into action, most managers were again playing their strongest teams and for any outsider wondering what all the fuss was about, the past weekend’s action should have made it clear.
The highlight was the 2-1 victory of Shrewsbury Town, seventh from bottom in the third division, against Everton, fifth in the Premier League.
Like all great Cup upsets, this one had a fairy tale hero in the shape of 33-year-old striker Nigel Jemson, scorer of both goals, including the winner in the last minute.
Jemson, playing for his 13th club, scored a hat-trick for Nottingham Forest in the 1991 fifth round but was dropped by Brian Clough for the final against Tottenham Hotspur.
On Sunday, First Division Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Premier League Newcastle 3-2 but though it was an upset, the match will be remembered more for the excitement it generated.
From the first minute to the last, it was full of action, with goals, chances galore, goalmouth clearances and desperate misses – all carried out at a relentless, breakneck pace, and will go down as a Cup classic.
The draw returned to its Monday slot after a 10-year absence and, as it seemed to so often in the past, produced the sort of pairing that the Cup thrives on.
Minor league Farnborough Town, in the fourth round for the first time after beating third division Darlington on a snow-covered pitch on Saturday, were drawn to face Arsenal, the holders.
While that game will probably be switched to Highbury, Shrewsbury are sure to hang on to home advantage as Chelsea become the second Premier League side forced to try their international talents on the mud and bumps of Gay Meadow in January in another mouth-watering tie.
Even Manchester United’s 4-1 home win over First Division Portsmouth was touched by the Cup’s magic.
“It’s strange, when I came here people said ‘wait for the Cup games’ and it is special,” said United’s Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy. – Reuters