In the world of football, especially among English football followers but by no means exclusively for them, nothing can ever quite match the magic of the FA Cup. There are many reasons for this. Firstly it is the oldest knock-out competition in football anywhere, stretching back to 1871-2. Secondly it involves every level of English football although the “big boys” make a deferred appearance. Thirdly there is no seeding so the team leading the Premiership could crash out in their first match of the tournament; each round is drawn randomly.
The FA Cup is the great leveller – it can sometimes bring a financial lifeline to a team from the lower divisions that has the good fortune (or skill) to win through to the later rounds or even make it to the final.
The early stages of the FA (short for Football Association which is the governing body of English football) Cup take place in the late summer, not long after the beginning of the season. There are six rounds involving non-league semi-professional clubs until the clubs from the bottom two tiers of the Football League come into the equation in November and December. The real fun occurs with the draw for the third round proper with the matches being played on or around Saturday 7th January.
From January the competition builds up through the fifth round in February and the sixth round in March up to the semi-finals in April. At one time these took place on neutral grounds but after the devastation of the Hillsborough cup-tie in April 1989, it was decided that the only safe ground to hold matches with such a large demand was Wembley Stadium. Apart from the time when matches were staged in Cardiff, whilst Wembley was being rebuilt, that has been the pattern ever since.
The Wembley final used to be the grand finale of the English football season and although European matches and sometimes the final weeks of the Premier League may intervene, amazingly the magic still holds. The romance of the cup is based on the idea of the Cup upset. The third round when Premier League and Championship clubs compete against lower division survivors is the time when everyone not linked to the big club in question is hoping for an upset when the “minnows” come through at the expense of the big fish.
Thus the FA Cup is one of the hardest sporting competitions in the world to predict from the start. Even the Final itself does not always run to form. And that is why people who love football with passion and commitment, who can withstand upset and heartbreak are up for the Cup every year. There isn’t a fan in England who doesn’t dream of walking down Wembley Way to support his or her heroes.
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