Unlike recent league programmes, very few games have been postponed because of the virus, yet its firm grip is clear. Perhaps this week’s most important results have already come from the laboratories, rather than the pitch.
For Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough, they have not been good. There will be some unrecognisable teams over the next 48 hours, and for once it will have little to do with half-hearted attitudes towards the world’s most prestigious cup competition.
With threats to throw clubs out if teams could not get their games played by the time round four is due to be played in a fortnight, boys will be asked to do the job of men.
Aston Villa versus Liverpool was the shock result of the Premier League season so far but the already slim chances of repeating the underdogs’ 7-2 win all but evaporated when the hosts named a side made up of seven under-23s and four under-18s for last night’s curtain-raising match of the round which Villa lost 4-1.
With 10 first-teamers testing positive this week, Dean Smith’s Villa were by no means the only club backed into that corner.
“There must have been thoughts (about postponing) but there are rules in place so, if you can get it played, you have got to go with it,” said Sheffield Wednesday caretaker manager Neil Thompson.
Even Thompson could not make the trip to Exeter City because he and his assistants tested positive. Wednesday are refusing to say how many of the 112 who did so in the latest round of Football League were their players.
“I had a rough couple of days over the weekend, Saturday evening and Sunday,” revealed Thompson. “On Monday I started to come through it, my head started to clear, I’d had a bad headache, I was aching a bit, a sore throat. I just feel now as if I’m coming through a bad cold in winter. As far as I’m aware, there’s nobody – touch wood – suffering really serious issues.”
Having already sacked two managers this season, the Owls will be under the watchful eye of a caretaker-caretaker manager in Academy coach Andy Holdsworth. They have not even been able to train at Middlewood Road this week because of the outbreak.
They have been lucky. Across the city, one of the “four or five” Sheffield United coaches to go down with the virus has been hospitalised.
Derby County will be without their caretaker manager Wayne Rooney at Conference North Chorley and with the whole Rams first-team squad in isolation, instead of being frowned upon for sending a youth team to Victory Park, the FA will be relieved. Rams’ B coach Neil MacFarlane will be in charge of Brentford at home to Middlesbrough tonight but the Teessiders have it worse, with half a squad to pick from.
“I think 50 per cent of the squad will be under-23s,” revealed Boro boss Neil Warnock. “I actually picked the team last week and it’s completely different now.
“Why should we forfeit it? It’s the greatest cup in the world.”
Doncaster Rovers do not expect to be able to name the full compliment of substitutes at Blackburn Rovers, having only emerged from a Covid-enforced hibernation in recent days.
Although Huddersfield Town returned no positives this week (albeit Isaac Mbenza is self-isolating because of a contact), they will still make 11 changes at home to Plymouth Argyle, ensuring we have a more familiar weakened team story to mull over.
As if all that was not enough, Oldham’s home game against Bournemouth has been switched to the south coast because of a frozen Boundary Park pitch.
In a desperate attempt to squeeze the matches in, replays have been scrapped, with ties going straight to extra-time and penalties this weekend. The fifth-round draw will take place as soon as the fourth-round balls are out on Monday evening.
It is FA Cup third-round weekend, but not as we know it.
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