It should be one of the most exciting weekends of the football season, but increasingly it is becoming one of the more depressing.
FA Cup third-round weekend should be all about part-time footballers pulling off romantic victories on boggy pitches.
No wonder in the first weekend of the New Year, with bank balances still recovering from the festivities, attendances can be so low.Stuart Rayner
This one will have its highlights – hopefully matches like Liverpool versus Everton and Arsenal versus Leeds United live up to their billing – but in 2020 it is more about games scattered all over the shop, sparsely-populated stands, weakened teams and clubs trying to get out of the competition, not busting a gut to get to Wembley.
As the money on offer in the Premier League and the Champions League has grown to mind-boggling levels, league football has put the cups completely in the shade. For most clubs, it is about getting into the next division up, or staying where they are.
Only once Wembley looms into sight – and these days, that means the semi-finals, not the showpiece – do most clubs really start to think about lifting one of football’s most famous trophies. As the big clubs have the squad depth to get through the early rounds without having to wheel out too many first-teamers, they tend to dominate the Cup as much as they do the Premier League.
With 29 points banked in 2019, Sheffield United are one of the fortunate clubs who ought to be able to attack the FA Cup without having to worry too much about looking over their shoulder. It will be a surprise if they do.
They should get past Fylde, such is the gap to non-league football, but if they do, do not be surprised if they do not progress much further. Having the most settled side in the Premier League means Chris Wilder will be wary of over-exerting his stand-ins. They did not get very far in the League Cup, bowing out to League One Sunderland after getting past Championship Blackburn Rovers.
Even replays, the cash cow for lower league teams, have become a burden, and are fast being stripped out of the schedule, yet some remain. If both teams would rather not have one, why not let them go straight to penalties?
For those of us nostalgics and romantics who hanker over the days when the FA Cup was a big deal, a day-long televisual event you did not want to miss unless you were one of the lucky few to be at Wembley, it is a depressing thought.
Football ought to be all about glory, where actually winning something means more than finishing fourth. In English football, that is no longer the case.
The FA Cup winners should get a Champions League spot to give it some extra lustre and put one more champion (of sorts) into a competition that is neither exclusively for them, nor a league. Unfortunately, with the Football Association having long since ceded control of top-level English football to the Premier League, it is a hard move to pull off, no matter how sensible.
The FA has tried its best to throw prize money at their competition, but cannot compete with the amounts on offer in England’s top division, any more than La Liga, the Bundesliga or Serie A can. It is a nice incentive for the likes of Harrogate Town, who made it through to a televised first-round tie against Portsmouth, but no more than that.
That wet night in North Yorkshire showed another problem with the FA Cup, though it is by no means exclusive to that competition.
The television schedulers thought it was right to drag fans of Portsmouth to Harrogate on a Monday night. Sod’s Law dictated that when they got there, a power cut delayed the kick-off and their long trip home even more. In round three it will be Leeds fans making a long trek. Meanwhile, two teams separated by Stanley Park play on a Sunday afternoon.
No wonder in the first weekend of the New Year, with bank balances still recovering from the festivities, attendances can be so low.
Even Wembley no longer has the same special feel since the Arch replaced the Twin Towers, diluted by playing all semi-finals there.
Few countries have a domestic cup competition as special as the FA Cup used to be. Sadly, neither does England.