The Fleeting Magic of the F.A. Cup

ACCRINGTON, England — Andy Holt is standing at the door to the bar, watching the celebrations unfold. On the field, Accrington Stanley’s players are in the middle of an impromptu lap of honor, pumping their fists and beaming broad smiles. John Coleman, their manager, is conducting the crowd’s chanting, soaking in their adulation.

Holt, the club’s owner, does not seek to join them, to bask in their reflected glory. But still, as fans start to leave, a steady stream heads toward him, hands outstretched, wanting to offer their congratulations, or share their glee.

He greets each one like an old friend. “You should come in here, it’s only a pound a pint,” he tells one. Another is reassured that the prize money for the victory will be reinvested in the team. “That’s £135,000, that is,” he says. “It’ll go straight into the squad.”

On one level, that is what the F.A. Cup means to a club like Accrington Stanley, and to a chairman like Holt. Though Coleman’s team is now thriving in League One — English soccer’s third tier — it is doing so on a fourth-tier budget. By beating Ipswich Town, which competes a division higher, in the third round of the world’s oldest cup competition, Accrington has earned around a tenth of its annual revenue in a single day.

For Holt, the bigger thrill, though, is what may be to come. Should Accrington be drawn to face one of the Premier League’s giants in the next round — Holt had hoped for Manchester United or Arsenal, though Monday night’s draw would later pair those two titans together — and should the game be selected for television, the rewards could approach £1 million: life-changing, season-defining, horizon-expanding money.

“There are not many chances for a club like us to get access to football’s fortunes,” Holt said. “The F.A. Cup is one of them. You could do a lot with a million pounds, around Accrington.”

Accrington was not the only club imagining those possibilities over the last four days. That has always been the charm of the F.A. Cup’s third-round weekend, traditionally the most romantic in England’s soccer calendar. This is the point when the teams from the country’s top two divisions, the Premier League and the second-tier Championship, enter the competition, alongside those from the lower tiers and any nonleague clubs that have survived an arduous campaign through the early rounds.

That sense of opportunity has long made it fertile ground for surprises. It is in the F.A. Cup’s third round that the lesser lights have the chance to bloody the noses of the great and the good, when the coddled elite come unstuck in airless, ramshackle stadiums and on haphazard, mud-ridden fields.


Fans of Newport County, which plays in England’s fourth tier, cheered the team past Leicester City of the Premier League on Sunday. CreditCarl Recine/Reuters

When they do, their conquerors gain a form of immortality: Hereford beating Newcastle in 1972; Sutton United overcoming Coventry in 1989; Wrexham’s win against Arsenal in 1992 — all of them now granted a place in the pantheon of giant-slayers, otherwise unremarkable names remembered in folklore by successive generations. If there is magic in the Cup, the spell is cast by third-round weekend.

This year — as ever — a handful of teams maintained the tradition: Oldham, Newport County and Gillingham beat Premier League opposition. Barnet, of the fifth-tier Conference, overcame Sheffield United, a team in contention for promotion to the Premier League next season.

By those standards, Accrington’s win barely counted as a shock: Ipswich Town is currently last in the Championship, enduring a miserable season.

“It will be F.A. Cup magic if we manage to win,” said Mark Pinkney, an Ipswich fan who had made the journey to Accrington with his father, Harold, and son, James.

The three generations had come to the low hills of Lancashire from England’s southeast coast because they hoped the Cup might provide a little “break” from the league.

That, to many, is precisely the problem. For all that third-round weekend means in the hearts of many English soccer fans, for all the memories it conjures, it is now taken as a truism that it has lost some of its mystique, some of its appeal.

Some fans, like Nick Mills, 43, a Grimsby Town supporter on his way to his team’s meeting with Crystal Palace of the Premier League, blame those teams who prioritize survival in the top flight over a shot at glory.


Watford won at Woking in the third round. To many fans, the chance to glimpse a Premier League opponent up close is still the best part of the third round.CreditDavid Klein/Reuters


Woking’s Kingfield Stadium drew a bigger crowd than usual for the match.CreditCatherine Ivill/Getty Images

“Teams like Palace and Newcastle: they’re the ones that have killed it, the teams where it is about Premier League survival,” he said. “Knocking Palace out would be an upset, but you’re expecting a reserve team.”

Though the upsets still come, Mills is correct: those Premier League teams eliminated this year, as is now generally the case, were lacking most — if not all — of their first-choice players, many of them rested for what the club decided were more important games. Palace made it through, narrowly, in front of 6,000 traveling Grimsby fans, but it did so having made nine changes from its last Premier League game.

Others cast the blame on the Football Association itself: for kick-starting the competition’s demise by allowing Manchester United to opt out in 2000, in favor of playing in that year’s Club World Cup in Brazil; for toying with various ideas — like abolishing replays of tied matches — to bow to the wishes of those Premier League clubs that see the Cup as an unwelcome distraction. This year, the F.A. was fiercely criticized for scheduling games at seemingly random times across the weekend to meet the demands of an international television deal, and using other matches as test runs for a video assistant referee system.

“It’s a wonderful thing, the F.A. Cup,” Holt said. “It needs protecting.”

Wherever the fault, the effects are obvious. At Burnley’s meeting with Barnsley, the Premier League hosts had tried to encourage more fans to come by reducing ticket prices to £10 for adults and £5 for children. Though the visiting team had brought a healthy contingent, Turf Moor, Burnley’s raucous stadium, was noticeably quieter than normal. Swaths of seats remained empty.

Elsewhere, there were weakened teams named not only by the Premier League’s giants and those battling to avoid relegation from the top flight, but by those, like Leicester City, caught in the middle, and with nothing much else to play for. The trend is now mainstream: Championship teams often name weakened sides, too; the prize money on offer even for winning the F.A. Cup pales in comparison to the king’s ransom promotion to the Premier League would bring.

Looked at from a distance, it is hard to see much magic left: teams of reserves contesting games they do not care about in front of half-empty stadiums, for the right to stay in a competition everyone involved sees as an afterthought.


Burnley’s Matej Vydra lined up for a penalty against Barnsley, only to have it overturned by video assistant review. CreditCraig Brough/Reuters

From close-up — at Burnley, at Accrington, at Crystal Palace — over the course of three games in eight hours on third-round Saturday, though, the picture changes. The Cup may not mean what it did; its halcyon days may be gone. But it still matters to some of those involved.

Not just to the teams trying to win it, as proved by the sight of Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, rendered apoplectic by V.A.R.’s overturning a penalty given to his team just as his striker, Matej Vydra, started his run-up to take it.

But to the fans, too. “You’ll see a lot of kids today,” said Steve Wilkin, a program vendor sneaking glances at Grimsby-Palace at Selhurst Park. “Most of the ones you’ll see won’t be here at Premier League games.”

Cup tickets are cheaper, more accessible; as at Burnley, the demographic inside Selhurst Park on Saturday skewed younger than the economics of English soccer ordinarily allow.

For the Pinkney family and the rest of the 1,200 or so Ipswich fans who had made the 500-mile round trip to Accrington, north of Manchester, it was a chance to touch new territory.

“We’ve never played them before, ever,” Mark Pinkney said. “There’ll be a lot of people here today who want to tick the stadium off the list.”

The F.A. Cup may not have the prestige it once did; the annual discussion of how much better the Cup used to be may now be as much of a fixture of third-round weekend as the shocks and surprises. But it still provides opportunities: to visit new places, to see new teams, to welcome in new fans. It is still a place of possibilities.

“It’s still a thrill for us,” said Holt, back in Accrington.

Holt will have a little longer to cherish that feeling. Accrington will face the winner of a replay between the Southampton and Derby County in the fourth round. It is not quite the money-spinner he had hoped for, but there is more to the F.A. Cup than economics. There are memories to be made.

Tariq Panja reported from London.

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