This weekend, the FA Cup moves onto the Sixth Round stage, with four of the current Premier League top six paired together. In fact, it is only West Ham United out of the top six that will not be represented in the competition, having been eliminated in the last round by Manchester United. There’s very little in the way of potential shocks, with Bournemouth the only non-top flight club in the competition.
Last season the latter stages of the competition were decimated by Covid-19, with the six round not taking place until June, and the final itself played in front of an empty Wembley Stadium in August. It is fair to say that over recent years many fans have fallen out of love with the competition, with the semi-finals being moved to Wembley, other ties being shifted for TV coverage and of course, Premier League manager’s fielding weakened sides.
But in this season’s competition, there seems to be a bit more love again for the competition. Perhaps the clubs, not able to play in front of fans, realise their the contribution they can make to the mood of the football-watching nation but taking it seriously? For instance, in the fifth round tie between Manchester United and West Ham United, out of the starting 22, both sides field eight players in the starting XI who would be considered first team starters, whilst Everton fielded seven in their thrilling 5-4 win over Spurs.
Ironically, with the Premier League clubs having to play almost two games a week as it is, this season would be the one where there would be more of an understanding if they used the full extent of their squad for the FA Cup. Perhaps the Hammers can consider themselves unlucky to have lost in extra-time by the one goal at Man Utd in a season where they have been so impressive on the road and would welcome an opportunity not only of a Wembley final but a return to European action.
One reason why we have perhaps fallen back in love with the FA Cup this season is because of Marine and Chorley. The two Non-League clubs were propelled to national (even international) attention due to their runs to the Third and Fourth Rounds respectively, with Step 4 Marine having the whole nation bar a small corner of North London rooting for them as they took on Tottenham Hotspur in the biggest “mismatch” based on league position the competition has ever seen.
For Non-League fans we all looked on with envious eyes as they did themselves and the grassroots game proud, overcoming the adversity of not being able to admit fans by eventually selling tens of thousands of virtual tickets. Chorley’s victory not only over Championship Derby County but also the freezing conditions gave them a shot at repeating the feat against Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers, eventually being beaten by a Vitinha wonder strike.
Once again, it is more than likely that the cup will be won by one of the teams currently sitting in the Champions League spots, although there is always the scope for Bournemouth, Southampton or Sheffield United to “Do a Wigan Athletic”. Perhaps though the events of the last year may have just made players, managers, clubs and fans think differently about the world’s oldest football tournament next season.