Gatecrashing 2018 like an irresponsible YouTuber in a culturally sensitive woodland area, everyone’s favourite weekend of the football season brought renewed cliches, condescension and unnecessary portmanteaus. The third round of the FA Cup, where Goliath deigns to show up and take on David, who’s been swatting aside challengers of at least similar size up to this point, and promptly stubs out their giant-killing dreams like the last roll-up of a death row prisoner. This year’s third round gave twenty-four EFL sides the opportunity to pull off shocks against superior opposition and continue the dream of receiving high gate receipts for an inconvenient replay, and eating a pie for money. Here are the talking points from the weekend’s action:
The Cup still has a sprinkle of magic…
When Coventry City won the FA Cup in 1987, it was the biggest shock since Second Division West Ham had beaten Arsenal with a Trevor Brooking goal in 1980. That season the Sky Blues finished mid-table in the old First Division, while Stoke City were languishing in Division Two. Fast forward twenty-one years and the fortunes of the two clubs couldn’t be much different. Having acheived promotion to the Premier League in 2008, Stoke are currently in the midst of their ninth consecutive season in the top flight, though their league position is somewhat precarious after a poor first half of the season. Coventry, meanwhile, are flying high…in League Two after almost twenty years of decline that have seen them transform from perennial Premier League relegation candidates to a cautionary tale of having ideas above your station. Their fall through the leagues, like Homer Simpson falling into a chasm after trying to jump it on a skateboard, has been protracted, painful, and difficult to take your eyes off of. Currently sitting in the automatic promotion places, green shoots may just be appearing in the West Midlands, but the chance to host a team from the top flight will have come as a welcome distraction from the grind of a lower league promotion push. Manager Mark Robins will have been hard pushed to have chosen better opposition. With confidence ebbing away week by week in the Potteries, Coventry came into this one with more than a whiff of an upset in their snouts. When Jordan Wills gave the hosts a half time lead with his towering header, the upset looked on, however Charlie Adam’s penalty conversion ten minutes into the second half looked to have deflated the enthusiasm of the Ricoh Arena. Remarkably, the fourth tier side came back at their more illustrious visitors and a fantastic strike from full-back Jack Grimmer sealed a fantastic win for the West-Midlanders. There have been very few days like these in Coventry of late, and this kind of victory could be the perfect tonic in their push for promotion. Stoke meanwhile, who named a strong team, were quick to dispense of the services of manager Mark Hughes after the match. The board perhaps seeing a clear message being sent from the players as they failed to compete in a seemingly straightforward fixture.
Another League Two side hoping to spring a surprise were Newport County. Having failed to reach the fourth round since 1979, County fans may have been forgiven for tempering their enthusiasm ahead of the visit of Championship Leeds United. They will have been aware, however, that their famous visitors – FA Cup Winners in 1972 – have suffered their fair share of giantkillings in recent memory. Last season’s defeat at non-league Sutton United the latest chapter in a chequered cup history for the Lilywhites. A 2-1 defeat at Newport’s neighbours Cardiff City in 2002 also stands out in Leeds’ list of misadventures. The visitors’ nerves will have been settled then by Gaetano Beradi’s ninth minute goal, but heading into half-time with a 1-0 deficit did little to dissuade the attacking intentions of Micky Flynn’s side. A cup tie that ebbed and flowed from end to end eventually saw Newport restore parity, as former West Ham forward Frank Nouble’s cross bounced off Leeds’ defender Conor Shaughnessey and past Andy Lonegran. With their tails up, County went looking for a winner which, in true FA Cup fashion, arrived in the dying embers of the game. On-loan striker Shawn McClousky rose above the Leeds backline and powered a header into the near-post to put Newport in dreamland.
A word also for Yeovil Town, the lowest ranked side still left in the competition sat 89th in the Football League pyramid, who recorded a comfortable 2-0 win against League One Bradford City to reach the Fourth Round for only the fourth time in their history. Second half goals from Marcus Barnes and Jordan Green put the Somerset side into the hat and extinguished any hopes of another famous cup run for the Bantams.
Giantkilling isn’t purely the reserve of teams in the lower echelons of the football pyramid however, and few Nottingham Forest supporters expected the two-time European Cup Winners to put up much of a fight as Arsenal crossed the Trent looking to begin their defence of the FA Cup with a straightforward passage. With Arsene Wenger having never failed to reach the fourth round in his 21 years at the helm, and opposite number Gary Brazil taking caretaker charge for the third time after Mark Warburton’s sacking last week, this was a meeting between the two polar opposite philosophies. While stability continues to breed contempt in North London, the ever revolving doors at the City Ground continues to frustrate supporters of a side once the very best in the country. Wenger’s team selection clearly had Wednesday’s Carabao Cup semi-final in mind as nine changes were made from the side that drew with Chelsea mid-week. Even so, a front three of internationals in Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi, as well as World Cup winner at the centre of defence will have given the hosts plenty to think about. Forest, meanwhile, named nine academy graduates in their starting XI, with 18 year old Ben Brereton leading the line alongside Zach Clough. In an electric atmosphere it quickly became apparent that Forest weren’t here to make up the numbers. Eric Lichaj’s close range header after twenty minutes – with more than a hint of offside – gave the hosts the lead and cranked the noise from the stands up a notch, but a quick reply from Per Mertesacker looked to have poured glacial water all over Forest’s fire. Forest, however, geed up by the certainty of everlasting nothingness attacked their visitors once more and, on the stroke of half-time, Lichaj produced a looping volley from the edge of the box to give the underdogs the edge at the break. Arsenal, so often the masterminds of their own downfall, then gave Brereton the chance to extend the hosts advantage after a clumsy foul from Rob Holding, and the teenage striker, who presumably has been frequenting off-licenses for nigh on a decade given the size of him, promptly fired the City Ground crowd into dreamland. A mistake from Forest ‘keeper Jordan Smith allowed Welbeck to reduce arrears, but a second penalty for the Championship side – the fourth Arsenal have conceded in three games – allowed Kieran Dowell to restore his side’s two goal advantage, despite there being a suspicion of a secondary touch as he slipped while taking the penalty. A fantastic result for Nottingham Forest and a much needed tonic after another bizarre week in the East Midlands.
…but occasionally romance is a deserter
Although, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Davids of this competition over the weekend. Derby County gamely kept Manchester United quiet for 84 minutes at Old Trafford on Friday, before two swift goals from Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku saved Jose Mourinho’s blushes. For a short while the following afternoon it looked as though United’s neighbours might be the biggest casualty of the third round. Their all Premier League tie at home to Burnley had something of the banana skin about it, and as the sides went in separated by Ashley Barnes’ strike, an eye-catching result looked in the offing. Two goals in two minutes just before the hour from Sergio Aguero put paid to any talk of a shock at the Etihad, and goals from Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva added polish to another comfortable afternoon for Manchester City.
One side from the North West that knows a thing or two about causing a cup upset against the Arab-rich Sky Blues is Wigan Athletic. Riding high at the top of League One, the Latics will have fancied their chances against a struggling Bournemouth side as they look to emulate the cup heroics of their 2013 winners. A scrappy early goal from Will Grigg – no smoke detected – gave Paul Cook’s side the dream start, and when Emerson Hyndman diverted the ball past Artur Boruc it looked as though plucky little Wigan were going to cause another ruckus in the cup. Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe threw Marc Pugh and Jordan Ibe on after half-time in the hope of clawing the game back, and it was Ibe that carved open the opportunity for forgotten man Lys Mousset to halve the Cherries’ deficit. That was the French striker’s first goal for Howe’s side since his £6m move from Le Havre in 2016. And you thought Bitcoin had a serious ROI. That goal set nerves jangling in the Wigan defence, but they could have sewn the game up late on as on-loan Ivan Toney streaked clear of the Bournemouth backline, but appeared to be felled in the box. With referee Andy Madley unmoved, the Premier League side duly went up the other end and Steve Cook nodded home a stoppage time equaliser. The Latics will fancy their chances in the replay at the DW Stadium, while Bournemouth could have done without an extra fixture as they attempt to stave off relegation fears. There were also comfortable wins for Huddersfield and Tottenham Hotspur, as the top flight sides made light work of their lower league opposition.
Premier League strugglers choose momentum over rotation…
Whilst FA Cup Third Round weekend has latterly become a chance for Premier League sides to give fringe and academy players a run-out, as demonstrated by Arsenal, Chelsea, and Leicester City this weekend, it was surprising to see many of the struggling clubs fielding strong starting lineups against lower league opposition. Alan Pardew named a full strength side as his West Bromwich Albion team embarked on a potential banana skin away at Exeter. That proved to be a canny decision when, after two minutes, Salomon Rondon gave the visitors the lead. Jay Rodriguez’s 25th goal gave the Baggies a cushion to take into the rest of the game, and in the end they weren’t made to work too hard to acheive thier safe passage into round four – though Hal Robson-Kanu’s penalty miss did cause a few moments of anxiety for the travelling support.
Southampton, who’ve struggled to buy a win in recent weeks, named a strong line-up for their trip to Fulham – a game in which many had considered the Championship side favourites – and Mauricio Pellegrino was duly awarded, as James Ward-Prowse’s first half goal was enough to seal the win for Saints. Watford, too, find themselves in the midst of a slump in the Premier League, but their strong lineup blew a weakened Bristol City away at Vicarage Road. With the Robins resting players ahead of this week’s Carabao Cup Semi-Final against Manchester City, Marco Silva’s side took full advantage as Andre Carillo, Troy Deeney and Etienne Capoue sealed a comfortable win for the Hornets.
Rafa Benitez, who’s regular tinkering with his Newcastle squad has earned him a reputation for rotation, surprised the forty odd thousand supporters that turned up to St James’ Park to see their side take on Luton Town as the teamsheet included ten first team regulars, with promising goalkeeper Freddie Woodman given his competitive debut in a Toon shirt. The Magpies dominated the first half, and two goals from Ayoze Perez and a third from Jonjo Shelvey had the game won for the home side by half-time. A shaky second half performance, in which Danny Hylton pulled one back for the League Two leaders, and also had one narrowly ruled offside, would’ve been disappointing for the Spaniard, but with the job already done his side can revert their focus to next weekend’s relegation six-pointer against Swansea. Having recorded such a dominant display can only help the confidence of Benitez’s side as he, like Pellegrino, Silva and Pardew, banks on the momentum of winning to help keep his side on the front foot.
…while Championship tinkering leads to upsets.
In fact it was the sides in England’s second division that fielded weakened teams at the weekend, as the slog of the Championship enforced managers to rest their star players. Aston Villa, currently occupying a play-off place in the second tier, made ten changes from their 5-0 victory over Bristol City on New Years Day as they hosted League One Peterborough United. A backline boasting Premier League winners John Terry and Ritchie De Laet (hey, it counts) as well as European Championship semi-finalist and part-time karate enthusiast Neil Taylor would have relished the opportunity to test their mettle against Peterborugh’s Jack Marriott – top scorer in the third tier so far this season. An early goal from youth product Keinan Davis would have settled the nerves at Villa Park, but an incredible spell from the visitors in the final fifteen minutes left Steve Bruce reeling. A headed equaliser from Marriott was followed up by a Ryan Tafazolli header to give the Posh a late lead, and Marriott rounded off an excellent performance from Grant McCann’s side in stoppage time with a goal on the break as Villa pushed forward looking to avoid an ignominious defeat.
The Birmingham side weren’t the only to see their rotation policy backfire, as Kevin Nolan’s high-flying Notts County arrived at Griffin Park to face a much changed Brentford side. The Magpies – on course for automatic promotion from League Two – fielded a strong team and saw their faith in the first team rewarded with a Jon Stead goal in the second half to earn County a fourth round place. The seven changes made by Brentford – including the exclusion of star man Lasse Vibe – were enough to give their visitors the edge, and another unspectacular mid-table finish in the Championship is all that remains for the Bees this season. Wolverhampton Wanderers also followed suit, despite being drawn at home against a Premier League side. The visit of struggling Swansea saw the team from the Black Country priced up as odds on favourites ahead of the game, but a much changed team to the one currently steamrolling the second division was unable to find a way through Carlos Carvalhal’s defence. A replay is the last thing either side will have wanted.
With the fourth round draw throwing up the potential of a further eleven upsets, it looks as though we might still witness a storied FA Cup this season, in spite of the lack of non-league sides this weekend. Spoiler alert: Manchester City win it.