09 March 2008

Is this the best FA Cup ever?

The headline’s a bit misleading, because the best FA Cups are the ones Liverpool win, but this year’s tournament is making headlines for all the right reasons.

Either there’s less of a disparity between divisions than was thought, or Premiership teams thought they could progress simply by showing up.

For the first time since 1995, none of the “big four” will hoist the FA Cup. Portsmouth is the only Premiership team left in the semifinals.

United, Chelsea, and Boro, the other holdouts, all exited in the quarterfinals, and only United went out to Premiership opposition. Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn, Manchester City, Boro, Birmingham, Bolton, Fulham, and Derby all lost to lower-league opposition. That’s half of the division.

The semifinals, with the draw taking place tomorrow, will be made up of Portsmouth, Barnsley, Cardiff City, and West Brom. Portsmouth’s currently 9th in the Prem. West Brom’s 4th in the Championship, Cardiff 14th, and Barnsley 19th.

And if a team other than Portsmouth wins, it’ll be the first time since 1980 that a lower-league club lifted the trophy. In fact, since 1888-9 (when the Football League began; the FA Cup started in 1871), it’s only happened 8 times, with Barnsley’s lone win in 1912 one of the eight.

Portsmouth’s reached 3 finals, the last being 1939, their lone win. Cardiff won in 1927 and were runners-up in 1925. Barnsley’s reached 2 finals, 1910 and 1912, with the aforementioned win in 1912, where they beat West Brom.

West Brom’s the team with the most history in this tournament. From 1871 to 1888, they reached 3 finals, winning once, and they’ve won 4 times since (1892, 1931, 1954, 1968) in 8 finals. Like Barnsley, one of their wins, 1931, was as a lower-league side.

And West Brom is the only team to get this far without beating Premiership opposition, with wins over Bristol Rovers, Coventry, Peterborough, and Charlton.

Portsmouth beat United, Cardiff beat Boro, and Barnsley notably beat both Chelsea, Liverpool. Not to jinx it, but it’s little surprise that I’m rooting for Barnsley the rest of the way.

Anyone who saw those two Barnsley wins doesn’t need reminding of the ‘magic of the FA Cup’ cliché. The last ten minutes against Chelsea, with Barnsley camped in their penalty box and Chelsea bombarding, were some of the most exciting scenes (outside of Liverpool, naturally) there have been this season. And the fans celebrating on the pitch with their team was one of the most poignant.

As a Liverpool fan, I’m lying if I say I want anything other than Liverpool lifting the trophy every season. But if that can’t happen, this is the ideal situation. Upset after upset, in every round, and with someone other than the usual suspects, is exactly what the FA Cup, and English football, needed.

With Tottenham taking home the Carling Cup, both domestic trophies will be won by a team other than Arsenal, United, Chelsea, or Liverpool. To keep tossing out dates, that hasn’t happened since 1991. But if Liverpool maintains their 2-0 lead against Inter on Tuesday, those four teams will all be in the Champions League quarterfinals.

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