Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The magic of the FA Cup

This morning I got up and decided to peruse the television channels, and was excited to see that ESPN was showing a live FA cup game: the replay between Middlesbrough against Bristol City. I had tuned in at the start of the second half and Bristol City had a 1-0 lead.

I love watching the FA cup. Especially when it's a Premiership team pitting its wits against a team a couple of divisions below. Middlesbrough are 12th in the Premier League and Bristol City 5th in League 1 (37 places below). And what I saw was a team who fought hard for every ball, a team encamped in their own half doggedly defending, and a team who could counterattack well. In short, I was impressed.

If you don't understand the prestige, the passion and the beauty of the FA cup you would probably wonder how it was even possible. But year after year there are shocks as the underdogs pull off mighty victories, or at least come agonisingly close. I love watching those games. Like a few years back when David Seaman of Arsenal pulled off what is possibly my most favourite save of all time against Sheffield United of the division below. The ball seemed destined for the net but somehow Seaman's big hand prevented it from crossing the line.

Shocks are a part and parcel. So are the romantic images they conjure up. The FA cup is a magical competition.

Today is Valentines Day, and so I was hoping that little known Bristol City of the West Country could add yet more magic to footballing folklore. But then Mark Viduka headed home a Downing cross from close range, and so it was 1-1. They then came close on two occasions of taking the lead as first. Downing's shot hit the base of the post, and Adam Johnson (formerly on loan to Leeds this season, doh!) crashed a long range effort into the cross bar.

And then it was extra time. Yakubu was brought down in the box and had the perfect opportunity from the penalty spot: but one of the poorest penalties you'd ever see was saved. Was it going to be little old Bristol City's day? But then Yakubu scored from close range...surely it was all over? Then with only a couple of minutes left and I was pumping in the air in a short fit of underdog excitement. McCombe turned home a cross leaving Bristol City in delirium.

3 and a half hours after the start of their locking horns and the sides were effectively level at 4-4 with penalties to decide the winner. Penalties were being taken, and at 4-4 in penalties it looked odds on that Yakubu would put his earlier miss behind him, take the last penalty, and send Boro into the 6th round. Instead he hit the post!!!! Sudden Death!!!! Mark Schwarzer pulled off his second great penalty save, proving his heroics for Australia against Uruguay in qualifying for the world cup were no one off. Then 19 year old Adam Johnson stepped up with no fear, and sent the hearts of little old Bristol City crashing to the floor.

But what a magnificent match. And what a magnificent advent for the cup. This is what it is all about. This is what makes football all worth while. The showponies and largesse of the premiership almost brought down to size. An exciting start to the day. Pity the underdog couldn't quite pull through!

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