Unfortunately, I was one of the many bewildered Chelsea fans present at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Despite the crushing sense of defeat that derives from watching your team lose on any occasion, particularly when you’re 2-0 up at home against a team battling for the League One play-offs, I couldn’t help but feel that I had witnessed something quite special.
From the clear lack of expectation shown by the Bradford fans in the pub before the game, to their unceasing chanting even at 2-0 down (often expressing a rather overwhelming hatred of Leeds United), it was impossible not to feel a miniature chunk of happiness for them during what was otherwise a very depressing homeward journey.
Manchester City, the other half of the Premier League top two and current champions, also crashed out after failing to score against lower league opposition at their own ground. The magic of the cup, I suppose. But what does this all mean for English Football and its most prestigious cup competition?
After the events of last weekend, it wouldn’t seem unfair to suggest that perhaps the big boys of England’s top division have simply lost interest. City arrived back from their mid-winter break in Abu Dhabi the evening before the Middlesbrough tie. Pellegrini’s denial of the trip as a factor in his side’s defeat can be ignored as quickly as his side faded in the second half.
Mourinho is faced with important commitments in the Capital One Cup against Liverpool and the potential title decider with City this week. The FA Cup took a backseat.
There is, of course, a positive flip side to all of this. That being the huge significance that this competition has for the lower league sides. The euphoric scenes at the final whistle at Cambridge on Friday night show just how much the replay at Old Trafford means to the club, and you can be sure that their efforts won’t go unrewarded. Multiple statistics have been flying around in the aftermath of the result, with the most staggering being that the club’s annual wage bill is somewhere around £1.6m and they will earn a minimum of £1.7m from the replay, win or lose.
This incentive doesn’t exist for the bigger clubs, yet it is truly alive and well for the likes of Cambridge United. You’d like to think, on a basic fan-boy level, that sharing a pitch with the likes of Di Maria, Van Persie, and Falcao would be incentive enough. The ‘Theatre of Dreams’ is a fitting title, I’m sure, for Tom Champion and his teammates.
Saying this, though, does not do justice to the quality of the Football League. There is an outright underestimation of teams outside the top tier. Let’s not take anything away from the victors of the weekend. From what I was watching, Bradford played absolutely superbly. Boro could’ve had more.
The competition for places in the Football League allows for a smaller gap in quality between divisions. For example, Brentford have only just come up from League One to the Championship, yet they appear to be challenging for promotion to the Premier League immediately.
Although the likes of Chelsea and City should obviously have the fire power to overcome lower league opposition, the number of league places between clubs in England isn’t as great a reflector of quality as it may be in Spain or Italy.
The simple fact that cup upsets are possible is a credit to English football and the quality of every team in the Football League. The performances of City, Arsenal, and Chelsea in Europe offer the assurance that the quality of our top clubs isn’t a cause for concern, but it is the potentially unattributed and unexpected quality of the Football League that helps leave domestic football in a very healthy position. After all, everyone loves a victorious underdog. It’s precisely what makes the FA Cup so special.
The seemingly increasing lack of interest shown by the bigger clubs combines with the growing significance of the competition for lower league clubs and the underestimation of their quality to make the FA Cup more magical than ever. As Chelsea and City continue to spend more and more money, the weight of expectation approaching these ties grows ever more, making the upsets even greater.
Put it this way, Bradford beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is even more special than it perhaps would’ve been three years ago. Maybe, given the apparent distribution of interest in the competition across the different leagues, these upsets are also more likely to occur and we can look forward to many more to come.