Football: League's Cup flowing over: After a traumatic week for Premiership clubs Clive White questions their superior status

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The Independent Online
THINGS did not look any better for the Premiership yesterday on the morning after the nightmare before. Given the way the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup has worked out one would not have to stretch the imagination half as far as Wednesday's night of fantasy to envisage just two Premiership sides reaching the quarter-finals.

Their seven remaining members - five of whom have been drawn away in distinctly sticky- looking ties - is only one short of the top division's smallest representation in the fifth round since the War, that of 1981-82, when Spurs beat Second Division QPR in the final. So is the gap between the so- called Premiership and the rest narrowing rather than widening? Judging by the Football League's verdict on their night of glorious oneupmanship one would think it was.

'Nine Premier clubs have been dismissed by Endsleigh League clubs and that's no fluke,' Ian Cotton, a League spokesman, said. 'When it comes to matching skill-for-skill our clubs are up there with the best. There's immense pride when clubs go into battle against the Premier. They're flying the flag.'

Given the acrimonious circumstances of the Premier League's FA-inspired breakaway two years ago, the Football League can be excused their drum-beating. Not everyone, however, saw it the same way, not even one of their heroes of the hour - Oxford's manager Denis Smith, who masterminded Leeds' downfall.

Smith saw it as just another example of the burdening pressure of attempting to reap the greater rewards of the promised land. Far from the victories by his own team and that of Bolton over Arsenal being of particular merit because each was achieved away to a Premiership side, Smith felt it was partly because of it.

'I don't think you can draw conclusions from a one-off game,' he said. 'It just proves how tremendous the pressure is at the top these days. The Leeds crowd expected their side to walk all over us and that pressure gets transferred to the players. My players were much more relaxed. Having said that, I still thought Gordon Strachan was far and away the best player on the park.'

That will not, however, prevent Premiership clubs casting envious glances in the direction of Smith's own Jim Magilton, Charlton's match- winner against Blackburn Darren Pitcher (who triggered this week of the extraordinaire), the Bolton duo of Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs, and Luton's John Hartson and Scott Oakes.

Many players - Magilton, once with Liverpool, is a prime example - have had to come away from the heavy expectation of life at the top to realise their potential while others, no matter how good, will never have the mental strength to succeed there.

Bruce Rioch, the Bolton manager, reckons that Stubbs, 22, has probably the two best feet in the English game next to Glenn Hoddle and, like his fellow Scouser McAteer, 'isn't going anywhere', presumably except straight to the top with Bolton.

Nor was he the only one in the after-glow of victory to express a determination to hold on to what he has. David Kohler, the Luton chairman, who has done his damndest in the past year to do precisely the opposite, has suddenly decided, following the club's pounds 250,000 windfall from the Cup, to call off his plans to sell up.

With only Manchester United and Villa left among the country's top 10 - and both of them are away - the chance of a non-Premiership side reaching the final for only the second time in 12 years is good; winning it, Smith feels, is something else. It will take a brave man this season to bet against it, though. FA CUP FIFTH ROUND

Cardiff City v Luton Town

Oldham Athletic v Barnsley

Kidderminster Harriers v West Ham Utd

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Ipswich Town

Bolton Wanderers v Aston Villa

Oxford United v Chelsea

Wimbledon v Manchester United

Bristol City v Charlton Athletic

(Ties to be played on 19, 20, 21 February)

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