Aston Villa vs Leicester City: Romantic FA Cup ties can keep fires burning for Midlands strugglers


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The Independent Football

It may serve as a useful distraction, but for two clubs in the relegation zone a cup run is like a businessman taking his secretary to Paris while the bailiffs ransack his office. All very romantic, but his attention should be elsewhere.

The BBC’s Match of the Day has rightly come under fire for choosing to show Aston Villa  versus Leicester today instead of Bradford. It might be nice for the presenter Gary Lineker, Leicester’s favourite footballing son, but it’s heavier going for the rest of us.

Lineker was eight when his father and grandfather took him to Wembley to see Leicester play Manchester City in the 1969 final. When Neil Young’s shot beat his hero, Peter Shilton, to win the cup, Lineker burst into tears.

He would have cried a little bit more later on when Leicester became the first club since the war to reach the FA Cup final and be relegated in the same season.

Nigel Pearson, who against expectations is still the club’s manager, experienced something similar with Middlesbrough. Five years ago it was Portsmouth and then in 2013 Wigan became the first team to taste that most bittersweet sensation of winning the FA Cup and going down.

For Leicester in 1969 the FA Cup might have tilted the balance against survival. They were a place outside the drop zone when the tournament began but their fifth-round tie at Liverpool was postponed six times, went to a replay and was, finally, exhaustingly won.

Once the FA Cup final was lost, Leicester had five games to save themselves. They averaged a point a game from them but it was not enough.

The footballers employed by Portsmouth, or rather the club’s administrators, knew they were doomed even before the nine-point penalty made it a certainty. The FA Cup became the lone purpose of their season.

In the semi-final, a team that had gone through the competition unable to use players because their appearance might trigger payment clauses had a makeshift left-back and centre-half. They beat Tottenham, who were huge favourites mainly because their footballers had been paid.

The Portsmouth keeper, David James said getting to an FA Cup final had wrecked the club but he was referring to the one they won in 2008 because it had created “an absurd bonus culture” at Fratton Park and a stable club fatally over-extended itself.

The 1996-97 season in which Middlesbrough reached two cup finals and were relegated still carries heroic echoes on Teesside. They went down due to a crazy decision not to play Blackburn as they had “too many injuries”. Without the three-point penalty Boro would have survived.

Middlesbrough were bottom of the Premier League when the tournament began. They lost the League Cup final after a replay to Leicester, and reached the FA Cup final only after a 3-3 semi-final draw with Chesterfield.

They were so disunited that one member of Bryan Robson’s side – not Pearson – found himself fighting with Fabrizio Ravanelli as they waited for the bus to take them to Wembley, where they conceded after 45 seconds. And 18 years on there is still something epic about it all.

Wigan had been averaging less than a point a game when they met Bournemouth in the third round in 2013. Perhaps because he had engineered their escape twice before, Roberto Martinez appeared relaxed that Wigan would do so again. They might have done but between making the final and playing in it, they won one game in five and conceded late in three of them.

Yet when they paraded the trophy through the streets of Wigan, Martinez and his players were treated as heroes. The new Premier League TV deal will ensure that everyone who plays in it becomes a millionaire but few will ever touch a trophy. That is why Aston Villa v Leicester might matter.