Return of the giant-killers

For years it was the preserve of the Big Four and appeared in decline, but the magic returned to the FA Cup last year with Barnsley knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea – while Portsmouth actually won the trophy. Glenn Moore expects the trend to continue this weekend

Until last season it was generally agreed that the financial rewards on offer in the Premier League and Champions League had pushed the FA Cup into the shadows. Like an ageing screen icon she deserved respect, but no longer stirred passions.

Then came Chasetown, Havant & Waterlooville and Oldham, Barnsley and Bristol Rovers, Cardiff City and, ultimately, Portsmouth. Suddenly the FA Cup was back, making headlines and exciting a football world that was beginning to find the other competitions increasingly predictable, and too fixated by cash to be romantic.

Last year nine Premier League clubs fell at the third round, the highest figure since the 1992 breakaway. One of the great sporting weekends of the year, akin to Wimbledon finals weekend, the Open's last round, and the Aintree Grand National, had regained its magic. There was a certain amount of fratricide involved, four clubs fell to equals, but 10 top-flight clubs would eventually succumb to Football League opposition during the competition, a figure unsurpassed since it was reduced to a 20-team section 13 seasons ago.

There is no doubt that the advent of the Premier League in 1992-93 has increased the gap in resources between top-flight clubs and the rest but, ironically, the need to retain that status, and its commensurate rewards, is the reason the shocks are back. Many managers now rest key players in the Cup and this season, with two-thirds of the top-flight still in fear of relegation, even more will be inclined to field weakened sides.

Or will they? Surely some will look at Portsmouth's triumph last May, which helped the club attract Peter Crouch this summer, and undoubtedly boosted Harry Redknapp's allure to Tottenham, and think, "we can do that". With the big four heavily committed at home and abroad the possibilities of the FA Cup should appeal to clubs like Middlesbrough, Fulham and West Ham. How about Manchester City? What better way for Mark Hughes to secure his position with the club's new owners than to give them a day out at Wembley?

Hughes, who won four winners' medals with Manchester United and Chelsea, then took Blackburn to two semi-finals, said yesterday, "It is the most prestigious domestic cup competition in the world and should be given the respect it deserves.

"It is a competition that has figured highly in my career and something I have enjoyed. We'd like a good domestic cup run."

Martin O'Neill, who takes his bouyant Aston Villa team to Gillingham, also promised to take the competition seriously, despite his club's growing commitments.

"It will be a full house. The FA Cup is the FA Cup and we'll be as strong as we possibly can. We want to get through to the next round and will treat the competition with the respect it deserves. There will be changes but they will be enforced."

All of which suggests neither the Gills, nor Nottingham Forest, City's opponents, will be among the weekend's giantkillers.

History suggests Preston and Macclesfield could be. In the Premier League era their respective opponents, Liverpool and Everton, have lost to lower division opposition six times each. "We either seem to go all the way and win it, or get knocked out early," bemoaned Liverpool's Jamie Carragher. Manchester United, meanwhile, have not lost to a club outside the top flight since being humbled by Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth in 1984. A south coast repeat tomorrow looks unlikely.

Fulham had looked a good tip to emulate Portsmouth. Like last season's surprise winners they are a club with momentum, an experienced, astute manager, who do not concede many goals. And then Roy Hodgson admitted he would be rotating his squad at Hillsbrough today.

"Winning the FA Cup is a great thing to do, but it doesn't compare with staying in the Premiership," he said. "It is important, it is a great competition. I am looking forward to the game, but we are also aware that our Premiership survival is far from guaranteed. That is still the most important thing for this club."

Hodgson admitted that, for him, the competition had lost much of its glamour. Some will argue the poor gates at some games today – which is inevitable in the midst of a credit crunch, post-Christmas, with Cup-ties usually not included in season tickets – proves that point. Tell that to Barrow, or Histon, two of the record eight non-league survivors.

Barrow sold all 7,000 available tickets for today's match at the Riverside, and expect hundreds more to travel without tickets. Fellow Conference club Histon knocked out Leeds in the last round and, said chairman Gareth Baldwin, "must have had 30 to 40 letters and emails every day from unknown fans who said they have fallen back in love with football." Baldwin added: "It obviously touched a lot of people and shows how powerful the FA Cup is."

Histon's visitors, Swansea, are unlikely to underestimate them. Their third round replay defeat at Havant & Waterlooville was Act I of last season's first great giantkilling tale. Havant's mix of labourers, taxi-drivers and school caretakers famously took the lead at Anfield in the fourth round. Liverpool won, but fell in the fifth, going down at home to Barnsley – who then sent South Yorkshire wild by dumping Chelsea.

Last season's third round began with Chasetown, of the Southern League Midlands Division One, taking the lead against Cardiff City. The eventual finalists survived with a goal from a young debutant called Aaron Ramsey.

Later that day Blackburn, then in the top half of the Premier League, were thrashed 4-1 at home by Coventry, Everton lost at home to League One Oldham, Bolton at home to Sheffield United, and Birmingham, then in the top flight, lost at Huddersfield. Fulham, in a replay, fell on penalties at Bristol Rovers. Eventually Portsmouth, who had somehow survived a siege at Old Trafford, were the last top-flight team left standing. They took full advantage.

Who will do so this season?

Shock value Who's most at risk

Glenn Moore marks your card on a weekend rich in potential for Cup upsets

*TODAY

Hartlepool v Stoke (1pm) Underdogs on the prowl

Arsenal v Plymouth (3pm) Slim chance of an upset

Chelsea v Southend (3pm) Giants will stroll through

Coventry v Kidderminster (3pm) Underdogs on the prowl

Histon v Swansea (3pm) Underdogs on the prowl

Forest Green v Derby (3pm) Underdogs scent blood

Macclesfield v Everton (3pm) Slim chance of an upset

Man City v Nottm Forest (3pm) Slim chance of an upset

Middlesbrough v Barrow (3pm) Giants will stroll through

Portsmouth v Bristol City (3pm) Giant upset on the way

Sheff Wed v Fulham (3pm) Underdogs on the prowl

Torquay v Blackpool (3pm) Underdogs scent blood

West Brom v Peterboro' (3pm) Underdogs scent blood

West Ham v Barnsley (3pm) Underdogs on the prowl

Preston v Liverpool (5.25pm) Slim chance of an upset

*TOMORROW

Gillingham v Aston Villa (1.30pm) Slim chance of an upset

Southampton v Man Utd (4pm) Giants will stroll through

*MONDAY

Blyth Spartans v Blackburn (8pm) Underdogs on the prowl

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