The FA Cup third round weekend carries some frustration for me this year.
Who decided that Premier League games should be played on Thursday and third round games just two or three days later? I know there is always a huge appetite for football at this time of year but it would have been so much better if there had been a blank weekend now and next weekend had been allocated for Cup matches.
That would give players a chance to recharge their batteries, supporters a chance to spread the cost of their tickets – and, importantly, there would be none of the excuses we are likely to get this weekend for the big clubs to rest players in the Cup. If a big club gets humbled with a weakened team, any manager who has had to select teams for the Premier League on December 26, 28 and January 1 has a ready-made excuse.
The Football Association has had to schedule fixtures around the demands of the Premier League, but I do believe the league could have worked in an extra round of league games elsewhere to free up this weekend.
There are midweeks in March and April that would fit. Creating a nine-day break before the FA Cup would also meet the demand for a mini- winter break that so many managers want.
Those managers who do succumb to the temptation to rest players should know that a Cup run can bring a real boost to league form, too.
I always look back to the year that the Stoke side I was in went to the final against Manchester City, in 2011. Before the quarter-final against West Ham, we’d played the Hammers away in the league and lost 3-0 – another setback in our relegation scrap. Before the quarter-final we had lost five, drawn one and won one game; after the 2-1 win that sent us to the Wembley semi, we won three, drew three and lost one.
Our league form took off for a reason: every player in the squad was looking to nail down a place in the starting line-up at Wembley.
Things certainly didn’t turn out as I’d planned. I injured my cruciate ligament in the last minute of the game against Chelsea in the most innocuous way – landing on my leg seconds before goalkeeper Petr Cech brushed my calf – and played no further part that season. But it was some finish for us and we ended up in 13th place.
Third round matches are captivating because every team has a chance. I know that from the tie in 2002 when the Derby team I was in lost 3-1 at home to Bristol Rovers – a fourth tier side – in the same season we were relegated from the Premier League.
You are on a hiding to nothing, of course, and when you are the big club playing away from home, the first half is always vital. The lower league side want to bring the bigger side down to their level, get in their faces and play at 100mph. The problem for the bigger side is that they play a different way, week-in, week-out, and will want to do that from the off. They should not try to.
Better players still have to earn the right to play their own way by riding out the storm, not being complacent, taking the energy out of the lower side and then trying to turn the opposition defenders.
There will be surprises this weekend but the odds are on at least one embarrassed manager having a get-out by saying “we weren’t at full strength”. That’s a shame because this is a football weekend like no other.Reuse content