The Football Association won an award earlier this season for its rebranding of the FA Cup. A pity, then, that only one of the teams in this weekend's quarter-finals has the competition as its priority.
The game's governing body in Europe has prizes these days for marketing executives and the FA won the "Best brand strategy and implementation campaign" for, said Uefa, "reversing the perception among fans and the media that the FA Cup was in decline". A "new brand strategy" and a "robust integrated marketing communications campaign" had "yielded tremendous results".
On the face of it the FA Cup has had a vintage year. There has been giant-killing, good tales from non-League and, on Sunday, a theoretically titanic tie between Manchester United and Chelsea to savour.
The early rounds were given a publicity boost when AFC Wimbledon were paired with their nemesis, MK Dons, who edged that match and went on to defeat Sheffield Wednesday and win at Queen's Park Rangers. The part-timers of Metropolitan Police, Harrogate Town and Hastings United had their 90 minutes of fame, while the Conference was done proud by Macclesfield and Luton. The Silkmen beat Swindon and Cardiff and the Hatters rolled back the years to see off Wolverhampton Wanderers, then became the first non-League team to win on a top-flight ground since 1986 when they triumphed at Norwich.
Some big names fell too. Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers upset Tottenham and Arsenal respectively, Newcastle went out at Brighton, and League One Oldham knocked out Liverpool before taking Everton to a replay.
However, a closer look at many of these "shocks" reveals the vanquished to be diminished "giants". Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Cardiff, even Swindon, fielded weakened teams, in some cases changing almost the entire XI. Arsenal began with Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla on the bench against Blackburn. Only Spurs and Wolves of the slain giants picked sides approaching full-strength.
This trend will continue today with Wigan's Roberto Martinez admitting he will omit players at Goodison Park to preserve them for the relegation fight. "Success in the Cup is something we want, but never at the price that it would affect our league campaign," he said. "The position we are in means we need to find the best possible team to carry on playing in the league. The Cup game will give us the opportunity to make changes."
No one could blame Martinez. Maintaining or enhancing league status comes first for most clubs, and not just in the Premier League. Since inspiring their teams to epic Cup feats – bringing in much-needed cash as well as glory – Luton's Paul Buckle and Oldham's Paul Dickov have both left their posts after failing to reproduce those results in the league. Nor is beating Spurs in the FA Cup, and Everton and Southampton in the Capital One Cup, likely to prompt a new contract offer to Neil Warnock at Leeds unless his team's recent revival ends in promotion.
Sunday's game at Old Trafford may be the centrepiece of the round but it is an ersatz blockbuster. Manchester United's priority is the title and Chelsea's prime focus is finishing in the Champions League qualifying places. This afternoon pits Manchester City against Barnsley. Roberto Mancini would like to win the FA Cup again, but City's title defence remains the main target even with a 12-point gap to bridge. Thus Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero will not be risked today. Barnsley, meanwhile, must concentrate first on avoiding relegation to League One.
Millwall's Kenny Jackett and Michael Appleton of Blackburn know the draw has given them a great chance of reaching a Wembley FA Cup semi-final, but they must also accept winning the competition is improbable given the quality of opposition remaining. So at the front of their minds will be the nagging knowledge that their league form is so poor relegation remains a threat. Millwall are six points clear but have lost seven games out of eight while Rovers' cushion is only a point better having gone six without a win.
Which leaves Everton. Unlike in the Capital One Cup David Moyes has fielded strong XIs in every FA Cup tie even while chasing a Champions League place. That now looks a wise course. Everton's lack of depth is beginning to show in the league leaving the FA Cup as their best hope of a successful season, especially as, if they beat Wigan today, the semi-final draw could pit them against mid-table Championship opposition.
Everton also need to win the old pot. Though one of England's leading clubs, they have not won a trophy since the FA Cup in 1995. Given the financial might of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, plus the higher incomes of Arsenal and Spurs, it is hard to envisage Everton achieving silverware other than in the domestic cups in the foreseeable future. The same applies to other grand clubs whose history outweighs their current resources, such as Newcastle United, Sunderland and Aston Villa.
For Evertonians there is another important aspect. Moyes has gained many plaudits for his work at Goodison Park, but no honours. His contract is up at the end of this season and it is noticeable he is appearing in the media more often these days, as if raising his profile in readiness for a move.
While winning the FA Cup would further enhance Moyes' appeal to other employers, it would also prove to him, Everton's players and potential future recruits that it is possible to win medals at Goodison. It might even aid chairman Bill Kenwright's endless and largely fruitless quest for outside investment. Today's tie is, then, a very important match for Everton, one which should not need any "brand strategy implementation" to sell. Yet the only match sold out as of late this afternoon was City v Barnsley, probably because it is on ESPN, not terrestrial TV. Sadly, the rebranding of the battered old FA Cup has some way to go.
Form guide: Sixth-round stats
Last five years in FA Cup (2008-12): SF, 3R, 3R, 3R, 3R.
Last time in semi-final: 2008
Last five years: 3R, 5R, 3R, 4R, 3R
Last semi-final: 2005
Last five years: 6R, W, W, 4R, W
Last semi-final: 2012
Last five years: 3R, F, 4R, 5R, SF
Last semi-final: 2012
Last five years: 4R, 3R, 5R, W, 3R
Last semi-final: 2011
Last five years: 6R, SF, 3R, SF, 4R
Last semi-final: 2011
Last five years: 4R, 4R, 3R, 3R, 5R
Last semi-final: 2004
Last five years: 4R, 3R, 4R, 4R, 3R
Last semi-final: Never in last four
1. Patience can still be a virtue – as Walsall know well
Earlier this season Walsall went three months without a win, 17 matches during which they fell from sixth to 19th in League One and exited two cups. Most clubs would have fired their manager but owner Jeff Bonser, not always the most popular man among Saddlers' fans, kept faith in Dean Smith. Walsall have since taken 32 points from 42 and are eighth, Smith's team of youth products and free transfers are beating sides with much higher budgets. Other clubs, such as York City, who this week fired Gary Mills, the manager who last year led them to FA Trophy success and ended their eight–year exile in the Conference, should take note.
2. Has Fergie made it easier to get a job south of the border?
Scots have been at the forefront of English management for more than a century, but does Sir Alex Ferguson's aura gives them an intangible advantage in the jobs market? Coventry are the latest club to recruit a new manager from across Hadrian's Wall, Steven Pressley from Falkirk. It is a well-trodden path but a Tartan accent is no guarantee of success. For every John Hughes, prospering at Hartlepool, there is a Derek McInnes, sacked at Bristol City.
3. Plymouth's potential registers with Bates
There can be few members of the Green Army who are encouraged by rumours linking Ken Bates with a takeover at Home Park but the bearded opportunist's interest does underline the potential in Plymouth. More than 8,000 turned up to watch Argyle climb off the bottom of League Two by defeating Barnet last weekend, the third highest gate in the lower divisions.
4. Goldenballs could fly the flag all the way to Wembley
Barring an improbable revival by Arsenal in Munich this week David Beckham will, at 37, be the last surviving Englishman in the Champions League, thus guaranteeing more acres of coverage for the PSG benchwarmer. With his celestial scriptwriter continuing to deliver remarkable plotlines, what price he bows out at May's Wembley final?
5. AVB's Bale-out was a break from the norm
Managers have long asked players to get booked late in a match to get a suspension out of the way, but few are as open about it as Andre Villas-Boas was discussing Gareth Bale in midweek. His honesty was refreshing, but, sadly, unlikely to be repeated.Reuse content