Premier League managers could “do without” the FA Cup according to one of their number, Aston Villa’s Paul Lambert.
The Scot, desperately trying to keep his young team clear of a relegation scrap, will be fielding a weakened side against Sheffield United today and Lambert would probably not mind losing were it not for the embarrassment of defeat to a League One team.
This is understandable, given the cost of relegation to the club, and to Lambert’s employment prospects. Randy Lerner, Villa’s owner, need only look at the current status of today’s opposition – or the likes of Wolves, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday – to appreciate that a large ground and illustrious heritage are no guarantee of top-flight return.
Wigan’s bittersweet double last season, relegation and an FA Cup win, has punctured any lingering romantic ideals among Lambert and Lerner’s brethren and from Hull, in 10th, to Sunderland, in 20th, the priority will be fighting relegation. It is not just the spectre of Wigan that haunts them. Bolton, now drowning in £163m debt and floundering in the Championship, never recovered from the 5-0 FA Cup semi-final drubbing Stoke City delivered in 2011.
And yet, did the FA Cup really cost Wigan their top-flight status? Wigan were 18th when they began their FA Cup campaign and 18th when they finished it. They had finished in the bottom six the previous three seasons and it was inevitable, such were their resources, that they would eventually run out of luck. At least Wigan fans have the memory of Ben Watson’s Wembley winner, and a debut European campaign, to cherish in the Championship.
The FA Cup was certainly good for Roberto Martinez. He already had a reputation as a bright young manager, but would Bill Kenwright have hired him were it not for the Cup run, especially the quarter-final, when Wigan tore Everton to pieces at Goodison Park? “A good run in the Cup is always positive,” insists Martinez.
Everton have Champions League dreams and it will be interesting to see what XI Martinez fields against QPR. Much as he admires the competition, anyone with a niggling injury is likely to be rested.
The same maxim will apply at most top-flight clubs. Chelsea should field a decent team at Derby as they have a deep squad and Jose Mourinho commits to winning everything. Local rivalry dictates that Arsenal and Tottenham cannot take today’s meeting too lightly, but whoever wins it may then drop the FA Cup down a notch as they will be committed in Europe until after the FA Cup fifth round at least. The Manchester clubs are not only in the Champions League, but also have the Capital One Cup to consider. The semi-finals begin on Wednesday and the final, which form suggests City and United will contest, is not until a week before the FA Cup sixth round.
What of Liverpool who, like Everton, are unencumbered by other commitments? Since they won the League Cup and played in the FA Cup final as recently as 2012, Brendan Rodgers can be expected to concentrate on the quest for fourth, or even first, place.
Which leaves Southampton and Newcastle United of Premier League clubs. Saints are in freefall as Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-pressing style takes its toll on a small squad and the Argentine may take the opportunity to give players a breather at home to Burnley. But Newcastle... well this could be, should be, Newcastle’s year.
The last time Newcastle won a proper trophy (disregarding the Anglo-Italian, Texaco and Intertoto Cups) ships were still being built at Swan Hunter and Apollo 11 was about to head off for the moon. It was the summer of ’69 and, though Bryan Adams didn’t mention it in his hit of that name, Newcastle were making history.
Having sneaked into the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup (a predecessor of the Europa League) despite finishing 10th the previous season owing to the competition’s odd entry requirement, Joe Harvey’s team beat Feyenoord, Sporting Lisbon, Real Zaragoza, Vitoria Setubal and Rangers before facing Ujpesti Dozsa in the final. The Hungarians were a good side, good enough to defeat Don Revie’s Leeds in the quarter-finals, but, roared on by the shipyard workers who had just launched the huge Esso Northumbria supertanker, the Magpies won the first leg-3-0.
Ujpesti took a 2-0 lead in the Budapest return but captain Bobby Moncur struck back and Newcastle ran out 3-2 winners on the night, 6-2 on aggregate.
Forty-four years on, Moncur, Willie McFaul, Frank Clark, Bryan “Pop” Robson, Wyn Davies and the Dane Preben “Benny” Arentoft remain legends on Tyneside.
And no wonder. Apart from the aforementioned minor baubles, the St James’ Park trophy cabinet has subsequently gathered only cobwebs. Newcastle have been beaten finalists in the FA Cup thrice, runners-up in the Premier League twice and the Football League Cup once, but success has remained elusive. A staggering 30 clubs, including Sunderland and Middlesbrough as well as Oxford United and Luton Town, have won a major trophy since Newcastle did.
The last of Newcastle’s six FA Cup wins is even more distant, 1955 completing a trio in the 1950s, the black-and-white era for both shirts and pictures. It is time for new heroes.
Newcastle’s modern-day squad may be predominantly French but players of all nationalities like winning and a Wembley final has global appeal. Moreover, Alan Pardew, an FA Cup finalist as a player (Crystal Palace) and a manager (West Ham) knows better than most top-flight bosses the pull of the old pot and can transmit that to his players.
And battered though it may be, the FA Cup still has power. Its allure emptied the Potteries in 2011 and left Wigan’s streets deserted last May. When Portsmouth won the Cup in 2008, a crowd of 200,000 welcomed it home. Imagine the impact winning would have on a region besotted with football and starving for silverware. Were Newcastle to get to Wembley, especially this team, which is a match for most, there would be an exodus.
Pardew has said he will “freshen” his team for today’s tie against Cardiff City but also promised to “attack the game”. He should pick his strongest XI and make the FA Cup his priority. There is nothing to lose. Relegation is not a threat, while the holiday programme suggests the Champions League is out of reach. The season could now drift, with only the dubious prize of a Europa League place to chase, or it could roll to a crescendo.
The FA Cup and Newcastle United are the perfect combination, both living on past glories and in need of a tonic. The FA Cup needs to be wanted, and Newcastle want to win it. Allez les noirs et blancs, allez.