James Lawton: How the FA Cup bit back

James Lawton salutes Burton, Leyton Orient, Nuneaton, Liverpool, Alan Shearer and all those who helped make the third round a weekend to cherish
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In all the Cup celebrations washing over the weekend at least one left in its wake the substance of rock rather than shifting sand, something of more intrinsic value, certainly, than a modestly sized lottery win for some little club gamely ducking and diving for survival on football's version of Skid Row.

It was that of Alan Shearer after he knocked in the late winner against Mansfield, a goal that preserved a link with the distant glory of Newcastle's success in a competition that in another age defined the dreams of a vast and passionate following.

Part of Shearer's joy, no doubt, reflected his pleasure at equalling the 200-goal club scoring record of the North-east's ultimate football hero, Wor Jackie Milburn. But something else was expressed by Shearer when he threw his arms to the sky and wheeled in triumph.

It was the self-evident truth that the old tourney still truly matters to one of the greatest professionals of his generation. At the time Arsenal's Arsène Wenger was declaring that it was more important to finish fourth in the Premiership - and qualify for the Champions' League - and Manchester United had already delivered the FA Cup a blow from which it will probably never fully recover by deciding not to defend the trophy in 1999-2000, Shearer was a hard, loud voice of protest.

Both Wenger and United's Sir Alex Ferguson - even though he played at sharply less than full strength and contributed to the joy of replay-bound Burton Albion on Sunday - have both since tacitly agreed that they do still need the Cup as a viable, crowd-pleasing option when doors are closed in the Premiership and the Champions' League. But Shearer's voice and body language have been constant.

He has ceaselessly asserted the oldest imperative of a proper competitive sportsman. It is to win something of substance, something that cannot simply be measured in terms of financial reward. If that was Shearer's only objective he could have walked away, sated with success, several years ago when his old joints first began to creak. But Shearer insisted he wanted more than that. Yes, the FA Cup - the old glory field where such icons as Milburn and Sir Stanley Matthews crowned their careers - was still a fabulous goal to be pursued. He wanted to get hold of something tangible in a career of relentless application and lofty performance, something you could look at and be reminded that one spring day you joined the company of winners.

In 1999, United and the FA persuaded themselves that the interests of English football would be better served by the reigning Cup holders competing in something called the World Club Championship, whose numbers were made up by obscure clubs from Saudi Arabia and Australia.

Wenger said the money from Europe was more important than the played-out sentiment of the Cup. Most people seemed to agree. Certainly the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, did two years ago in the third round of the FA Cup after reaching the final stages of the League Cup.

He played a reserve team against Tranmere, who went on to reach the quarter-finals of the senior tournament. That was against Millwall. Eventual result: a travesty of an FA Cup final in which a Millwall team led by Dennis Wise, who should have been sent off, failed to provide serious opposition against, irony of ironies, Manchester United. That, despite what anyone might say at the New Den, was the single most depressing debasement of the Cup since United swaggered off to South America in mid-season.

This last weekend the Cup bit back, first nibbling at a United who should have learned from last season's embarrassment when the prawn-sandwich munchers were entertained to a goalless draw against Exeter City at Old Trafford, then expelling the Premiership's Spurs and Fulham and administering major scares to to the likes of Newcastle, Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Liverpool.

Rafa Benitez's men gave the Cup serious attention, especially after Luton jumped into a 3-1 lead, and there was no doubt that a huge share of the fuel provided for a magnificent victory - and tie - was last year's humiliation at Burnley. Then, Liverpool were castigated for supreme arrogance and Benitez, plainly a quick learner, was hell-bent to avoid a repeat dose from the repentance bottle.

This produced one of those Cup ties that you know will live long in the memory, and not least for the moment of sublime comedy when Steve Gerrard, cranking himself up for one of his party piece denouncements of a team-mate, instead politely clapped Xabi Alonso's clinching goal delivered from deep in his own half. Only the FA Cup, abused, discounted, shamelessly picked up as an item of convenience, can guarantee an annual accumulation of such sporting glory ... and high-placed vulnerability.

You didn't have to have too much feeling for underdogs - personally, one leans to the old pro's opinion that noisily triumphant underdogs generally do no more than draw attention to their failings of their past - to be thrilled when Walthamstow Avenue got a draw at Old Trafford in 1953.

The amateur international Jim Lewis scored in the 75th minute and the cricket all-rounder Trevor Bailey performed valiantly on the right wing, causing the same kind of thrill that came at the weekend when Nigel Clough's men won the right against United to fight again. The reality check for Walthamstow - that the old United roared back to win 4-1 in the replay - did nothing to quell Burton's dreaming yesterday when they learned the reward of victory in Manchester would be an away trip to Wolves. Uniquely, the FA Cup both levels a playing field which has become in recent years grotesquely uneven and gives teams like Burton and Nuneaton and Tamworth the chance to short circuit a minimum of five seasons of unbelievable success to step out with the great clubs of England. It helps the roots of the game financially and psychologically.

The problem, of course, is that certain other realities intrude. Is a manager like Allardyce, or most recently Paul Jewell of Wigan, who at the weekend dropped seven first-teamers against Premiership candidates Leeds, able to justify the kind of pragmatic decision which so pointedly devalues the Cup? In one way it is easier for them than for a Wenger or a Ferguson or even a Jose Mourinho, who at the weekend experienced a touch of embarrassment against Huddersfield Town when fielding a weakened team which would still have been a likely candidate for a high place in the Premiership.

The Allardyces and Jewells can point to their modest resources, and at the weekend Jewell, like Allardyce before him, could also talk about the possibility of making the League Cup final and entry to Europe.

Qualifying for Europe has become ever more a jewel of football with the ascendancy of Chelsea, but it didn't do Everton much good, did it? It lured them into impossibly deep waters and shattered their confidence almost before this new season began. Wenger claimed that finishing fourth was better than winning the Cup, but it is doubtful if Everton would subscribe to that view as they flail around at the wrong end of the table.

There may no longer be any point in yearning for the time when the most glamorous day of the season was the last one, when the final teams proudly travelled up Wembley Way, but we can surely welcome weekends like this last one when football was bathed again in old romance and excitement. Don't, certainly, tell a fan of Colchester or Burton or Leyton Orient that the Cup has meandered off down a side road of history. He will tell you that somewhere you have mislaid the point of football and all sport.

Shearer is certainly not guilty of such negligence. Ever since he set off from Newcastle as a boy to conquer the football world he has played to the limit of his ability. The only pressure of stardom that he has accepted is the need to win. It is an imperative that Wenger questioned when he made his arid claim on behalf of the value of finishing fourth.Finishing fourth? Whoever stirred themselves over such an achievement, whoever was moved to run on to a field or down a street whooping with joy? But winning the Cup, even a third-round tie, well, that is a different matter. For reminding us of this, Shearer, and the longest, biggest-hearted cast list in English football, warrant our warmest thanks.