James Lawton: Is the FA Cup losing its glitter? Try telling that to Robson or Houllier

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The Independent Football

Something extremely disagreeable appeared to happen to Yeovil Town's mountainous Portuguese central defender, Hugo Rodrigues, this week. One day he was a model of engaging behaviour. The next he was inspiring that old urge of Muhammad Ali to yell "timber" when confronted by one suggested opponent, the basketball giant Wilt Chamberlain.

Ali couldn't resist the temptation and the fight was abandoned. The reported metamorphosis of Rodrigues made you wonder if the same fate shouldn't overtake Yeovil's third round FA Cup tie with Liverpool.

In midweek, when encountered by my colleague, Jason Burt, he was amiable and modest. The prospect of meeting Michael Owen tomorrow inspired only respect, and maybe even a touch of awe.

This was an entirely reasonable position to take in that while he is a towering figure when he trots out for the Third Division team - the 23-year-old stands at 6ft 8in - Rodrigues' team-mate, Lee Johnson, son of the manager, Gary, claims to be more effective in the air despite a shortfall of 14 inches. "I jump like a salmon," says Lee, "but, though he can play a bit, Hugo jumps like a dwarf." Perhaps bearing this in mind, Rodrigues told The Independent: "You have to respect Michael Owen - he's one of the best strikers in the world." Twenty-four hours later Hugo's tone had apparently changed. "I'LL CUT OWEN DOWN TO SIZE AND GET HOULLIER THE SACK", the Sun headlined in the player's name.

Harmless fun - or a sickening manifestation of the worst aspect of even potential giant-killing? The choice is a bit like the one you make when you go to the bullring. Who do you identify with? The brave, graceful matador or the raging bull? In the Cup, the decision is between superior performers who over the years have built reputations on their effort and their talent - or the rootless mediocrities who get lucky for a day.

As a witness to quite a number of Cup eruptions - most notably Ronnie Radford's deathless strike against Newcastle at Hereford 30-odd years ago - I have to confess to a certain ambivalence, and it was not exactly smoothed away this week by John Giles's recollections of some of the insults thrown at him during the defeat of the great Leeds team by Colchester in 1971. "Doesn't every little potato-picker get an Irish cap?" he was asked by the late John Gilchrist.

However, Hugo, for the moment at least, deserves to be cleared of all questions about what on earth happened to him between discussing possibilities in a manner befitting a graduate of the lower echelons of the Portuguese second division and then emerging as a rabble-rouser who might have been found storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace? The answer is nothing. Short of employing a professional code-breaker, every utterance of the big man could not have been more thoroughly scrutinised and nowhere is to be found a breath of evidence of claims that he will further reduce the size of the diminutive Owen - or drive Houllier out of Anfield. His most pugnacious statement, apart from suggesting a good steak might provide better fuel for glory than Yeovil's usual pre-match snack of beans on toast, was: "If we play as we can, we never have to be afraid of anybody." That would serve as an honourable mantra for all the other potential giant-killers this weekend, Norwich at Everton, Crystal Palace at Tottenham, Tranmere at home to Bolton, Cheltenham at Fulham, Telford at Crewe, and Gillingham at home to Charlton. But of course it rarely ends with such noble sentiment.

Great players are abused, under-achievers leap out of the woodwork and tell us why they should have been basking in the glory and the big money all these years.

When Sutton United beat Coventry 18 months after the Midlands team had upset Spurs in a tremendous final in 1987, triumphalism was thick in the air. When Stevenage and Dagenham & Redbridge inconvenienced Newcastle and Charlton, there was much of the same, a fact which at the time re-opened those old wounds of Giles. "By and large I hate giant-killers; if they were any good, they wouldn't be giant-killers. They would be doing their stuff at the top level, week in and week out," he said. He also pointed out that the season after Sunderland had upset his Leeds at Wembley, to much national jubilation, the victims went a record 29 games without defeat and coasted to the title. Sunderland remained in the Second Division.

This shouldn't obscure, however, the exciting possibility that the old tournament will, after years of unfathomable mistreatment and neglect by the Football Association, roar back into full-blown uproarious life in the next two days.

The greatest crime was the decision to allow the holders, Manchester United, to abandon the Cup in favour of an irrelevant, money-grabbing fiasco of a world club tournament in Brazil. That confirmed the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, in his belief that finishing fourth in the Premiership had become a more significant achievement than winning the most famous club knock-out tournament in world football. But, of course, he made his statement before the Premiership became quite such a hopelessly difficult challenge for most of its participants. It was, anyway, a declaration predicated entirely on the belief that the most important thing in football is money.

We will see yet again this weekend that this is not so. We will see it in the relish of the fans for English football's last link with a more romantic past. But then, also, if you tell the embattled Sir Bobby Robson, whose Newcastle face a tricky assignment at Southampton, and Liverpool's Houllier that the Cup doesn't matter any more, they will wince in their disbelief. They will confirm, not least by their intensity on the touchline, that the old bauble retains a surpreme ability to make or break a club's season - and a manager's career.

It is another reason to welcome the fact that Hugo Rodrigues never actually said he was going to cut down Michael Owen. No one, after all, has more reason to fear the cry "timber".

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