James Lawton: Knocked out: a magical day in the sporting calendar

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The Independent Football

Today is a day that used to bestow magic across the land. It was our coast-to-coast answer to the Palio, in Sienna, where the parish priest blesses each district's contending horse, and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was the day of the little guy and his improbable dreams.

Today is a day that used to bestow magic across the land. It was our coast-to-coast answer to the Palio, in Sienna, where the parish priest blesses each district's contending horse, and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It was the day of the little guy and his improbable dreams.

It is the third round of the FA Cup, when romance is supposed to engulf such places as the sloping field in Yeovil and gritty hamlets in the old North-east coal belt – and ill-considered teams such as Port Vale and York City embark on journeys that come within a heartbeat or two of appearing on a glorious spring day at Wembley Stadium (or, for the forseeable future, Cardiff's Millennium Stadium) against such aristocrats as Arsenal and Manchester United.

Even hoary veterans such as the late, legendary manager Bill Shankly felt a surge of the blood. He was once encountered long after the end of an FA Cup final in which his team, Liverpool, had not been involved. He was standing ankle-deep in rubbish on a terrace of the empty stadium, explaining: "I'm just spending a little time with the ghosts of the game, I'm thinking of great men like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney and Alex James, and all the lesser players who dreamed of being here on this day. There is nothing like the Cup, you know."

Perhaps today – and tomorrow, for TV schedules insist now that the drama is extended and, of course, diluted – there will be an echo or two of the old thunder, but it is not so likely.

Maybe at Shrewsbury's Gay Meadow, Premiership big-timers Everton and their man-child hero Wayne Rooney will collect a bloody nose. Possibly Leeds will feel a tremor in the steel town of Scunthorpe. But the odds-makers, analysing the ever-widening financial gulf between the rich clubs and the majority who live from day to day, are understandably sceptical.

There is, unfortunately, one bleak reality. It is that in the new culture of English football, the FA Cup is not so much a shining adornment as a desperately embattled survivor. They used to call football the glory game. Now it's the turn-a-quid game at every turn.

Traditionalists who raged three years ago when the holders Manchester United were given permission to scratch from the oldest knock-out competition in the world in favour of a misconceived "World Club Championship" in Brazil were recently handed back a scrap of the past. The Football Association agreed that in future the draw would not be made, farcically, on prime-time TV when half the ties had not been completed, but would revert to its time-honoured Monday lunch-time slot, when sports editors sent photographers to capture the moment of rapture when managers of such teams as Walthamstow Avenue and Hereford United and Crook Town learnt that they would be duelling with such as Sir Matt Busby, Bill Nicholson and Don Revie.

But no sooner does the FA make a brief bow to tradition than it takes away more than it gives. This week's announcement that FA Cup semi-finals will as a matter of course be played at Wembley, if the stadium ever rises from a sea of bureaucratic confusion, along with the final three weeks later, strips away another layer of romance. There will be no more penultimate yearnings at Villa Park and Hillsborough – the old favourite sites of semi-final battles – just a premature arrival at a stadium that opened in 1923 to scenes of over-crowding redeemed by a policeman on a white horse.

John Giles, who played for Manchester United in their victory over Leicester City in 1963, recalls the meaning of that appearance at Wembley. "It was an ultimate dream, heightened for me by the fact that it was United's first win there since the great team of Johnny Carey and Jimmy Delaney in 1948. For every player that Saturday in May was the greatest goal of all but it seemed that almost from the moment I got to collect my medal every Tom, Dick and Harry got a game there."

Autoglass Trophy games and Football League play-off matches were moved to the field of dreams. A few years ago the great Celtic, Liverpool and Scotland player Kenny Dalglish was informed by a young reporter that he was heading off for a match at Wembley – a press game. "How do you think that makes me feel?" asked Dalglish. "It makes me think that, along with generations of footballers, I shed blood for something that doesn't seem to matter any more."

It still does – a little bit. Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal, rubbed off still more of the lustre last year when he declared that qualifying for Europe was far more important than winning the Cup. You earned more money in Europe, he explained matter-of-factly.

Shankly, no doubt, would have been aghast. But times change, and yesterday's magic is today's carefully negotiated product.

Nick Barron, the FA's Wembley spokesman, conceded that there would be difficulties for fans of, say, Newcastle, if they were obliged to make two trips to Wembley in the course of a few weeks. However, there were plans for park-and-ride somewhere out in the void beyond the North Circular, and there was a big consolation – the fans would be watching the games in the "best stadium in the world".

But with what freshness, what sense of a day of days, and what ease would be they be able to distinguish it from others when they came to tell their grandchildren?

The FA Cup lives on, but those who still care better catch the magic while they can.