Sanctity of third-round ritual desecrated by the bell

THE MOST irritating thing happened last Sunday. Somebody came to the front door during the draw for the third round of the FA Cup.

At first, I thought I was hearing things. Frankly, I find it inconceivable that anyone should be outside of their own house during the 10 most titillating minutes of the football season. That they should be disturbing mine is quite some way beyond the pale.

It was the culmination of a rather trying day. The first Sunday for about three months when the family and professional diaries were blank... the prospect of an afternoon of undiluted decadence - feet up, a bottle of red, West Ham-Sheffield Wednesday between cat-naps ... and then the draw.

Only, my wife woke up ill. I don't blame her for this. She didn't do it deliberately. She puts a lot into life and her body rebelled. But, rather than time her indisposition to coincide with an unwanted Sunday lunch at great aunt X's (from which it would have been a joy to ring up and excuse oneself), she left me alone with the kids on this most promisingly blank of days.

Still, I survived ... just, did lunch, caught most of the relevant excitement from Upton Park (albeit without the bottle) and - credit where credit's due - she rose from her bed and had us all round the tea table in time for the Cup draw.

Then, about eight ties in, came the knock at the door. Naturally, my instinctive assumption was that someone else would get it. No one disturbs ME during the FA Cup draw. But my children are five and two; they can't manage the latch and, horror of horrors, my pale wife was in her dressing- gown and glasses. Without her contact lenses in, she's reluctant to greet the postman if he knocks at 8am; at 6 o'clock on a Sunday evening ... no chance.

So, for the first time in FA Cup history, I missed some of the third- round draw. Since the age of seven, it has always been accompanied, for me, by the back of an envelope and a blunt pencil so that, after it has finished, I can just stare at the scrawled fixtures, pick out the juicy ones and dream about what might happen. In 1999, shamefully forgetting the patience, kindness and care I had shown to my ailing dearly beloved all day, I thrust that pencil at her and snapped: "Copy it down. Don't miss one."

The caller was for her. Confusion reigned. And, yes, of course, she missed a couple. The recap (which I've always considered boring, laid on for feeble folk who can't keep up) became necessary. I was annoyed.

I tell the story because, in retrospect, I'm rather glad of my annoyance. Unintentionally, it demonstrated an unchanging, unquenched, child-like ardour for this most wonderful of English football traditions and it demonstrated that, in my heart at least, the Cup is alive and well.

I had been worried that, like an adolescent in the run-up to his 15th Christmas, I might wake up to find it's not the same any more. Can the draw ever match the days when, at 12.30pm on a Monday lunch-time, we had to pull out of the Jimmy Young programme to hear Bryon Butler's gloriously gravelly introduction from Lancaster Gate? Can the competition absorb the insult that, in recent years, certain managers have used Cup weekend to rest their stars? The third round before Christmas? And what about the whole Manchester United affair?

Well, yes. God bless it, it has survived the lot. The draw with Gabby Yorath was terrific, thank you very much. Half-strength teams (still, mercifully, a tiny minority) are simply missing the point; it's their loss. Play the third round on 1 July (they probably will one day) and I'll still be there. Manchester United? OK, it is a shame; but my uncontrived emotion last Sunday reinforced the truth in that hideous cliche: "The FA Cup is bigger than any single team".

On the train back from Everton on Saturday, I got talking with some Dover Athletic players (nine unbeaten after their 2-1 win at Southport). Buoyant at their lengthening run of success and excited by their proximity to the top of the Nationwide Conference, they were full of themselves. One issue impinged on their upbeat mood. Tomorrow was the big Cup draw and they weren't in it.

Pained at the very memory, Dover's engaging Irish captain told of how they'd inexplicably lost a replay to their supposed inferiors, Worthing. Non-League Goliaths slain before they could convert into third-round Davids. Manchester United weren't in the third-round draw ... nor, just as significantly, were Dover.

Their very inclusion in the same sentence. That's what is so great about the thing. The fourth-round draw will be on in my house on Sunday 12 December. You're NOT welcome.

l Peter Drury is an ITV football commentator

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