Since 1981 four clubs have dominated the competition. Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham have provided a dozen of the last 15 winners and six of the runners-up. Only once, in 1993 when Arsenal defeated Sheffield Wednesday, did one of them not figure in the final. Even then Spurs got to Wembley, losing to Arsenal in the semi-final. So much for the unpredictability of the Cup.
Three of the golden four were in action on Saturday and all survived to make yesterday's draw. However, with Everton and Tottenham facing daunting replays, and Liverpool still to play their tricky tie at Shrewsbury, only Manchester United are sure to be in the fifth round.
It would be a major surprise if they were to be the quartet's only representatives but, after Saturday's 3-0 win at Reading, they are certainly the standard bearers. On a pitch with more sand than most English beaches, and against a team which were a missed penalty kick away from playing in this season's Premiership, United overcame an uncertain opening to win with ease.
Their slow start was primarily due to nervousness over the conditions. The pitch played relatively well, but it was never easy. All the more credit, then, to Ryan Giggs, who skated as nimbly over the freezing surface as Wayne Gretzky. Players of slender build and ample flair are often those who 'go missing' on occasions such as Saturday but a strong heart beats within Giggs' coltish frame. He has produced some tenacious midfield performances this season and, though nominally on the right wing on Saturday, he was again active in the tackle as well as the dribble.
United were grateful to his example. In the early stages, at least, not all his team-mates were as enthusiastic. Afterwards Alex Ferguson nostalgically described Elm Park as an "old-fashioned football ground" and said playing there would have been good experience for his young players. Some of them have only known the pristine theatres of the Premiership and Reading's ageing facilities did not suit. However, United's captain, Steve Bruce, grew up at such a ground with Gillingham and he looked as at home as he does at Old Trafford's broad acres.
Reading will remember Bruce for an extraordinary late miss but by then his real work had been done. He had held United together during the first half-hour as Reading, driven on by Mick Gooding, over-ran them in midfield. Their neat passing created chances for Trevor Morley (twice) and Lee Nogan but they were not taken. United were not so profligate and, after 36 minutes, Giggs caught Michael Gilkes in possession, fed Lee Sharpe, then scored himself after Nicky Hammond had saved Sharpe's shot.
Twenty minutes later Paul Parker's mis-hit cross flew in from 25 yards and Reading, who had not reached the fifth round for 61 years, knew they would have to wait a bit longer.
Although Eric Cantona added a third in the closing minutes interest had, by then, moved to more worrying matters with the linesman, Jeff Pettit, hit by a coin thrown from the crowd. It appeared to be aimed at Cantona who, unwisely, then lobbed back a piece of fruit which was thrown on while Pettit was being treated.
The incident, together with occasional skirmishes resulting from the inevitable segregation problems associated with such matches, highlighted the gap between such "traditional grounds" and the more controlled environment of modern stadia. Reading are aware that Elm Park will have to be sacrificed if they are to progress and will shortly be starting work on a pounds 30m out-of-town site.
Their team will also need investment if last year's brush with promotion is to be repeated. Three key members of the side which narrowly lost to Bolton in the play-off final - Shaka Hislop, Simon Osborn and Scott Taylor - have left and three more are injured. That left Gooding and his fellow 36-year-old player-manager, Jimmy Quinn, as the team's leading figures but only Paul Holsgrove followed their example.
A third successive Wembley appearance beckons for United who now meet Manchester City or Coventry in the fifth round. Sunderland will argue, with some justification, that they did not even deserve to be in the fourth round after the Wearsiders dominated the two third-round matches between the clubs. Stockport and Hereford might say the same of Everton and Tottenham.
But FA Cup campaigns are rarely triumphal marches - there is usually a stumble or two en route to the Royal Box. Last year Everton were over- run in the fourth round at Bristol City but escaped with the win. The previous season United were all but out when Mark Hughes rescued them in the semi-final against Oldham.
With Newcastle seemingly out of reach, not that Ferguson hinted at conceding the Premiership just yet, the FA Cup has assumed added importance to United. Mind, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham also retain a keen interest. Expect one of them to be at Wembley in May.
Goals: Giggs (36) 0-1; Parker (56) 0-2; Cantona (89) 0-3.
Reading (4-3-3): Hammond; Jones, Bernal, Williams, Gilkes; Parkinson (Lambert, 74), Holsgrove, Gooding; Quinn (Lovell, 85), Nogan (Meaker, 74), Morley.
Manchester United: (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, G Neville, P Neville (Parker, 53); Giggs, Keane, Butt, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: McClair, Scholes.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).
Bookings: Reading: Bernal, Parkinson, Gooding. Manchester United: Parker, Schmeichel.
Man of the match: Giggs.
Attendance: 14,780.Reuse content