There are two ways of looking at next weekend's FA Cup fifth round. One suggests that it is an affirmation of the egalitarian appeal of the competition, showing that money doesn't always buy you trophies. Or perhaps it is a worrying indication of a tournament in danger of seeing its status diminished.
Without Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton, the fifth round has more the look of the League Cup about it, and we all know how that has come to be perceived by the bigger clubs - and now by those Anglophiles at Uefa who are withdrawing a European place for the winners.
No one is suggesting - quite yet - that the big clubs do not still see the FA Cup as a prestigious trophy that they would dearly love to win. It is just that the pain of being eliminated does not quite seem as intense at the moment. Warnings are rumbling.
After his side's 1-1 draw with Wimbledon at Old Trafford, the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson spoke of the unwanted replay, even if you don't want to go out of the Cup. After that replay, he then talked of concentrating efforts on the Premiership and the European Cup without distraction.
The FA Cup a distraction? One does not recall Liverpool viewing it as such in their European heyday; nor indeed the League Cup, which they won regularly in the early 1980s as accompaniment to three Champions' Cups.
These days the Premiership is god and king. A second spot in the so-called Champions' League is now available to the runners-up. Uefa Cup places are more easily come by than one in the Cup-winners' Cup, which is becoming an inconvenience as Thursday matches can disrupt the domestic programme with a detrimental effect on championship aspirations.
It is also the weakest and least regarded of the European competitions, with other nations' domestic tournaments not as prized by their own bigger clubs. Therein is the dangerous example for the English game, which ignores any early warning signs at its peril. Who knows what effect the potential revenue from digital television will have, with windfalls from cup runs no longer as significant to the bigger clubs.
Perhaps it is just an isolated and concidental event, part of the charm indeed, that the fifth round sees new names contesting the old pot. If not - and next season will tell us more - then the Football Association, perhaps in conjunction with their old pals Uefa in looking at improving the Cup-Winners' Cup, will need to examine ways of restoring its former glory if it is not to become a consolation competition for those not chasing the richer pickings.
ALEX FERGUSON'S mental toughness and psychology skills have seen off a few opponents down the years, notably Kevin Keegan. Joe Kinnear has clearly learned a trick or twain. "We're exhausted. It's like flogging dead horses," he lamented after the 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough last week. Three days later his supposed selling-plate nags outstay Fergie's Manchester United in the FA Cup.
SEEING Carlisle United on television recently, with the legendary (to us motorway frequenters) name of the haulage contractor Eddie Stobart on their shirts, recalled a game that can be played on those tedious trips to and from away games. It goes like this...
You imagine you are in the European Cup, with Eddie Stobart lorries being the English club and the foreign club represented by the Belgian transport firm of Norbert Dentressangle, whose lorries are also much in evidence on British byways.
After arguing with your opponent for choice of company, a goal is scored for each of your lorries you spot. The home leg is the trip going, the away leg the return journey. One tip: Eddie wagons are more in evidence in the North, Norbert more frequent in the South.
SO Chris Waddle turned down the West Bromwich Albion job because the Baggies' chairman Tony Hale was unable to assure him that sufficient money would be available for new players? Perish the thought that an untried manager might just relish the task, believing in his coaching skills and ability to get the best out of a group of players.
THE England women's team play Germany at Preston's Deepdale ground on 27 February. If you go, don't mention the World Cup of 2006. Peter Corrigan does - on page 13 - but I think he gets away with it.
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