For a weekend that uniquely brings all levels of English football together, the 2020/21 FA Cup third round may just serve to emphasise its chasms. There is a clear divide – and a lot of potential consequences – between those clubs who can afford to test for Covid-19, and those who can’t.
A lot of squads who have been able to monitor positive cases on a weekly basis are thrown into a round of fixtures with those who haven’t. It could lead to a lot of chaos, and even more changed teams than normal, not to mention outright cancellations to go with Southampton vs Shrewsbury.
In the build-up to this weekend, some English Football League (EFL) managers were even privately speaking about how they feared there would be so many positives amid the country’s escalating crisis that it could lead to calls for the season in the lower leagues to be suspended altogether.
That is a view that is increasingly widespread around the three lower divisions, which the third round may actually expose. For their part, influential figures in the EFL are confident the situation will calm, and that more regular testing starting (a remarkable situation in itself) will help overcome the many logistical problems arising. The government also want lower-league football and the FA Cup to continue, along with the Premier League.
The complication is that this weekend could bring a wave of positives that shifts perspectives, and positions. It may be impossible to withstand.
The tremors started with the first tests returned on Thursday afternoon, as Shrewsbury’s trip to Southampton was called off after multiple positive cases in the League One squad. It was followed by news later that evening that Aston Villa intend to field a youth team against Liverpool due to an outbreak among their first-team squad. There could well be a huge number of confirmed cases across multiple clubs overnight before the weekend’s action.
That concern reflects a sense of tension and unease around a date that is supposed to be about opportunity and excitement. The Covid crisis has instead added an unfortunate new twist to a very modern debate.
You might even say that it’s finally made a long-time claim fully true. The FA Cup third round has never felt more meaningless, and more of a problem. There are some in the game who think it should have been suspended this season given everything. There’s even the argument that it could have provided the “break” – both logistical and physical – that football needs. Most of those arguments naturally come from those at the top end of the pyramid, but it was something the FA were never going to countenance. Their show must go on, for financial reasons as much as anything else.
The argument within the governing body is that it must be accepted that games will be postponed as part of the crisis, but the best solution is to make do and adapt rather than cancelling outright. There is obvious merit to that, too.
It’s just a shame the matches won’t have the same merit.
Those at the lower ends will of course talk up their opportunities, and mean it, but there’s no denying the situation has robbed their games of much of their excitement – and that's before you even get to the real-world suffering that should always be the primary concern here.
Morecambe will go to Stamford Bridge, but it won’t be Stamford Bridge as they’ve idealised. Crawley Town will go to Elland Road, but it won’t be Elland Road as they’ve dreamt. Rotherham will go to Goodison Park, but it won’t be Goodison Park as they know it.
Marine will meanwhile host Tottenham Hotspur, in the tie that is the most vintage type of FA Cup meeting you could ask for, but it will all – literally – feel so much emptier. It isn’t the experience that Marine should be having, or Spurs for that matter. It is in fact almost cruel, in a purely football sense, that they get a once-a-generation draw during a once-a-century crisis.
The uncertainty around Chorley’s meeting with Derby County meanwhile emphasises other issues, as well as an element of farce. Instead of meeting an ambitious Championship side in a match that would feel like an invigorating test for the club, Chorley might take on a completely makeshift team, for little other reason than to fulfil fixtures that don’t seem strictly necessary.
If you were to extend that logic, you could of course talk yourself into the argument that no football at all needs to take place, but this situation feels beyond even that precisely because of the unnecessary mix of clubs and situations.
At the same time, the fact the third round could expose potential problems and fissures beyond the Premier League may give the FA Cup an unwanted importance. It may well force the sport to confront challenges it had been putting off, or hoping would just go away. As it is, they have to stay and play.
This isn’t to say clubs don’t want to win it, or compete. There are still many who could really do with lifting the great trophy more than others. Among the most prominent are those on the longest trophy droughts.
Everton would love that the Rotherham game is the first step to a first trophy since 1995. Aston Villa would love that their Liverpool game is the first step to a first trophy since 1996. Newcastle United would love that their trip to holders Arsenal is the first step to a first trophy since 1969.
Other figures could do with winning it for different reasons. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard could greatly do with the first trophies in their current jobs, the latter of his career, provided he is still Chelsea manager at the time.
David Moyes could similarly do with maiden silverware, while Wolves must feel they have a fine chance of a trophy.
The unfortunate reality is that the majority of these clubs are going to name much-changed sides precisely because the competition is so low on their list of priorities – especially in this season, and in this calendar.
It could yet lend the greatest level of farce at all. We could well be facing up to a situation where the testing means there are a number of byes, with most of those byes awarded to the clubs who least want to be involved at all.
That’s what the FA Cup may become this season, the oldest competition summing up the strangest of circumstances, and a certain absurdity amid this very present problem.
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