Come the week before FA Cup third-round weekend there is an old custom regarding foreign managers and players at English clubs. At some point, tradition dictates that the foreign chap in question will earnestly be asked what the FA Cup means to him. Did he watch it on telly as a kid? Does he know about the magic of the Cup?
It is a peculiarly English arrogance that supposes Roberto Mancini would have been glued to Spurs against Queens Park Rangers in 1982. Or assumes that barely a day goes by when Andrei Arshavin does not recall Andy Linighan's goal for Arsenal in the replay against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. It is the FA Cup after all. Saying you don't really care about it is one of the last great national taboos: like voting BNP or attending a Cliff Richard concert.
These days there is another tradition that has become more crucial to FA Cup third-round day than even the games: that is the relatively modern tradition of debating whether the FA Cup is being taken seriously or not. That is why we spend so much time cross-examining foreign players about the competition in the secret fear that they are not really interested. Or agonise about managers who have different priorities.
Here's a radical theory: the FA Cup is actually in relatively decent shape. On Saturday there was a lot of hand-wringing over the low attendances at places like Middlesbrough and Wigan. By yesterday afternoon, when Manchester United had been humiliated by Leeds United at Old Trafford in one of the biggest third-round shocks in living memory, everything was okay with the FA Cup again.
The result at Old Trafford illustrated how difficult it is to generalise about the competition. There will always be dreadful games in any competition. There will always be ties that fail to spark the imagination, like Wigan against Hull, for which a crowd of 5,335 seems a little on the generous side. Manchester United against Leeds was different; that was a tie that would always have an edge to it.
In these pragmatic times it is a wonder that most clubs still bother. After all, we live in an age when Mick McCarthy effectively surrendered Wolves' Premier League game at Old Trafford as early in the season as December because he had one eye on a relegation crunch match against Burnley. Yet in the FA Cup this weekend, the likes of Leeds, Reading, Peterborough, Carlisle, Swindon and Lincoln still gave it a go against Premier League opposition.
Some managers have to make the pragmatic choice not to play a full-strength team when they find themselves in the midst of a league programme. Others, like Leeds' Simon Grayson, can see the value in giving their players the experience of playing on the biggest stage. But there is no obligation for them to venerate the FA Cup when their jobs are ultimately dependent on the progress they make in the League.
Despite all their other priorities, attitudes towards the FA Cup among clubs and fans are healthy particularly in light of the fact that winning it has always been the preserve of the big teams, give or take the occasional anomaly. These days it is ever more restricted to the big four – who have won 16 FA Cups out of the last 18 – but it was not that much more egalitarian in football's golden age.
In the 1960s, when football was much less divided by wealth, the FA Cup was won by teams finishing in the top eight for six out of the 10 years between 1960 and 1969. The lowest ranked club to win it in that decade were Manchester United, who finished 19th when they won the Cup in 1963. They won the league title two years later with much the same team.
For the smaller clubs, there has always been precious little chance of winning the competition – West Ham in 1980 were the last team outside the top-flight to do it – so the attraction for them lies in a lucrative cup run. A cup run generates revenue and excitement but for the hard-headed it is ultimately futile unless you bring the trophy home. A run of wins in the league, however, can push a team up to the play-off places or beyond.
Despite the apocalyptic fears for its future and Manchester United's withdrawal in 2000, the FA Cup has proved robust. Whether we like it or not, modern football is dictated by league football. There are huge financial rewards for reaching the Premier League. In the Football League, there are major implications for going up and down between divisions. The FA Cup has to exist alongside these new financial imperatives.
Yet, for all this, most of the time the FA Cup is still taken seriously. For all the empty seats at the DW Stadium, it still produces great games like yesterday's match at Old Trafford. The competition's place in the life of English football might have changed from the 1950s but we should be glad that it still has the ability to surprise us. We should not need the reassurance of our foreign players and managers to tell us that.
Irvine merited loyalty bonus, not the sack
Alan Irvine, regarded as one of the most promising managers in the Championship, led Preston North End to the play-offs last season with a transfer budget much less generous than the other teams around him. Seven months on he has been sacked.
Irvine turned down the chance to manage West Bromwich Albion in the summer. Preston slipped to 16th with a bad run of results and he was sacked. If Everton had followed the same logic when Irvine was David Moyes' assistant they would have got rid of Moyes in 2004 when his team finished 17th and missed out on all the subsequent success he brought the club.
Irvine is an intelligent and decent bloke who put everything into his job. He deserved more time.
Coyle choice shows how Celtic have fallen
It comes as a surprise that Owen Coyle might regards Bolton Wanderers as a better option than Burnley. While Coyle has operated on the lowest transfer budget of any promoted team, he has built an incredible spirit at the club. The win over Manchester United at Turf Moor was the most atmospheric night of the season so far.
But it says something about the parlous state of Scottish football that Coyle would turn down the chance to manage Celtic, his boyhood team, and then, seven months later, come to regard Bolton as a better option.
Beckham had us all fooled
David Beckham said yesterday that he never wanted to leave Manchester United. Those of us whoremember the details of that neverending transfer saga back in 2003 would have to say he had a funny way of showing it.
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