The third round of the FA Cup is rarely more boring than the debate around whether there is any “magic” left in the FA Cup, but this selection of fixtures could hardly be said to get the heart racing.
If there was any of that so-called magic to be found, it was surely at Spotland where Rochdale drew with Newcastle, showing the same kind of quality that took them to penalties against Manchester United in the third round of the League Cup. Indeed, it was the same player who made headlines with the goal in that match, Luke Matheson, who turned provider here. The 17 year old crossed excellently in from the right and found 40 year old Aaron Wilbraham who was able to poke the ball home to create a potentially record assister-goalscorer age gap of 23 years.
There was an even more impressive come back (or capitulation, depending on how you look at it) at Vicarage Road. Watford were 3-0 up after 34 minutes, and Nigel Pearson looked justified in making nine changes to concentrate on the league. Yet Tranmere made an improbable comeback to draw 3-3 and get the opportunity to face Watford again at Prenton Park.
Neither non-league side were able to make it any further, as Hartlepool took the lead but ended up losing to League One Oxford. Meanwhile AFC Fylde looked like a late come back was on against Sheffield United, but Chris Wilder’s men were held on to win 2-1. No non-league side beyond the third round? Classic example of disappearing magic.
There was also no magic to be found at the 0-0 draw between Wolves and Manchester United where United failed to have a shot on target for the first time since 2015. They required Sergio Romero to keep them in the game, as their goalkeeper made a spectacular save from Matt Doherty, prompting questions of whether he might have the opportunity to take over David de Gea’s number one spot. After the match, both managers suggested that an immediate penalty shoot out might be preferable to a replay. That would no doubt add some spark to the slower games, as well as reducing the fixture congestion, but it would be a shame to take away the opportunity for smaller clubs to make the most of those lucrative replays.
The fixture congestion, particularly over Christmas, should take a large part of the blame for the much changed sides named by the majority of Premier League and Championship sides. Teams can hardly be blamed for wanting to rest players who otherwise would be playing as many as four games in 14 days, with League Cup semi-finals also taking place this week.
These much changed sides were opportunities for young players to make their mark on teams. 18 year old Adam Idah scored a hat-trick in Norwich’s 4-2 win over Preston North End in only his third appearance for the club, while 18-year-old Curtis Jones curled in a beauty in order for Liverpool to beat Everton. Callum Hudson-Odoi might not seem like a youngster anymore, but he is only 19, and he looked constantly dangerous against Nottingham Forest, scoring after just six minutes and linking up well with Reece James, as Chelsea won 2-0 and knocked out Forest in the third round of the FA Cup for the second season in a row. Chelsea fans will hope that this kind of performance will give him the confidence to kick on in the league as he’s looked off the pace since his Achilles injury last season.
In many ways, the teams that named stronger sides ended up looking worse off. Whether that was because of fatigue or that they underestimated their opponents, both Tottenham and Everton looked poor having made minimal changes. Tottenham could only come from behind to draw with Middlesborough at the Riverside Stadium, as Mourinho’s side conceded first for the eighth time in their last 12 matches. Everton meanwhile started off strongly against Liverpool, with Adrian being forced to make several saves, but totally collapsed after half time to a Liverpool team who played the majority of the game with four teenagers and an average age of 22.
All in all, it wasn’t a vintage selection of games across the weekend but with a combination of fatigue, injuries, rotation, and the growing gulf between leagues, it might be that we’re looking for FA Cup magic in the wrong places. Perhaps the magic instead could come from moments like a referee replacement having to be found in the crowd at Sheffield United vs AFC Fylde, leading to a teenager being the fourth official. The sheer delight of 19 year old Osaze Urhoghide making his debut for Sheffield Wednesday as they beat Brighton. An 18 year old local boy scoring the winning goal in his hometown derby. It’s hard to deny that those moments don’t still matter.
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