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The Darlington chairman George Reynolds
"I'm the only one with a direct line to him"
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Friday, 10 December, 1999, 14:58 GMT
A very peculiar FA Cup

John Gregory: Darlington is last game before touchline ban

Click here for other Premiership clubs' Saturday team news.

Click here for the third round weekend's schedule.

The third round of the FA Cup used to be one of the landmark dates of the football season.

The traditional first weekend of January date gave the season a New Year boost as the Christmas decorations came down almost as quickly as some teams had slid down the league over the busy festive period.

The cup that changes
In 127 years there has never been a cup like this year's
No holders
Lucky losers
Third round before Christmas
But this year the third round comes as many people deck their halls and erect their trees, and for many fans it just does not feel right.

The December date is planned as a permanent innovation to ease fixture congestion later in the season, unlike the other more controversial change to the 1999/2000 competition.

Much has been said about the absence of holders Manchester United due to January's World Club Championship.

Holders Manchester United's absence has angered many fans
The FA insist it is a temporary abberation of the world's oldest and most famous cup competition, as is the presence of a "lucky loser" in the third round.

Darlington might be travelling to Aston Villa by default, but at least their presence shows that one tradition is not dead - that of the romantic underdog.

And while Villa must surely overcome their third division opponents on Saturday, the Premiership strugglers will not take for granted the in-form club from the north east.

Villa's cup form this season has been good, with wins over Chester, a Manchester United team refusing to take another competition seriously, and Southampton in the Worthington Cup.

We are obviously massive underdogs but that's the romance of the FA Cup. It's a great day for the club and the town
Darlington assistant boss Ian Butterworth
But these have been their only victories since early September, and Villa's league slide has been as dramatic as their decline along with the decorations last season.

For boss John Gregory this game is a last chance to prowl the touchline this century, before a 28-day ban starts this week.

The manager is at a loss to explain it all, particularly considering what he sees in training.

"I cannot believe the high standard," he said. "All that is needed is for it to be transferred onto the pitch."

Ehiogu's last game was against Man Utd in the Worthington Cup
This week could be a turning point, with a trip to West Ham for a Worthington Cup quarter-final on Wednesday.

"The FA Cup and Worthington Cup are both very important to Aston Villa as they could be our passport back into Europe," said the Villa boss.

"Obviously we want a good win against Darlington. It was only last season that we suffered an upset when beaten at Villa Park by Fulham."

Defender Ugo Ehiogu, who has missed much of the poor run, is back but Steve Watson is sidelined with hamstring trouble.

And with midfielders Lee Hendrie injured and George Boateng suspended, a remodelling of the midfield is required, with Paul Merson, Steve Stone and Alan Thompson all standing by.

Striker Dion Dublin is fit to play after a dead leg last Saturday, but he will share the work up front as Gregory rotates his squad ahead of Wednesday's game at Upton Park.

No Marco for Darlo

Darlington travel in hope, but without their best-known player.

Top-scorer Marco Gabbiadini, formerly of Derby and Sunderland, is suspended.

"Marco will be a big loss because he scores goals and wins matches," admitted assistant boss Ian Butterworth.

"We are obviously massive underdogs but that's the romance of the FA Cup. It's a great day for the club and the town."

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See also:
10 Dec 99 |  FA Cup
Bulls thankful for cup cash
01 Dec 99 |  FA Cup
Lucky Darlington land Villa trip
08 Nov 99 |  Football
FA Cup to have 'wild card' entry
04 Dec 99 |  FA Carling Premiership
Big Duncan adds to Villa misery
28 Oct 99 |  UK
Man Utd confirm exit from FA Cup
21 Nov 99 |  FA Cup
Spurs handed revenge chance
10 Dec 99 |  FA Cup
Davids and Goliaths on Wembley trail
Links to other FA Cup stories are at the foot of the page.