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 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 12:11 GMT
Has the magic of the FA Cup returned?
Wolves match-winner George Ndah celebrates his goal
George Ndah celebrates his winner for Wolves

It was a wonderful two days of FA Cup action - giant-killings, muddy pitches, goals galore and seven Premiership teams crashing out.

But has the lustre truly returned to the oldest cup competition in world football?

The last five years saw the magic wear thin, with attendances down, upsets unlikely and a series of dull finals and predictable early rounds.

This year, things have started brightly.

Glenn Hoddle despairs as Spurs fall to Southampton
Hoddle cannot hide his pain as Spurs collapse

Wolves' victory over Newcastle summed it up - the out-of form underdogs upsetting their betters in an end-to-end game that had more thrills than a month of Premiership fixtures.

The necessary fairy tale was provided by Kevin Ratcliffe's Shrewsbury, who beat Everton, the side he captained to FA Cup success in 1984.

And Spurs, a side who are perhaps more associated with Cup success than any other, were taken apart in startling fashion by a Southampton side who embody the team ethic above individual star turns.

At the same time, the actions of several managers and sets of supporters leaves one wondering if these games weren't just the Cup's corpse twitching on its death-bed.

Attendances at Manchester United and Arsenal for the ties with Portsmouth and Oxford compared well to the two clubs' Premiership averages.

Elsewhere, there were distinct signs that the league is of greater interest to the fans than the beginning of the road to Wembley.

Aston Villa pulled in just 23,000 fans for the spicy tie against Blackburn, a figure that is 10,000 down on their Premiership average.

David Beckham celebrates his goal against Portsmouth
Beckham's delight is clear as he buries Pompey

Southampton lost 5,000 from their average for the spanking of Spurs; Fulham attracted just 9,000 for the visit of Birmingham; and Bolton managed a sorry 10,000 against Sunderland, a side who always bring plenty of travelling fans.

Bolton manager Sam Allardyce made nine changes to his side for the game.

While some of those changes were injury-enforced, Allardyce's selection gave a clear indication of where his true priorities lie.

Should Bolton go all the way and win the FA Cup, they could expect to pick up prize money of 1m.

Should they fail to win their battle for Premiership survival, however, they would lose out on 15m.

Bolton's indifference

Allardyce clearly does not adhere to the theory that a good Cup run builds a team's confidence and has a beneficial knock-on effect on their league form.

The club's Premiership campaign thus takes precedence over a very winnable home cup tie against a side well out of form.

At the other end of the table, the reasons behind the thinking are different, yet the end result the same.

For Arsenal and Manchester United, the Champions League is the ultimate prize, followed by the Premiership.

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger insist they are taking the FA Cup seriously, that they genuinely want to be the ones doing a lap of honour at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff next May.

But the Cup, through no fault of the competition nor the clubs themselves, is realistically just third in the managers' priorities.

Monday's fourth round draw at least keeps this year's competition as fascinating as it has been for years.

Non-league Farnborough's plum home tie against holders Arsenal is as good a tie as the old-fashioned Cup fan could hope to see - and Shrewsbury's game at home to Chelsea is almost as tasty a prospect.

Fourth round draw

Tuesday's game

Saturday's games

Sunday's games

Mini Mike returns

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