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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January 2005, 15:00 GMT
Has the FA Cup lost its magic?
By Paul Fletcher

The FA Cup third round is traditionally one of the most anticipated events in the football calendar.

It is steeped in history and tradition and provides an opportunity for David to slay Goliath.

But in recent times the FA Cup - held as the greatest cup competition in the world - is said to have lost some of its allure.

After a weekend of upsets when smaller teams handed out lessons in humility to some of the Premiership's giants, we ask whether the oldest cup competition in the game retains its lustre.

WHAT DO THE ATTENDANCES TELL US?

A total of 535,495 people passed through the turnstiles to watch the FA Cup last weekend, giving an average attendance of 17,274.

This compares favourably with the equivalent figure last season, when 490,541 at an average of 15,329 watched the FA Cup on third round day.

The average for this season's third round is the highest for 25 years.

"The attendance figures bear testimony to the special place that the FA Cup occupies in the hearts of English fans, and to the fascination it exerts," said FA chairman Geoff Thompson.

And don't forget that this year's figure is for 31 games given the postponed fixture between Burnley and Liverpool.

The attendance aggregate for the 31 teams who were at home in the FA Cup third round over the weekend versus their previous aggregate home League attendance
The 31 teams at home in the FA Cup attracted more for their previous home league games
However, perhaps a more telling statistic is that for the 31 home teams who played over the weekend their aggregate attendance for their previous home games comes to 623,017.

That means that 87,522 fewer fans went to watch their team in the FA Cup than their previous League game.

A total of nine clubs had higher attendances, none are in the Premiership and just two - Cardiff and Watford - are in the Championship.

Just 14,003 watched Sheffield United beat Aston Villa - almost 7,000 less than watched Sheffield Wednesday play Swindon in a League One fixture on the same day.

Once upon a time watching an FA Cup match would have taken precedent over a League match.

In the modern era, with expensive admission prices and many fans locked into season tickets, it seems the FA Cup is often a match too far.

But it would seem the prospect of playing a team divisions above them still gets supporters of lower division clubs flowing through the turnstiles.

WHAT ABOUT THE VIEWING FIGURES?

The BBC screened three live games over the weekend.

The most popular was Everton's match at Plymouth on Saturday evening, which peaked at 5.8m and had an average of 4.9m.

Running a close second was Yeading's game with Newcastle, which averaged 4.7m and had a peak of 5.4m.

A poor third was Sheffield United's win over Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime, which averaged 2.6m and peaked at 3.6m.

The two matches that involved potential giant killing attracted the greater audiences, while the contest between a modest Premiership side and a good Championship side proved less alluring.

The viewing figures for the Yeading game are particularly impressive given that the match was broadcast on Sunday lunchtime, not always the easiest time to attract television viewers.

It does seem to suggest that a good old-fashioned David versus Goliath tie still attracts the viewers.

DO THE BIG CLUBS STILL CARE?

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho
Mourinho knows what his priorities are
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho said after his team beat Scunthorpe on Saturday that he would love to win the FA Cup.

But he was honest enough to admit that the Premiership and the Champions League are his priority and that if he needs to rest players in FA Cup games he will.

Manchester United and Arsenal both fielded far from their strongest sides for their third round games.

That is despite Sir Alex Ferguson - for whom winning the FA Cup in 1990 is said to have saved his job at Old Trafford - having a genuine affinity for the competition.

Winning the cup last season also salvaged an otherwise trophy-less season for United but there is little doubt that Ferguson, too, would rather win the Premiership or the Champions League.

WHAT ABOUT THE LITTLE CLUBS?

Exeter created headlines after drawing 0-0 with Manchester United at Old Trafford.

And their director of football Steve Perryman, a former FA Cup winner with Spurs, is in no doubt that the FA Cup is still a hugely important competition.

"We are riding high on the back of that magic," he told BBC Sport.

An Exeter fan at Old Trafford
For Exeter supporters Saturday's trip to Old Trafford was unforgettable
"Why else would there be so much interest in us, generating money that can help save the club, if the FA Cup had lost its magic?

"If it was a run-of-the-mill competition it would have been a run of the mill game.

"Saturday was an absolutely great day for our players and one our fans will never forget - what are the chances of our players getting to play at Old Trafford?"

For teams in the lower divisions there is little doubt that the opportunity to test themselves against Premiership teams is a highlight of any season.

As Oldham manager Brian Talbot said after his team won on Saturday: "Being realistic we are not going to win the FA Cup but beating Manchester City is like winning the FA Cup."

HAS THE TOURNAMENT BEEN UNDERMINED?

Many people blame Manchester United for permanently damaging the esteem in which the FA Cup is held.

United did not defend the trophy they had won the previous season in the 1999-2000 season, they went to compete in the World Team Championship in Brazil instead.

Manchester United celebrate their 1999 FA Cup Final win
Manchester United did not defend their 1999 FA Cup title

Their non-participation resulted in howls of indignation from traditionalists and arguably undermined the competition.

United, for their part, have always maintained the decision was made at the behest of the FA to help with their bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

The 1999-2000 season also saw the FA Cup brought forward in the fixture list, with the third round played in December and the final no longer bringing down the curtain on the English season.

The competition schedule was restored to its former position the following season, but there is no question that tinkering with a formula long held as sacrosanct did little to enhance the credibility of the competition.

Furthermore, purists argued that sponsoring the FA Cup has damaged the status of a competition regarded as timeless and a bastion of tradition in the face of football's ever increasing commercialism.

IS THE FA CUP STILL AS IMPORTANT AS IT WAS?

A lot of people in England might think that the magic has well and truly left the FA Cup but opinion overseas would suggest otherwise.

Steve Perryman was an FA Cup winner in 1981, the year in which Argentine Ricardo Villa scored a brilliant goal for Tottenham in their replay win over Manchester City.

Steve Perryman
Perryman is an FA Cup winner

He is no doubt that to the rest of the world the FA Cup remains the world's most famous competition.

"I was in Japan for seven years and over there they really respected English football and a big part of the reason was because of the FA Cup," said Perryman.

"I had a great career, more than 1,000 games, and all people talk to me about is the 1981 Cup win against Man City and Ricky Villa's goal.

"Ricky gets invited back from Argentina at about this time every year on the strength of his goal. He says he is more lauded in England for the FA Cup than in Argentina for the World Cup.

"We are great at knocking ourselves and our traditions but the rest of the world are in awe of us."




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