THERE is a Charles Bukowski poem about a seven-year-old boy who is travelling on a train along the Pacific Ocean.
After staring out of the window for a while the boy looks up to the nearest adult and says, ‘It’s not beautiful’.
The man is startled to his core. For the first time in his life, he too notices that the mass of blue sea is in fact not particularly beautiful; that he’s merely been conditioned to believe that it is.
Can the same be true of the FA Cup? Have we been so often railroaded into sentimentality that it feels sacrilegious to hold anything but warm, fuzzy love for the competition, sheepskin coats and giant-killing possibilities and all?
Perhaps. But then we recall Kidderminster Harriers beating Reading in the previous round and remember the response of all those present. The unbridled joy and disbelief of being immersed in history pinking up their faces on a chilly January afternoon. It’s very easy to let cynicism go when picturing those scenes, and to cede that the world may have substantially changed since gasfitters and postmen grabbed the headlines, scoring famous goals on muddy fields. And football has certainly altered beyond all recognition. But that feeling hasn’t, and what it means. It never will.
Does that mean a reasonable case can be put forward for Kiddy to continue their cup exploits and stun West Ham at the Aggborough this Saturday? Absolutely not, because being able to do so would be entirely counterintuitive. After all, if the underdogs had even the slenderest hope in hell then an astonishing, illogical victory wouldn’t send them into folklore.
Yet that is not to say that certain potential upsets across the round shouldn’t be deemed plausible, if not outright predicted. Granted, they will be considered surprises rather than shocks and granted, no entry into cup folklore will await them. But still, there are possible outcomes this weekend that will remind us that the corny cliches of the cup are corny and clichéd for a reason. All we need is the nerve to back them.
Take Middlesbrough’s trip to Old Trafford on Friday evening. The Boro faithful deserve to see a big performance from their team, after making a habit of exiting knockout competitions early in recent seasons. Under Chris Wilder they might just get one.
Since his appointment back in early November, the North-East club have lost only once on their travels and have tightened up at the back, conceding only seven times in 11 Championship games. Up front Andraz Sporar has scored four in his last six, the on-loan Slovenian finding a groove, and it’s worth noting too that Wilder led his former club Sheffield United to back-to-back quarter finals in recent seasons.
As for the hosts there are positives to factor in for sure with a number of players set to return, including Victor Lindelof and Jadon Sancho. It is pertinent too that Manchester United last lost a FA Cup tie at home in the spring of 2015.
But in the Premier League, the Reds have been defeated ten times on home soil since the start of last term while there has been scant evidence of a revival under Ralf Rangnick, instead it’s mostly been muddled. Interspersed with moments of individual brilliance United remain a haphazard beast and they are eminently beatable right now.
United have been haemorrhaging goals from set-pieces but let’s keep this one simple. Boro are 8/1 to prevail in Manchester and that’s a great price.
Due west, on Merseyside, another possible upset tantalizes with Cardiff City heading to the other top-flight giant that is always offered up when a triumphant lower league player is asked, ‘Who do you want to get in the next round?’
The narrative surrounding Liverpool this season concerns a new-found importance placed on the domestic cups but with the Carabao final now reached and the title race tightening a little will Jurgen Klopp revert to his usual strategy and play the kids? Their previous round suggests so with four teenagers starting against Shrewsbury along with a 21-year-old debutant and with Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Naby Keita and Divock Origi all unavailable – and Thiago a serious doubt – we can expect one or two unfamiliar names on the team-sheet.
To what extent this will weaken the Reds is debatable because they did after all comfortably brush aside the Shrews, accruing 83% possession all told. Cardiff though will be a much tougher ask.
Cardiff City 2-1 Nottingham Forest.
The Bluebirds are back! pic.twitter.com/J1rqdIhTPa
— Propaganda Wales????????????????????????????⚽️ (@PropagandaWales) January 30, 2022
The Bluebirds may well be struggling in the Championship but looked excellent in beating Nottingham Forest last week with Manchester City loanee Tommy Doyle running the show from midfield. Furthermore, if the contest is still tight around the hour-mark the Welsh side will be greatly encouraged from their propensity to score late on during 2021/22. Remarkably, 25 of their 30 league goals have come in the second period.
Additionally, they pose a serious threat from set-pieces with ten of their Championship goals coming courtesy of defenders. Chelsea is the only other team across the top two divisions whose defenders have reached double figures.
More raised eyebrows may lie in store at Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace entertain bottom tier Hartlepool.
The Monkey Hangers are difficult to beat since Graeme Lee took the reins at the beginning of December and though only four sides have scored less frequently in League Two their admirable resolve is tailer-made for a challenge such as this. On five occasions in their last ten games, Hartlepool have conceded first but to their enormous credit they managed to mine two wins and a draw from those setbacks. Four goalless stalemates in recent weeks meanwhile are a testament to their newly discovered fortitude.
For all that Palace have progressed under Patrick Vieira they have shipped in eight in their last three home games. A 1-1 score-draw after 90 minutes offers up 13/1.
The final decent shout for an upset lies with Wigan, whose record in this competition this past decade is one a mid-table Premier League side would be proud of. The 2013 winners – who later went on to reach a semi and a quarter-final – are unbeaten in 11 and firmly on a promotion charge from League One but they will be praying Will Keane recovers from a hamstring problem as they head to Stoke. The Irish international has scored 14 in 25 league games this season.
The Potters, by comparison, are mired in poor form, winning only two of their last ten and worse still, are accepting their fates too easily. Michael O’Neill’s side have gone behind 13 times in 2021/22, turning only one of them around in their favour.
To summarize: It is perfectly possible to balance out sentimentality with cold hard logic as regards to the FA Cup. And sometimes, wonderfully, the two can merge.