The magic of the cup?

There was ultimately nothing terribly magic about the cup defeat to Sheffield United on Saturday. We did OK, they did a bit better. It was fine. 

There is definitely something different about the FA Cup. I’m not sure that it’s magic, necessarily, although there is something about the 3rd round which girds the loins. Something that takes you back to your childhood. To great cup upsets and hot days in May. Sadly, I suspect, this becomes less and less potent the years pass as football becomes more predictable and the shocks become altogether less shocking. Generations will no longer have the target references they need to make the cup a special thing.

There is the novelty of your opponents and the sudden death of the game. The prospect of playing a big team, although the chances of drawing one remains remote at the best of times. Often the FA Cup is a case of looking beyond the immediate; not who we’re playing at the time. Let’s beat this lot and draw Manchester United, let’s beat this lot and make the final, and so on. There’s the weirdly fatalistic nature of supporting a team in a cup game; we all know that misery of defeat is all but inevitable, yet we still get excited the prospect.

There is a different atmosphere in the ground; the home fans act like an away crowd; relentlessly supportive in the face of a formidable and common foe rather than irritable and agitated at every wayward pass. I was sat in a different place, in line with the 10 metre line of the rugby pitch, among different people, giving me a different experience. I enjoyed the novelty. It did feel like something special.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the unusual nature of the game might have an impact on the referee. Everyone in a football ground is acting like on impulse. Fans, players, managers. It seems unlikely that referees stay in a zen like state for 90 minutes whilst all around are losing their heads. They’re not Jedi Knights.

In a cup game, where there are two teams with different skills levels and styles; whether that’s real or perceived, the referee has a challenge on his hands. Is the lower league defender more likely to be a clumsy oaf? Will the striker from a higher league be able to read the line better, will the higher league defender be able to time their tackle more effectively, and so on. The requirement to interpret what he sees is much higher. It’s harder than the league, where the two teams are broadly of the same skill level.

I don’t think that the referee ultimately affected the result on Saturday, but he did make a right meal of the game. The free-kick decision against Jake Wright for the first goal looked pretty straight forward to me. I was in line with it and I thought the referee got it right. However, thereafter, he suffocated the game with his decision making. Not least treating us like children bullying the clever kids.

The score was unfair, but the result was a reflection of precisely what the tie was about – an OK 2nd division team beaten by an OK 1st Division team. Their collection of low profile ex-Premier League players was evidence that they’re talking about a team with greater resources than ours. They say in the cup that anyone can beat anyone else on their day. That would be true if there was any evidence, however shocks are becoming less frequent and less remarkable, so in the main results go with form.  

I struggle to get excited by Sheffield United, they fall into a category of teams which are, apparently, both ‘big’ and at the same time perpetually unsuccessful. I have no reference points to like or hate them.  They just seem to drift around somewhere between the lower reaches of the Premier League (although that’s looking an increasingly distant prospect) and, as they are now, League 1.

We looked OK considering what we had to deal with. Justin Richards, like Josh Parker last week looked like spare parts in the team. No fault of theirs, Constable is a pretty dependable part of the unit; it’ll take time to understand the system. Time, of course, is something that Richards hasn’t got, so presumably he’ll just need to focus on running around and hoping that he ends up in the right place at the right time. He did that with a reasonable amount of success, with the one clear opportunity he should have put away. He’s basically here for the two league games; we shouldn’t expect much.

But, in the end it all went to form, they had enough in the margins – good, fit players – to ease their way to the win. Danny Wilson made sure they played it cool and professional and allowed the victory to come. In those cases, where everything goes to form, there’s not much you can do.

For all its special appeal, which I fully subscribe to, there are times when the FA Cup leaves you underwhelmed; not angry or frustrated, certainly not elated, it leaves you feeling like, well, if you’re going to lose a game, then it might as well be this one.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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