It seems that there's barely a round of the FA Cup these days when the media in the days after its conclusion is filled with stories of record low attendances, mangers naming weakened teams and players looking disinterested, with pundits calling for it to be amended in format or even scrapped, saying that it is now longer relevant or significant in modern football.
That's rubbish. Ask the 3,500 Stoke fans who paid £22 each to watch their side play in the competition at Manchester City on Saturday, the same fans that sung their hearts out all match for their team, the same fans who walked through the streets of Manchester after the game elated after the players they support earned a good draw and a replay as a result. Ask the same Stoke fans who watched the draw for the next round a day later and were gutted when the Potters were drawn to potentially face favourites Chelsea away from home in the quarter final, significantly reducing their chances of making a prestigious Wembley final. Maybe the prawn sandwich munching fans of Manchester United and Arsenal don't feel the same way, but I believe they do. I read a great number of comments from Arsenal fans after Stoke knocked them out of the competition in the fourth round and they were generally very, very disappointed. For the fans of clubs like Stoke, the FA Cup brings a brilliant chance of glory on a huge stage, inspiring dreams of last minute Wembley winners and making the dullest season interesting.
What of the fans of teams like York City? In the third round, 4,000 of the Conference club’s fans made the journey to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, all splashing out to go to the game just two days into the new year, a time when nobody’s feeling particularly flushed. How about the fans of Barrow? More than 8,000 of them went to watch their team play at Sunderland but their average home gate is less than 1,300. Only the FA Cup, providing the chance to visit the big Premier League stadia and watch your team take on the players you see on Match of the Day every week, can result in such a dramatic surge in interest in non-league teams.
For the fans therefore, whether their dream is to see Abdoulaye Faye lift the trophy in front of 90,000 people at Wembley, or to see Neil Barrett head their side into an unlikely lead at a top flight ground, the FA Cup’s far from insignificant; it’s simply brilliant.