It took two replays, one snow blizzard and no goalkeeping gloves, but the FA Cup may just have been saved thanks to Tuesday night’s two third round replays.
As TV spectacles go, up until last night the FA Cup third round had been a mess of poor scheduling and all-too-familiar all-Premier League ties.
Bafflingly, despite five days of football from Friday evening to Tuesday night, the 3pm live TV blackout on Saturday afternoons meant neither the BBC nor BT Sport were able to show an FA Cup match when everyone actually wanted to watch it.
It’s appropriate, then, that the two best games of the round have turned out to be replays, when no one beyond the two sets of fans know a match is on until they plonk themselves in front of the TV after work.
West Ham United v Everton showed what happens when Premier League clubs actually remember how to fight and scrap for a win. Everton were 1-0 down already when their midfielder Aiden McGeady was sent off, but took the game into extra time thanks to an equalising Kevin Mirallas free-kick.
The scoreline was 2-2 after 120 minutes, leaving Hammers goalkeeper Adrian to save first Steven Naismith’s penalty and then the day by scoring the winning spot kick in a 9-8 shootout win. (He even remembered to take his gloves off before converting the winner.)
“It was nothing like a Premier League game if I’m honest with you”, West Ham boss Sam Allardyce said afterwards. High praise indeed for a tournament that has struggled to inspire the top flight in recent years.
One Cup tie like this was enough, but Tuesday night saw another replay make the FA Cup fizz again.
Wolves v Fulham, already a blizzard of emotions following the death of former Wolves owner Sir Jack Hayward, ended in a literal blizzard as snow sagged on the Molineux pitch. Hugo Rodallega scored the winning penalty for Fulham, setting up an away fourth round tie with Premier League Sunderland.
Do these riveting ties prove that replays should be abolished? It would certainly have added extra urgency to what was a flabby third round weekend. There was a desperation in Tuesday’s double extra time, a white-of-the-eyes fear of losing that you just don’t get if you know a replay is on the cards.
Then again, if you take FA Cup replays away, you deny smaller clubs the chance to take a Premier League club “back home”, with all the financial and feel-good rewards that entails.
Perhaps Tuesday was a happy blip, a reminder that the “Magic of the Cup” doesn’t just belong to the hackneyed sales pitch of a TV broadcaster. We’ll find out this Wednesday when Ipswich Town play Southampton (7:30pm, BBC1). Two teams performing above expectation in their respective leagues, yet neither with a recent major Cup honour to their name. The omens are good.