Why Weaken?

Dave Woodhall looks at FA Cup weekend and ponders…

To anyone who harbours a love of football as it should be, there’s nothing to touch the romance of FA Cup third round day. Villa’s game against Bristol Rovers was the archetypal tie at this stage of the competition – a side almost at the bottom of the league at home to a Premier League team struggling to find their form. Add a packed, tight ground and a gluepot of a pitch and every possible component of the classic cup tie was here. No wonder the TV cameras were present.

The only trouble was that there was little chance of an upset.  Alex McLeish didn’t dare risk playing a weakened side and consequently the gap between the teams was too great to be bridged, no matter how hard Rovers battled. They gave their all at the start, but once Villa had found their stride and gone ahead through a goal from Marc Albrighton the game was little more than a training exercise.

Second half additions from Agbonlahor and Clark (a superb solo effort) put the tie beyond doubt, even if Villa did have a few moments of minor worry when conceding a goal in stoppage time then a penalty a few seconds later. Fortunately Brad Guzan made a good save to once more show that Shay Given hasn’t got a guaranteed place in the side once he’s fit again.

Elsewhere, attendances provided more evidence that the cup has been seriously downgraded in the eyes of both clubs and their supporters. Blues’ crowd of 14,594 was bad enough but for the Albion to attract just 12,454, including a healthy following of Cardiff supporters, was very poor. It wasn’t just a local problem either, with over 20,000 empty seats at Newcastle’s tie against Blackburn and the presence of around 5,000 Tamworth supporters failing to boost Everton’s crowd beyond 27,564. Had Villa been playing Rovers at home, and assuming it hadn’t been on TV, there would have had to be some heavy discounting of tickets, and a decent away following, to have pushed the crowd above 25,000.

Of course, supporters can be excused for not turning up to these games with their clubs fielding weakened sides, which is something I struggle to comprehend. Blues have an excuse as they still harbour hopes of a play-off place and their players have been in more games than most this season due to their Europa League run. Albion and Newcastle in particular, though, I just don’t understand. Neither club is in any great danger of being relegated, and neither will they be in the hunt for Europa qualification – which in itself seems about as highly-regarded as the Zenith Data Systems Cup back in the eighties. Both clubs have failed to win a trophy for decades so why they should treat the FA Cup so lightly is a mystery.  They surely can’t think the prospect of a decent FA Cup run is less appealing than finishing a couple of places higher in the league. Sadly, they probably do.

Villa have got Everton on Saturday, in what the club are marketing as the most-played fixture in English football. It’s good to see that in this aspect, at least, we remain aware of our own heritage even if it is only to shift more tickets.