There is an air of desperation about the protestations of the media outlets who broadcast the FA Cup to ensure the competition remains ‘special’ and ‘magic’, despite 15 years of its treatment by the FA and Premier League clubs that suggest they disagree. Tom Simmonds was hoping for a third round draw which would lend some substance to the mythology. We didn’t get one.
Broadcasters with the FA Cup rights generally don’t help themselves with their choices of games to televise. Last year, I wrote decrying the BBC’s decision to screen Tottenham Hotspur vs. Leicester City live instead of Oxford vs. Swansea – a tie that contained a basic ingredient of the FA Cup’s appeal. What would you rather watch? An upwardly-mobile lower division side at home to a struggling top division side? Or, two Premier League title-chasers playing out a phoney war which neither of them looked particularly bothered about? The fact Oxford managed to beat Swansea so thrillingly validates my view a year on. I expect similarly unimaginative scheduling this time around though, and to be fair to the decision makers, Monday night’s draw gives them precious little raw material to work with.
The draw features only three Premier League clubs away to sides from lower divisions. Arsenal’s trip to Deepdale to face Preston North End is the only tie in the whole draw to really capture the imagination. This game will probably be the highlight of Preston’s season and they play host to a side whose refusal to keep pace with the Premier League’s financial heavyweights, while the irrelevance in the Champions League has forced them to prioritise the FA Cup in recent years. This game contains a lot of the key ingredients, as both sides should be taking it seriously. It will be on TV, and so it should be.
We then start to encounter the uninspiring. Last season’s beaten finalists Crystal Palace being dispatched to face Bolton Wanderers at the Macron is an interesting fixture, given Bolton are flying high in League One and Palace are in atrocious form. If Palace have an eye on prioritising their Premier League relegation fight, this one could be ripe for an upset to occur, which should also interest the schedulers. Millwall vs. Bournemouth appeals less given that Bournemouth will fancy their chances of attacking a Lions side who have proved highly allergic to keeping clean sheets this season. While The Den can still be an intimidating place for opposing teams, this fixture will struggle to capture the imagination in SE16 given how recently this game was a bog-standard league fixture.
However, it’s the presence of the ratings-winning behemoths which threatens to stupefy the TV coverage. While the winners of the Notts County vs. Peterborough and Plymouth Argyle vs. Newport County replays will be delighted with the paydays their trips to Stamford Bridge and Anfield respectively will give them, the big clubs being at home will render them inedible as TV fodder.
Which brings us to Manchester United, who always seem to be on TV regardless of who they play. No doubt the outlet who chooses Reading’s trip to Old Trafford – and one of them will – will dress it up in a massive fur coat in the absence of it having any knickers. I suppose that Jaap Stam’s return to Salford as Reading’s gaffer will lend it a little more human interest, though this is a fixture which is only of interest to fans of either club. Fair enough if United have enough armchair fans to justify showing this live, but the media shouldn’t insult our intelligence in its coverage by claiming showing this live is about anything other than ratings. We can also assume that West Ham vs. Manchester City will be shown for similar reasons, though at least this has more stardust surrounding it. While there are loads of us who think that Cambridge vs. Leeds would be a more interesting prospect than either game, we have also given up hope that TV companies will ever think like supporters.
However, the underwhelming draws received by the non-league clubs are the real nail in the coffin of this draw. Barrow are at least at home, and their hosting of Rochdale would’ve been a good candidate for coverage if it were a first or second round game. Dangling a trip to Brentford in front of Eastleigh or Halifax, or Wycombe in front of Stourbridge, lowers the stakes of the replays considerably. While Sutton vs. AFC Wimbledon is a nice local derby, it’s not going to capture the imagination of either the broadcasters or viewers. These draws just give the TV people an excuse for lazy scheduling, which is harder to argue with given the paucity of options.
Of course, what my griping doesn’t extend to is a call to rig the draw. That cannot happen, and it would be the final nail in the competition’s coffin if that were to happen. Instead, we’ll just have to bemoan our luck and say “maybe next year…” in hope of something more inspiring appearing then. Some traditions in football are forever after all.
What ties, if any, in the third round are capturing your imagination?
Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth