It’s easy to believe the FA Cup has lost a bit of its shine after Arsene Wenger lifted the famous trophy three times in four years but still lost his job because it was the ‘only’ thing he won; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t clubs going into this year’s third round desperate to reach Wembley.
Wenger’s situation was unique. Through innovation and an attractive style of football he raised expectations in north London so high that when the rest of the world caught up, and in recent times overtook them, he was left to look like the villain.
Older Arsenal fans will tell you that before Wenger, and certainly before George Graham, the Gunners lived for the glamour and drama of the FA Cup and relished those days in the national spotlight when the league almost always brought mid-table football and end of season disappointment.
Between 1974 and 1988 Arsenal only finished inside the top four on four occasions and dipped as low as 16th and 17th. But having won the FA Cup 13 times in their history the famous trophy has always been in their blood, even if it is no longer so unanimously appreciated.
The modern obsession with the Champions League, which made finishing fourth a trophy in itself, has taken some lustre off the world’s favourite cup competition. In fact, for many teams in the lower half of the Premier League, finishing fourth from bottom is a far bigger reward.
For that reason we will no doubt see a string of clubs, including those with nothing else to play for, put out weakened sides this weekend, filling their starting 11 with reserves and youth team prospects.
It’s a sad sight for FA Cup romantics, but there remains hope. For some clubs, those in the middle especially, the FA Cup still shines like a beacon of hope in an otherwise predictable season.
So, here is the ‘top six’ of clubs that desperately want to win the FA Cup in 2019.
It doesn’t include Tottenham, even though they are synonymous with the FA Cup and desperate for a trophy, and that’s because the year doesn’t end in a ‘one’ which gives them no chance of course — and they have a Carabao Cup semi-final next week against Chelsea and a Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund to prioritise, not to mention a title tilt.
The same goes for Maurizio Sarri’s Blues whose primary focus is the top four, especially after missing out on it cost both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte their jobs.
But, surprise, surprise, it does include Arsenal. Some things never change….
After years of laughing at Arsenal for only winning the FA Cup, and sacking their own manager Louis van Gaal days after lifting it in 2016, Manchester United are in a position where they would kill to get to Wembley again.
The way that fans have greeted the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer shows they are desperate to shake off the gloom created by Jose Mourinho’s dour football and see the club go back to its roots. And those roots are very firmly planted in the FA Cup.
United have won the trophy 12 times and have regularly sprinkled the tournament with their own glitter, producing some of its most memorable moments.
An FA Cup victory for Solksjaer would give him the best possible chance of keeping his job next season and it would be a big surprise if he didn’t feel the vibes from the Stretford End and go full out for it, despite a hectic Premier League and Champions League schedule.
After all, what else can Manchester United, who lost to Chelsea in the final last year, expect to win this season?
Trevor Brooking will tell you he still dines out on the back of his winner in the FA Cup final of 1980 and the Hammers are in need of some extra glamour this season to keep fans onside.
To say the move to the London Stadium has been a difficult one is a huge understatement; at times it has created an ugly and uncomfortable atmosphere in the stands and led to accusations that the club has lost its way and forgotten its heritage.
Like Manchester United, that heritage has roots in the FA Cup. They won it against Arsenal 39 years ago and also reached the final in 2006, losing to Liverpool. There were wins in 1964 and 1975, too.
In the modern day, Manuel Pellegrini has done a decent job of turning things around after a difficult start this season and in Felipe Anderson he has a player capable of lighting up an FA Cup final.
A good run in the tournament could be the springboard to something big for West Ham.
After spending big in the transfer market, Everton have created a level of expectation which is almost impossible to match this season; and it doesn’t help that countless managers and pundits continue to describe them as the team most likely to upset the top four.
The reality is they won’t be anywhere near that just yet — and Marco Silva’s side have lost four of their last five games.
In fact, the Portuguese has a worse record than predecessor Sam Allardyce, who was unceremoniously sacked.
An FA Cup run is exactly what he — and the club — needs to build a new level of belief and help Everton progress. Even though they aren’t playing well at present, the Toffees have the players to make an impact on a good day, especially if Richarlison grabs the opportunity with both hands.
Good old Arsenal, as the song goes. When it comes to the FA Cup you always know they’ll be there – and there’s no reason to think this season will be any different.
Unai Emery has gained a positive response from fans at the Emirates for what he’s achieved so far but pretty soon supporters are going to wake up and realise their team is still in fifth place, just like under Wenger; still can’t defend, just like under Wenger, and still can’t beat the big boys, just like the last five years. What can keep them on-side? The FA Cup, of course.
When you haven’t won a major trophy in more than 49 years and the only thing to look forward to each season is finishing fifth from bottom in the Premier League after another barren transfer window, it’s not difficult see why the FA Cup becomes a Holy Grail.
For Newcastle fans, the prospect of an FA Cup run is a dream — and you can only imagine the noise levels at Wembley if Rafa Benitez and co made it there.
At a time when owner Mike Ashley is trying to sell the club it would also be a huge boost off the pitch and demonstrate to any prospective buyers the potential on offer.
Newcastle have a proud FA Cup history, too. They have played in 13 finals in all and won it six times, the last time in 1955 against Manchester City.
Their last sight of silverware, despite twice finishing runners-up in the Premier League, was the European Fairs Cup in 1969, so success is long overdue. An FA Cup victory on the 50th anniversary of the last trophy? That would be special.
It’s not often that the FA Cup is won by a side outside of the top-flight. Millwall reached the final in 2004 and Cardiff in 2008 — but West Ham remain the last lower division team to actually lift the trophy 39 years ago.
But there are some giants in the Championship this year and none bigger than former European Cup winners Villa, whose ground has hosted umpteen FA Cup semi-finals even if they haven’t been in so many themselves.
Dean Smith’s side are focused on trying to get back in the Premier League, of course, but this is the new manager’s first season and he hasn’t had a lot of time to turn things around. The reality is Villa look excellent on their day but a defensive nightmare on a bad day, and they currently sit in 10th place in the Championship, five points adrift of the play-off places. The best hope for self-confessed Villa fan Smith to make a long-term impact? An FA Cup run to get everyone enthused for next season.