So it’s that time of year again, the Christmas decorations come down, New Year resolutions are made and broken and the Christmas spirits and chocolates slowly dwindle away. It’s also the time of year for plucky minnows to take a swing at the giants in the 3rd round of the FA Cup.
As an old romantic I do confess to a love for the oldest and most famous cup competition in the world, I also feel angry at its devaluation and continuing degradation largely due to the ravenous growth of the UEFA Champions League. As Leeds fans our dearly beloved cup competition has in recent years given us the full spectrum of emotions, names of vanquished opponents and mighty foes that we have at least reached parity with, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal roll of the tongue. Whilst the bitter name of Histon United will forever stick in our throats like the glutinous mud of their pitch.
The FA Cup stands for everything the faceless bureaucrats of UEFA despise and expunged from their own competitions. For the kids of today it is perhaps unbelievable that the Champions League was once known simply as the European Cup, a competition that had 32 teams and who all of which HAD to be champions of their country before they could compete in the two-legged knockout competition. The giants of Europe had 2 opportunities (not a 6 gamed mini-league) to progress further in the competition and on a few occasions the giants did slip up, hence the fact relative minnows like Malmo from Sweden managed to reach the final at the expense of the European supergiants, a scenario that would eventually become unacceptable by the 1990’s for the incumbent powers of the Nou Camp, Bernabeau and other.
The FA Cup is perhaps more heart-stopping for the big clubs, within ninety minutes ambitions for the whole season can disintegrate into nothing. Premiership teams that have fallen out of the title race, eliminated from the League Cup and Europe find themselves drinking from the last chance saloon and many have fallen from the effects of lower league poison, Leeds United included.
Our 3rd Round opponents this weekend are once again Birmingham City, a team we will be hoping to reverse a miserable run of results that date back to September 2006 and the short reign of a caretaker manager by the name of John Carver.
The two clubs have met on four occasions in the FA Cup, Leeds winning on three of the encounters, most recently in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1998. George Graham resided in the Elland Road ‘hot seat’ back then and his programme notes bemoaned the standard of refereeing, his small but hard-working squad and remained typically low-key on the emergence of a few talented youngsters he was keen to introduce slowly.
At the time of our encounter Leeds were 7th in the Premier League and firm favourites to turn over their rivals from the midlands, a club that had not enjoyed a spell in the top division for over 12 years. Brum brought their fanatical support north in the hope for their own slice of ‘giant killing’, within minutes of settling into their seats they faced disappointment as Rod Wallace scored after only 5 minutes. Hasselbaink, in the midst of a rich vein of form doubled the lead before the half-hour mark and Leeds went into the break firmly in control.
Apathy and the raucous support helped Birmingham back into the game as goals from Ablett and an equaliser nine-minutes from the end by Ndlovu caused a mini pitch invasion by the travelling support. By the time the pitch had been cleared, Leeds had woken up and in the 87th minute the lethal Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink finally extinguished Birmingham’s hopes for an upset.
The next round, a fourth consecutive home tie in the competition saw Leeds finally fall at the quarter final stage to another midlands club Wolves, put to the sword in heart-breaking fashion by Leeds-born Don Goodman.
I hope that our victory in 1998 is repeated and my love affair with the cup continues for a little longer and dismal plans to devalue it more by playing ties midweek never materialise.
Remember you’ve only got one chance in the cup…