For years I have believed that the FA Cup is essentially meaningless in the modern game. I have never bought into the hype about a trip to Wembley to lift a trophy, when a higher league finish is likely to yield greater financial gains and could be seen as a greater achievement, highlighting the depth and durability of a squad.
I have never enjoyed feeling so apathetic towards a competition that has provided so many clubs, including my own, with the most memorable moments in their history. But, having grown up in an era where the Premier League is the be all and end all of domestic competition, not being bothered about cup success has always been my default setting.
That was, until Tuesday. Watching Sunderland lose to Everton at the Stadium of Light in their quarter-final replay made me realise that I, along with everyone else there, did care. The cup is easily dismissed as superfluous when you exit in the early stages, but when the prospect of victory is dangled tantalisingly in front of you then you take it seriously.
This was the first time in my life that I had attended a match of this nature and, for once, I dared to dream of Wembley and even paid attention to the articles citing the similarities with great triumph over the mighty Leeds in 1973.
And when met with the defeat that had barely been contemplated beforehand, the crowd was as dejected as it had been in some time. Losing a potentially season-defining match produces different emotions to the relegations and derby defeats that are perhaps more regular parts of the football experience for many of us. The sudden dashing of a city’s hopes and the fulfilling of another’s dreams is something unique to cup competition.
Much as I longed for the 37,000 Mackems in the ground to be cheering come full time, the sight of 6,000 jubilant Evertonians away to my left was an indication of just how much the FA Cup can still mean.
So yes, the magic of the Cup lives on, but how do we measure it in relation to the league?
For one, a cup run can hurt a side’s league form, or can at least be a contributing factor. Birmingham, Portsmouth, and (more importantly) the University of York’s men’s footballers have all suffered relegation alongside brave cup runs in recent times.
And, with the financial gains far lower and more uncertain, the prudent businessmen among us will always put the league first, particularly if Champions League football is a realistic aim for the side concerned.
That brings me neatly to Liverpool. Kenny Dalglish’s side can walk away from this season with two trophies, but could also finish outside the European spots again and with a disastrous record at Anfield to boot. With over £100m spent since the Scot took over last January, would two domestic cups and nothing more be an adequate return?
I’m sure few fans would turn their noses up at such a prospect given the lack of recent silverware in the Anfield trophy cabinet, but the real question is how well it would set them up for next season. Without the allure of the Champions League, Liverpool will not be able to attract the calibre of player necessary to propel them back to where they were for so long.
I don’t see Dalglish losing his job over it, but his status as an Anfield legend probably contributes more to his job security than his cup success does. Were the likes of Hodgson, Benitez or Houllier in charge, then I imagine they would be under considerably more pressure to perform.
We must conclude, then, that the FA Cup still has the magic that has made it an almost mythical part of English football, particularly for mid-ranking Premier League sides that would otherwise be consigned to a season of safe mediocrity. But, when push comes to shove, the league will always take priority as the competition that will likely define a club’s future direction.