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FA Cup never loses magic

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Phil McNulty | 15:00 GMT, Sunday, 4 January 2009

It's that time of the year again - when a much-loved colleague advances with a tabloid in his hand jabbing a finger angrily at dwindling attendances for FA Cup third round matches.

This is then followed up by full reading of every weakened team sent out by Premier League managers who place the great competition low on their list of priorities, with special emphasis on individuals we may never have heard of before, and may never hear of again.

An eagerly-anticipated annual ritual ends when he is confronted with the possibility of his beloved Spurs actually winning this supposedly discredited old pot, and his eyes mist over at the prospect of a day out at Wembley in May.

The message is the same though - the FA Cup, in his eyes, is finished. The glory days, or the glory glory days as he would call them, are gone.

With the greatest of respect to our unidentified cynic - who also mistakenly believes Harry Hill is as funny as an unlanced boil - I cannot disagree more when it comes to the FA Cup.

It is still (in my opinion obviously) a national treasure. It is still a competition that provides lifelong memories if your teams wins it.

It is still the competition that gives you anxiety when your team draws opponents from the lower or non-league, and gives you goosebumps when you enjoy the great victory over more illustrious opposition.

And no weakened team or lower-than-expected attendances will ever change my mind.

There is an almost annual rush to scratch the gloss off the competition, but it still contains the special element (or as it is always described "magic") that sets it apart.

Indeed, since this blog was originally written, the fourth round draw has thrown up a Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield, Manchester United must tackle their FA Cup nemesis Harry Redknapp with Spurs at Old Trafford and there will be an all-east midlands battle between Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Last year's competition had two supposedly low-key semi-finals followed by an even lower key final - but you try telling Portsmouth, West Brom, Barnsley and Cardiff that they were fighting over a devalued trophy.

Remember how the big names such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United dropped like flies to open up last year's tournament?

And Saturday's third round matches once again provided compelling evidence that there will be plenty of stories to tell once the final is played in May.

The FA Cup is alive and kicking. And some big names are being kicked.

Manchester City boss Mark Hughes is unlikely to be wallowing in the romance of the cup after the pressure increased on him to provide meaningful return on a vast investment following a humiliating defeat at home to Nottingham Forest.

Trademark City comedy value was provided by the emergence before kick-off of Wayne Bridge, one of the first symbols of the cash-rich new era under the Abu Dhabi United Group after his somewhat over-priced arrival from Chelsea.

Bridge gave it the usual "glad to be here" thumbs-up before City were almost inevitably pasted in front of their own fans by Forest.

wayne bridge

It is still ludicrously early in Hughes' reign to be writing obituaries, but word will have reached the Eastlands hierarchy about the resounding raspberry that greeted this result, and it will not be regarded as an exit from a lesser tournament or a blessing in disguise.

And what about Southend's draw at Chelsea? What a career-defining moment for Peter Clarke, a journeyman defender who failed to make the grade at Everton but can now keep himself warm forever with the memory of his late equaliser at Stamford Bridge?

Our cynic will point to Stoke's under-strength side at Hartlepool as a sign of the FA Cup's decreasing importance in our football calendar. The words will get carried away on the wind around Victoria Park as celebrations went on long into the night.

It is also a myth that the big clubs are no longer as interested in winning the FA Cup as they once were.

Each member of the so-called elite managerial group, especially Liverpool's Rafael Benitez, Chelsea's Luiz Felipe Scolari and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, would grasp gloriously and gratefully at an FA Cup triumph this season.

And there was no disguising how hurt Sir Alex Ferguson was when Manchester United slipped against Portsmouth in the last eight last season when a repeat of 1999's historic treble was in his sights once more.

At the other end of the scale Histon, Torquay, Kettering and Blyth will bring that wonderful element of the unknown to the next stage of the FA Cup.

So I will avoid my old friend with his attendance figures and team-sheets and just look forward to the guaranteed excitement FA Cup fourth round day will provide.

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