The Cup Overflows
As long as I've been following football, the FA Cup third round has been the perfect way to blow away the Christmas and New Year cobwebs. Except for that weird 1999-2000 season when Manchester United withdrew because of the World Club Championship and the third round was played pre-Xmas, with Darlington reinstated as "lucky losers". Those were tough times for the venerable old trophy.
I'm old enough to remember non-League Hereford beating Newcastle in 1972 and my first weekend at BBC Sport coincided with Sutton beating Coventry in 1989. By January 1992, I was editing Middlesbrough 2-1 Man City for Match of the Day. Boro were outside the top flight at the time so it was something of a shock: I thought I'd be cutting a luxuriously long edit of the lead match until news reached my edit channel that Wrexham (92nd the previous season) had just beaten reigning champions Arsenal.
Things have changed somewhat over the years - the last really extraordinary third round upset was arguably Shrewsbury beating Everton five years ago, and live TV and police-influenced kick-off times mean the third round is now spread over a full weekend.
Conversely, better pitches and penalties after the first replay means the whole round's usually all wrapped up within 10 or 11 days. The Hereford v Newcastle replay was actually delayed by the weather until February all those years ago, and conditions were on the heavy side even then. Then again, given the gloomy long-term weather forecast this year, I'd better not speak too soon...
Another annual treat - and one we won't be able to savour again for a while given that we lose the FA contract at the end of this season - is a multitude of fans disagreeing vehemently with our choice of live ties! I've already experienced some such feedback in these blogs and elsewhere, and I fully expect some more in the next few days.
We have to pick three out of the four live ties, TV schedules and police permitting, with Sky having one live tie (though they do have second pick). There is some understandable resistance to our choosing all-Premiership ties, and certainly two years ago when we went for three ties with Premiership sides visiting lower league opposition, we had a fantastic weekend which included two classics in Luton 3-5 Liverpool and Leicester 3-2 Spurs.
Sky have picked the Luton v Liverpool rematch this year, and we've picked two such ties again in Burnley v Arsenal and Stoke v Newcastle. Burnley have had a poor run at home recently, but Turf Moor will be jumping, and even if Arsenal rotate their squad, they are nearly always involved in good football matches. Stoke v Newcastle could scarcely be better poised editorially: a high-flying Championship side hosting an under-pressure Premiership club with a huge FA Cup tradition.
Which brings us to our third live tie: Villa v Man Utd. Yes, we have shown this tie before in recent years: last season and the dramatic 2-3 in 2002 (but not the 2003 tie - we were live at Yeovil v Liverpool that day). And yes, both sides are in the Premiership. That said, it is 6th v 2nd in the Premiership, both are in great form and Villa can host the game in a slot which suits the greatest number of potential viewers. We genuinely think that across the three ties, we've achieved a reasonable balance.
That's not to say that we don't understand other viewpoints. This time last year we picked non-league Tamworth versus Championship Norwich as one of our live games. There is a similar fixture this year in Chasetown v Cardiff. Unfortunately, the authorities and broadcasters need decisions as soon as possible after the draw. For 10 days this tie was Port Vale or Chasetown v Cardiff, and with the greatest respect to Vale, there wouldn't have been wide appeal had they won the replay as expected. Furthermore, there was another delay, virtually until Xmas, before it was confirmed that the Scholars Ground could stage the tie, with a lunchtime kick-off. I've already blogged about the special MOTD Live experience we had at Chasetown in 2005, and we're doing the next best thing this week by sending a full BBC multi-camera Outside Broadcast to their big day for our Saturday night highlights show at 2245 GMT.
The other tie a number of people have mentioned is Chelsea v QPR. This will be a full-blooded local derby, but we normally prefer it if the lower-ranked club is at home, where they tend to have a better chance. Should Rangers hold Chelsea to a draw, Loftus Road would be a leading contender to stage a live replay. Ipswich v Portsmouth, Bristol City v Boro and Huddersfield v Birmingham were all drawn the right way round, so to speak, would all have made decent live matches, and will all be covered in the highlights show.
However, it can be argued that a home win in any of those games would not send out the same wider shock waves as one at Burnley or Stoke. And that's coming from a Boro fan who will be following events at Ashton Gate with some trepidation from a truck at Villa Park!