To those of a certain vintage, the FA Cup 3rd Round and its preceding draw are highlights of the football calendar. Sixty-four teams of all shapes and sizes thrown together in a velvet bag with no seedings to foul up the chances of a small club seizing their moment on the first weekend of every year.
However, in more recent years, the FA Cup has been diluted by the long shadow of television, a lack of prize money to entice the big guns, an already hectic football calendar, the Football Association’s desire to meddle with the tournament, and we could probably go on and name many more reasons to boot too…
This weekend, a total of 132 team changes were made by the 19 Premier League sides in FA Cup 3rd Round action on Saturday and Sunday – that’s 6.95 alterations on average per-side. Only four top-flight sides made fewer than five changes and Sheffield United fielded an entirely different starting XI for their 2-1 win over National League outfit Fylde.
Blades boss Chris Wilder admitted the early stages of the FA Cup had lost the appeal of years gone by, saying, “It’s certainly lost a touch in the build-up to it. You never used to see any changes in the 3rd Round. But the introduction, rise and growth of the Premier League means that’s by far the biggest competition in this country. I hope people understand why we made 11 changes.”
Only the most traditionalist of supporter could find flaws in Wilder’s logic. But it’s not just the top-tier where teams are looking to rest, rotate and invest focus in league action; the 23 Championship clubs made a total of 166 alterations to their starting sides with 20 changes alone in the all-Championship tie between Charlton and West Brom.
Understandably, attendances are down, as are wagers. The sheer scale of the unknown is an easy off-putter for punters and bettors are best advised to look elsewhere in their search for profit. When the 4th Round rolls around later this month, there’ll still be plenty of standard league football to enjoy from the Football League and that’s where my sole focus will reside.
Few sides enjoyed a more profitable festive period than Middlesbrough. Four successive Championship victories were followed by a richly-deserved 1-1 draw with a strong Tottenham side in Sunday’s FA Cup 3rd Round showdown at the Riverside Stadium.
Head coach Jonathan Woodgate used the word ‘pride’ repeatedly post-match and was proud of his players for their efforts. Sure, there were plenty of nervy moments as Spurs pressed for a winner, but Middlesbrough’s recent resurgence ensured the hosts were reasonably comfortable, composed and confident throughout the cup clash.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround too. Having been thrashed 4-0 by Leeds in late November, valid questions were being asked about Woodgate’s role, leadership and suitability for the job. Four points were collected from the following three games and the Teessiders were treading water, heading towards an utterly dismal Christmas.
However, the second-half battle back against Stoke has inspired the upturn in fortunes. The club have overcome West Brom away in their recent revival and are now safely nestled in mid-table – eight points off an improbable top-six berth. Meanwhile, the only goal Boro have leaked in a four-game sequence came against the beaten Champions League finalists.
Last week the club brought in Manchester City pair Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha on loan deals to pep up their attack but it’s Ashley Fletcher whose been earning recent plaudits in forward areas. The 24-year-old is in the form of his career, ending a 13-game stretch without a goal, to hit six goals in 11 outings, including four in his last five fixtures.
And in defensive areas, Woodgate’s somehow masterminding Man of the Match displays out of midfielder-by-trade Jonny Howson at centre-half. The ex-Leeds man was instrumental in a back-three alongside Paddy McNair and Dael Fry in the side’s 3-4-2-1 that was missing arguably the league’s best keeper, their captain, their vice-captain and their record signing.
This isn’t Middlesbrough’s best XI on paper. There’s plenty of square pegs filling round holes but as key playing personnel return to the fold in coming weeks, plus the additions of Roberts and Nmecha, the extra options afforded to Woodgate should only strengthen the Teessiders resolve as they make a bid for a top-half finish, or potentially even more.
Boro are 5/2 to clinch a top-half place come May and a 25/1 shot to conclude the campaign in the play-off positions. If Woodgate’s charges can earn a certain degree of consistency from their recent performances, neither price should be scoffed at.
Millwall sit seventh and resume league action this weekend a solitary point outside the Championship play-off places. The Lions’ threat for a top-six finish deserves to be taken seriously, especially so since Gary Rowett stepped into the hot-seat at The Den.
Newport were swiped aside 3-0 in Saturday’s FA Cup tie, with the Bermondsey boys previously dispatching struggling Luton and in-form Brentford at their South London base in impressive style. However, it’s the club’s upsurge in away performance levels (W3-D2-L1) that’s arguably most intriguing as the Lions eye an unexpected top-six berth.
The former Birmingham boss has implemented a rigid 3-4-3 system that’s built around giving Jed Wallace a free role from the right of the attacking trio, supporting Tom Bradshaw and Aiden O’Brien. The former Wolves schemer is attracting Premier League interest for his match-winning displays and adds the required flair to settle tight encounters.
The Lions haven’t yet failed to score under Rowett and the 45-year-old coach has also tightened the ship with a more organised, back-to-basics outlook at the back. The capital club have kept four clean sheets in 13 league encounters, shipped more than a solitary strike just four times under the current leadership, and never more than twice.
Millwall in their current guise are worthy top-six candidates. Under Rowett, the Lions are averaging 1.92 points per-game (W7-D4-L2) and if they can keep hold of Wallace, the 9/2 quotes on a place in the play-offs is bordering on insulting considering the evidence available. Next up, a return to Stoke for Rowett on Saturday…