FA Cup is alive and kicking

Making light of the host of vastly expensive international stars aligned against them, the likes of Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic, Bradford City proceeded to take the game emphatically to Chelsea. Nor was it by means of direct route, long ball football. Instead they played with pace, skill and imagination. By Brian Glanville.

Suddenly, surprisingly and inspiringly, the Football Association Cup has returned to life. This after a depressing period in which it, the mother of all competitions, had fallen so starkly out of favour, that the FA bewilderingly couldn’t even find a sponsor for it. As recently as the start of last July, a columnist was lamenting its decline under the bleak heading ‘SCANDAL OF THE FA CUP’S SLOW, SLOW DEATH.’ Whereof he wrote that the incipient 3rd round of the tournament, in which traditionally the clubs of the top two Football League divisions make their bow, would provide the most forgettable Saturday of the football calendar.

Instead it provided arguably the most sensational and dramatic; 4-2 win of humble Bradford City of, what is in all but name, the third division of the English game, against mighty, star-studded Chelsea; and moreover not on their own muddy and uneven ground but at majestic Stamford Bridge itself.

The very nature of the victory was the stuff of legend, for Chelsea in no time at all swept into a 2-0 lead and seemed likely to run up a humiliating record score. Not a romantic bit of it. Making light of the host of vastly expensive international stars aligned against them, the likes of Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic, Bradford City proceeded to take the game emphatically to Chelsea. Nor was it by means of direct route, long ball football. Instead they played with pace, skill and imagination. They scored once and suddenly the game was open. They made it 2-2 and it was plainly in the balance. They then had the temerity to score twice more. So much for the so called Special One, manager Jose Mourinho, and the Russian oligarch billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, whose money had bought them so many stars and so much success.

Bradford City made it three, then made it four. And there was no doubt about their hero of a heroic performance, big Jon Stead, standing six foot three, a classic centre forward now 32 after a career of bewildering ups and downs. A Yorkshireman from Huddersfield who had launched him with huge initial success, sold to Blackburn Rovers who transferred him for some GBP13 million. A goal scoring centre forward of high promise at Huddersfield, things would go wrong, especially when he was transferred to Sunderland, where it all went wrong; many months on and without a single goal, so much so that cruelly offensive T-shirts were worn by the fans, with a slogan mocking his protracted lack of goals. Sweet revenge indeed you might say when in the next round, scoring again as he had in every round so far, he should lead Bradford City at home to success against none other than Sunderland themselves.

They discarded him to Bristol City, whence he found himself back in Yorkshire with Huddersfield Town, with whom last season he made a mere half dozen full appearances, another six as a substitute, scoring a single goal. So his original club allowed him to move the short distance in Yorkshire to Bradford.

Almost as romantic is the story of the man who has kept goal for City from the first round, but only by default. Ben Williams arrived at City from Hibernian in Edinburgh but only after transfers to Millwall and Doncaster Rovers didn’t materialise, leaving him unemployed with two small children. Eventually City’s impressive manager Phil Parkinson — whose City team had knocked Arsenal out of the Football League Cup not long ago, acquired him. But only as back up to a Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, the terms of whose loan forbade him to play in FA Cup ties, and elimination would mean the danger of his being discarded. In the first Cup round against still another Yorkshire team in Halifax Town, City went a goal behind and it looked likely to be two, only for him to make a spectacular save and City to run out the winners. Even when City made progress Williams was to be told that his extension from a game by game contract was dependent on whether City could beat Millwall in a Cup replay and thus face Chelsea in the third round with the resulting extra money.

The victory over Sunderland saw City on their appalling pitch play more the kind of physical game which might have been expected of them at Chelsea. Fierce tackles flew in, Sunderland might well have had a penalty, but with Stead scoring his usual goal against the team where he had been despised and rejected, City prevailed again. Phil Parkinson said he hoped that in the next round his team would be at home again, where a record 24,021 fans had watched the game. There, he feels, his team could beat anyone. Stead, who had scored a glorious left-footer against Chelsea, went gliding past the experienced Sunderland defender West Brown to make it 2-0. Conclusively. ‘He has scored in every round for us,’ enthused Parkinson, ‘and has been immense for us all season.’

Another third round shock came at Manchester City, knocked out and beaten fair and square by Middlesbrough, from the so called Championship alias the 2nd division which they seem likely to win and anything but intimidated by playing Manchester City, almost as expensively assembled as Chelsea, on their own turf. And still another example of a player who has emerged from obscurity and disappointment to excel this season.

In this case it is the 26-year-old Lee Tomlin who plays in midfield just behind the striker, seen by his Spanish manager Aitor Karanka as the best player in the Championship. Growing up in Leicester, joining the local City club as a seven-year-old, he admits he was so confident in his own ability that he didn’t work hard enough, and at 15, Leicester discarded him.

For a time he gave up on football, then the humble Rushden and Diamonds club signed him at 16. When 21, Darren Ferguson, son of Alex, signed him for Peterborough, and persuaded him to cut down on the hearty eating which had made him overweight.

So, after a succession of expulsions, irate that Peterborough wouldn’t sell him to Celtic, he was bought by Middlesbrough, where he has excelled. Manchester City could do little with him and he hit a post after a superb solo run and shot. Borough came down to earth when Arsenal in the next round beat them easily at the Emirates but we shall certainly hear much more of Lee Tomlin.

Blackburn Rovers, the first professional team ever to win the FA Cup, in 1884 when they beat Scottish amateurs Queens Park at The Oval and went on to win the trophy for the next two seasons. Yet when in the 2015 fourth round they thrashed Stoke City, a division above them, 4-1, a mere 13,000 bothered to watch the game which featured yet another unexpected hero in 23-year-old Josh King, Norwegian scorer of three goals and playing not even as a first choice. Can Rovers keep him?