First, they scored once and then they scored twice. 90 minutes later, Newport County, from the coast of south-east Wales, had knocked Leicester City out of the FA Cup, providing us with that FA Cup magic that sometimes seems to have diminished over the years.
Newport County: The Hero the FA Cup Needs
A few weeks later, Newport dumped Middlesborough out of the tournament in the fourth round, once again sending echoes throughout the footballing world. This was not only an important win for County, but it was also a huge win for the FA Cup and what it once represented. The decline of ‘FA Cup magic’ has only escalated during the last fifteen years. Premier League teams have dominated year after year, and there is nothing indicating that it will slow down. Even if we do get another Newport, who write a fairytale story now and again, is that enough to keep the FA Cup alive?
How Did the FA Cup Lose its Charm?
So what turned the oldest football competition in the world into something fewer and fewer teams actually care about? Or is there still a charm to it that goes unnoticed?
As it often does, it all starts at the top. Premier League teams have not been putting their best starting 11 on the pitch in the early stages of the competition. Whether intentional or not, it does appear they simply do not care until the latter stages of the competition.
An underdog who has managed to get to that point is then often obliterated by a full-strength Premier League side. In later years, more than often, the bigger teams are the ones who end up playing in the final.
In some sense, this is understandable. The bigger clubs prioritise winning the Premier League, progressing in the Champions League or even getting into the top four by resting vital players rather than playing them in the FA Cup. It does demonstrate that the competition no longer holds the same importance as it once did. Progressively, it seems as if the tournament is only getting in the way of other priorities that the bigger clubs have.
We have had the great upsets of Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic winning the FA Cup during the 21st century. However, the great lack of sensational FA Cup stories in the present time in the latter stages is hard to deny.
Is There Still Magic in the FA Cup?
That being said, the FA Cup still upholds its reputation of smaller clubs going against all odds from time to time. Non-league Lincoln City went on a historic FA Cup run in 2016/2017. The Imps knocked League One side Oldham Athletic, Championship sides Ipswich Town and Brighton & Hove Albion and Premier League side Burnley out of the tournament to print themselves in the history books as the first non-league side to reach the quarter-finals since Queens Park Rangers in 1914.
League One Bradford City battered Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge in 2015, securing a place in the round of 16. Non-league Luton Town knocked Premier League side Norwich City out of the tournament in 2013, thereby becoming the first non-league side to knock a Premier League club out of the cup for 24 years. Both are perfect examples of what the FA Cup still offers.
We do still have Newport County and the magic that they have revived in the FA Cup. After going into extinction in 1989 due to staggering debt, they were saved and resurrected by 400 Newportonians, eventually climbing back up the football pyramid into League Two. They have sent both Leicester and Middlesborough out of the FA Cup which, in many ways, epitomizes the competition we knew and loved.
Maybe the charm of the cup is not all about who wins it. Maybe it is more about what the ‘smaller’ clubs like Lincoln and Newport manage to accomplish against all odds.
Reigning Premier League champions and possible champions-elect Manchester City will travel to south-east Wales to play Newport at Rodney Parade in the fifth round. This game may be one step too far for Newport to cause another upset. No matter the result, Newport County have proved, in some sense, that the magic of the cup is not dead yet.
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