ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's FA Cup action. Watch ESPN’s live and exclusive coverage of three FA Cup matches this weekend.
As everybody with any passion for English football will already know, this weekend promises to be a very special one.
FA Cup Third Round weekend is one of the high points of the domestic season – and a day when the inequalities of English football can be celebrated.
The fact that you’ve still got four non-league teams in there, pitching against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and all the other giants, makes it a unique competition and one to celebrate.
The headline act is obviously the Manchester derby, at the Etihad Stadium, which comes at an intriguing time with both Manchester City and Manchester United suffering set-backs in their festive Premier League fixtures.
Sunday’s clash shouldn’t have two much baring on what happens in the Premier League title race, and it will just be refreshing to look at this as a one-off knockout game. I can’t imagine it’s going to end 6-1 again, I’m sure United will give a much better account of themselves.
But while that is the game which will dominate the column inches over the weekend, it’s not really reflective of what the FA cup is about. I almost prefer to look at the mismatches in the draw, because those are the one’s that will produce the real genuine cup stories.
It was at this stage last season that Stevenage beat Newcastle, for example. So those are the games that I tend to look at when I look at the draw. There are 32 ties and probably half of them carry that intrigue of the inequality of the two participants, and that’s the joy of the third round of the FA Cup.
Tamworth's top scorer Iyseden Christie will have Everton in his sights
For example, on Saturday Conference National side Tamworth will travel to Goodison Park to face Premier League giants Everton. It will be a great day out for Tamworth, though they’ve had their moments in the sun before, playing what was then second-tier opposition in the form of Norwich and Stoke in 2006 and 2007 under Gary Mills.
While you wouldn’t expect them to get anything from a visit to Goodison Park given the gulf between the two sides, that gap has been bridged a few times in recent seasons. Though Sutton remain the last non-league to beat top flight opposition when they knocked out Coventry in the late eighties, Exeter and Burton Albion both managed to draw with Manchester United as non-league sides in recent memory, so there is hope for these teams.
Tamworth will be hoping to get a draw at Goodison, get them back to The Lamb Ground, get the television cameras there and all the money that comes with it and give them a real going over. But that’s perhaps stretching the imagination, because with Everton you know that they’re going to be at it. David Moyes won’t allow anything else – there’ll be no complacency.
In a way, the non-league sides haven’t been particularly well served by this draw. Tamworth, of course, are on the road - albeit to something of a glamorous opponent - Salisbury travel to Sheffield United and Wrexham make the trip to Brighton’s Amex Stadium, which is a particularly difficult place to have to go to.
There’s only Fleetwood Town of the non-leaguers who have actually been drawn at home, and they pulled out something of a plum with a local derby against Blackpool.
It’s an intriguing tie, and not only because they are near-neighbours, separated by seven miles on the Fylde coast.
Micky Melon, the Fleetwood manager, is a former Blackpool player and a very close friend of Blackpool boss, Ian Holloway. The man that owns, and has bank-rolled, Fleetwood’s rise so far is a chap called Andy Pilley, who only bought the club having tried and failed to buy Blackpool. Pilley is close friends with former Blackpool star Charlie Adam, who is a regular at Fleetwood’s matches and should be in attendance on Saturday - so there are lots of links between the clubs.
It’s a parochial occasion, but it’s a fascinating occasion, and is perhaps the tie that best epitomises what the FA Cup is about in this year’s third round draw.
It’s a big gap between the Conference and a side going pretty well in the Championship, but Fleetwood are this season’s Crawley Town - a non-league side in name only.
Jamie McGuire & Jamie Vardy celebrate Fleetwood's win over Yeovil
This is thanks to the money invested and the quality of the players at their disposal. They’ve got a player called Jamie Vardy, who has been the subject of interest from a host of Football League clubs and large transfer fees have been mooted for a move for him. I think that he will stay with Fleetwood while they are still in the cup.
They’ve also got Richard Brodie, who was playing for Crawley last year, and guys like Jamie Milligan, who 12 years ago was playing in midfield for Everton in the Premier League, and also had a shirt spell with Blackpool. So they’re not without experience, they’re not your normal non-league side, and I expect them to make life pretty difficult for Blackpool at what will be a sell out at the Highbury Stadium.
And I can also tell you from personal experience that Fleetwood boast the best chip shop I have come across outside a football ground, so that’s another reason for going to that one.
Tony Pulis will take his Stoke side – FA Cup finalists last year, of course – to one of his former clubs, Gillingham. There’s a bit of feeling - there often is where Paul Scally, the Gillingham chairman, is concerned.
Pulis and he didn’t part company on the best of terms, but I would expect Stoke to go and do a very professional job at Gillingham. I saw Gillingham play at Macclesfield about a month ago, and they looked rather impressive. A glance down their team-sheet reflects the fact they’ve spent a fair bit of money – by League Two standards - assembling a decent team.
Many good sides have stumbled at Priestfield in previous years, and I think they’ll give Stoke a good game, but I think that Stoke, a lot like Everton, are another honest team. They’re not going to be lulled into a false sense of security, the likes of Jon Walters and Rory Delap, have forged their careers in the lower divisions and then worked upwards. I think you’ve got honest professionals who are unlikely to be ‘hoodwinked’ by the pitfalls that may lie in store.
MK Dons against Queens Park Rangers is an interesting tie in that, were the League One side to beat the Premier League new boys, it perhaps wouldn’t be classed as an upset. I would expect MK Dons – a side going well in their division - to beat what will almost certainly be a QPR reserve side, if their League Cup selection policy of earlier in the season is anything to go by. In that competition the Rs were knocked out at home against Rochdale, and Neil Warnock came out publicly and said he was very pleased to have that off their agenda - the same may well go for this. So, in actual fact, MK Dons should perhaps be favourites.
If I was looking for a really entertaining cup tie I would be looking more at games like Swindon versus Wigan.
Swindon will be a good place to be on Saturday; they’ll be a good crowd at the County Ground. Paulo Di Canio has brought some effervescence of his own personality to Swindon Town - gates are rising and expectation levels are high.
Di Canio will hope to leave another mark on the cup - this time with Swindon
Wigan are probably the least attractive team that you could draw, but nonetheless they are a top flight scalp and I wouldn’t be surprised if Swindon take it.
Again, I don’t think Martinez will play the full first team, and even if he did, I think Swindon are good enough to give them a pretty difficult afternoon at the County Ground.
But that’s not the only tie with a good chance of an upset, there’s another at the Moss Road, where League Two Macclesfield host Bolton. The Trotters aren’t in the best shape, despite their midweek win at Goodison, while Macclesfield will be well geed-up by manager Gary Simpson, having battled through a tough second round tie against Chelmsford City – drew away and then won a closely contested replay at Moss Road in bitter conditions just before Christmas.
This will be the two teams’ second meeting of the season - Macclesfield went and gave a very good account of themselves at the Reebok in the League Cup; they led but lost 2-1. And given Bolton’s travails, the fact that Owen Coyle, I don’t think will play his full team - I think it will be mix and match, you’ve got to say that Macclesfield have got half a chance in this game.
Bristol Rovers against Aston Villa on Saturday evening will have an added edge to it. With Rovers sacking their manager Paul Buckle on Tuesday, his assistant Shaun North will take the helm. And what a game for his first dabble as a senior manager, the visit of Aston Villa visit to the Memorial Stadium.
Rovers have a new ground in the pipeline, but it’s three or four years away, so the Memorial Stadium, which is really a rugby ground – that’s how it started it’s life, will be packed to its ten and a half thousand capacity. I went there on a scouting mission on Boxing Day, when they led Plymouth Argyle 2-0 and contrived to lose 2-3 in the ninety-third minute, which contributed to Paul Buckle’s demise.
But what struck me most was that the pitch is a bit of a bog, and whilst they were putting up a tent - a special cover to protect it and makes sure the game goes ahead, I think it may be soft. Aston Villa’s main threat comes through the pace of players like Gabriel Agbonlahor, Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia, but it’s going to be like running through treacle for them.
With the Rovers players desperate to make a good impression on their next manager – whoever he may be – and given they also have a great cup tradition, I think Aston Villa could find themselves enduring a particularly awkward evening.
If I could be at any game on Sunday, I would want to be at London Road to watch Peterborough play Sunderland. Sunderland have been rejuvenated under Martin O’Neill, who always takes the FA Cup seriously, while Peterborough, managed by a Ferguson, have some good players and a decent home record. This is one that could well end up going to a replay.
Of the big guns, Chelsea will expect to come through against Portsmouth with relative ease, even though I’m sure Andre Villas-Boas will mix up his team a bit. While Cheltenham's trip to Tottenham will be a terrific day out for a club that has now established itself in the Football League having been in non-league for donkeys’ years. It’s a payday for them as well. I’ve seen them a couple of times this season and they play some really nice football, and are performing well on the road. Tottenham, I think, will put out the sort of side they did in the Europa League, which gives Cheltenham half a chance, though I would expect Spurs to power through in the end.
The action is rounded off by an intriguing tie between Arsenal and Leeds, who met at the xth round stage last season, with the Gunners needing a late penalty from Cesc Fabregas to scrape a replay up at Elland Road, which they eventually won. It’s also a repeat of the 1972 Cup final, which is a historical note rather than a relevant point to this game.
I spent January 2nd at Elland Road, watching Leeds against Burnley to see how they looked and I was wondering whether to hang around at the end to have a chat with Simon Grayson, but at 1-0 down in the 89th minute I decided I would attempt to beat the rush, and left for home.
By the time I had got into my car it was 1-1, and by the time I was on the M1 it was 2-1 to Leeds in the 97th minute. That may well have been a win that has preserved Simon Grayson’s job through to this cup-tie, because I think he would have been on particularly rocky ground with Ken Bates if they’d lost again.
Leeds will meet a much-changed Arsenal side, but the headline could yet be the reappearance of Thierry Henry, wearing the number 12 shirt – the one he always wanted to wear at Arsenal, but he couldn’t get it first time round because Christopher Wreh had it and he had to settle for 14, which he made into an iconic jersey. But I think it will be a wonderfully emotional occasion when Thierry Henry jogs out of the tunnel at The Emirates on Monday night. And while it’s a pretty good cup-tie in its own right, it will be a special occasion for that reason alone.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster of the FA Cup. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage from third round FA Cup matches between Birmingham City v Wolves, 12.30pm and Bristol Rovers v Aston Villa, 5.30pm on Saturday 7th January and Arsenal v Leeds United on Monday 9th January, 7.45pm.
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