The trains are barely running, a food shop could bust your credit card and it just won’t stop raining.
It’s January, the days are still short — what chance of a little magic to lighten the gloom?
Isn’t this what the third round of the FA Cup is meant to be about? But after the distractions of a winter World Cupthe top flight’s whirlwind resumption, and finals increasingly dominated by sides from the Premier League‘s top four, does it still hold that special thrill for supporters across the football pyramid?
The Athletic took in four third-round ties in 48 hours, to see if the oldest national cup competition in the world is a relic more revered in theory than practice or if there’s life in the old jug yet…
The walls are undoubtedly thick with history at Deepdale — a heritage that runs from the cradle of English football.
This is the club that won the inaugural football league in 1889 without losing a match, and lifted the FA Cup the same year not conceding a goal in the competition.
But the last time Preston won the cup, Bill Shankly was their centre-half, and that was in 1938.
So while North End will always be associated with the FA Cup, they crave for their romance to be rekindled into more than just the dusty chapters in history.
There aren’t that many left who can recall that last cup victory, secured by George Mutch’s late extra-time penalty after BBC commentator Thomas Woodroffe said he’d eat his hat if there was a goal before the end.
He kept his promise (sort of), munching on a hat-shaped cake made of marzipan. But now generations of Preston supporters fancy something more appetizing than old tales.
Perhaps, then, they’d appreciate the serendipity of their opponents on Saturday, Huddersfield Townwho were the losers in that final over 84 years ago.
It seemed the visit of the Terriers, who beat them here on Boxing Day in the league despite being bottom, was not a hugely compelling prospect though, even with tickets reduced to £10 for adults and £5 for children.
Deepdale, which is recognized as the oldest continuous professional football ground in the world, has an impressive 12,000 season ticket holders and a capacity of 23,404 — but only 6,799 (including away supporters) made it on Saturday.
Was it another case of the painful vanishing of the FA Cup’s allure? Or a symptom of unappealing visitors, the cost of living crisis and a chance to save a few quid while still dreaming of making the Championship play-offs?
Understandable, of course, but those fans missed a tie that fired the imagination.
Preston run out to Can’t Help Falling in Love With You and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of affection when a classic cup story such as Bambo Diaby‘s emerges on a cloudy Lancashire afternoon.
The Senegalese defender puts North End in the lead with a thumping effort into the roof of the net en route to their 3-1 win and celebrates like it meant a lot.
Perhaps it’s not surprising considering his story: Diaby only returned to action in 2022 after two years in the wilderness following an FA ban from all forms of football activity for testing positive for a banned substance.
Routine tests found traces of higenamine, which can be used as a stimulant or weight-loss aid, in his system and he was sent into football exile in October 2020.
Diaby worked in a car dealership and played five-a-side with mates to try and stay solvent and fit after Barnsley, his club at the time, terminated his contract.
So you get the feeling that a cup run with Preston, who he joined a year ago, would feel extra special for a player who may have had a lot of time to feel sorry for himself, but whose commanding display for Ryan Lowe’s men suggested he is ready to put that all behind him.
For long periods in their histories, Wednesday and Newcastle have been equal. historic clubs. Four league titles each. Both on long domestic-trophy droughts: Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991, Newcastle last lifted the FA Cup in 1955.
Thirty years ago, Wednesday reached their last FA Cup final, losing to arsenal after a replay. Featuring club legends Chris Waddle and David Hirst, within a decade the Owls would be relegated from the Premier League, and haven’t returned since.
Newcastle sit third in the Premier League; Sheffield Wednesday are in the third division.
But the FA Cup temporarily dissolves those boundaries. What do 42 places mean in a dogfight under the lights at Hillsborough? Newcastle are just a club fighting tooth and nail to prove their credentials among England‘s elite, a place Wednesday themselves yearn to one day belong to.
Before the game, one Wednesday fan begged their opponents for a rotated side.
“Give us a chance,” he said. Wednesday’s starting XI costs under £600,000. Alexander Isaacstarting up front for the visitors, cost £60million.
But when goalkeeper Cameron Dawson is refusing to yield, free transfer George Byers is doing Cruyff turns on the halfway line, and Windass is proving himself more clinical than a striker who was bought for 127 times his price, Wednesday have more than a chance.
Before the match, Wednesday supporters had insisted that the league was their priority, aiming for a return to the Championship and, with it, being one step away from the Premier League. Look at the example of Sunderland: promoted in their stead last year, now in the Championship play-off places.
But the league cannot be a priority when you are 2-0 up against this transformed version of Newcastle United. Hillsborough knew it, engulfing their players in chants of longing and misted breath. Bruno Guimaraes pulled one back, but Wednesday held on.
“We showed we belonged,” said one departing Wednesday fan, his words lighting up the gloom which has enveloped his club for too long. The dawn was yet to come, but it was on the horizon come Saturday evening.
What happens when the glamor fizzles out before it’s even begun? Sometimes, daydreams of giant slaying and Wembley make way for a lesson on the harsh realities of supporting your team.
The young Stockport County fans who packed into Edgeley Park yesterday to watch their side face Walsall can attest to that.
They no doubt suffered with their team’s second-half substitute Paddy Madden, who came off the bench, scored the equaliser, then conceded the late penalty.
There was joyous mayhem in the sold-out away section when Walsall’s Andy Williams converted the 95th-minute penalty that sent the Midlanders through, but for Stockport the silver lining was a near full-house that could help their plans for growth on and off the pitch.
Gareth Toms, 39, is a Stockport season-ticket holder who started going to games as a child in 1992 when his parents could not afford tickets for Manchester United.
Before the game he waits for his father — a Church minister who is meeting him after Sunday service — and surveys the bustling scene as families, youngsters and long-time supporters alike arrive at the turnstiles.
“My journey as a Stockport fan has been watching us rise up the leagues to the First Division, then an even bigger fall.
“It’s nice to see kids here with their parents for a sold-out game. They’ll hopefully remember it.”
There were not many spare blue seats inside the ground as Dave Challinor’s team tried to beat Walsall for the second time in 11 days, following a 2-0 away win in League Two last month.
In this case, reduced ticket prices have done the trick in attracting families for a day out.
There may not be a glamorous tie for Stockport to look forward to, but Edgeley Park hosted Premier League visitors as recently as August when Leicester City rolled up for the Carabao Cup second round. Brendan Rodgers’ men won on penalties after the tie ended goalless and, for Gareth, it was a “damp squib”.
Ironically, it was Leicester who came out of the hat to face Walsall in the fourth round.
Gareth hopes for better cup fortune at a redeveloped ground in the future. Stockport owner Mark Stott wants to increase Edgeley Park’s capacity to 20,000 by building two new stands, and Gareth hopes more high-profile cup runs will help.
“We need to grow the fanbase to make it viable,” he says. “When we’ve got Accrington Stanley on a cold Tuesday night, normally we might have 4,500 die-hards but we’d need to be bringing in over 15,000 to fill a bigger ground, so that’s the challenge. But this is a historic club in a great footballing area, so it’s good to be ambitious.
“I saw a little lad with his big foam finger all excited before the game and the more we can draw in the future generation, the better.”
There may be no big-name tie at the end of the month at Edgeley Park, but there is the visit of former world-boxing champion Ricky Hatton — there to discuss his sporting career at a dinner event in March.
In the gloaming before kick-off at the Etihad, it is reassuring to sense the same buzz felt at Deepdale, Hillsborough and Edgeley Park. A 51,505 attendance suggests the FA Cup has captured the imagination of top-flight supporters too.
Thirty minutes before kick-off, a couple of Chelsea fans (emboldened by a drink or two) strut around the perimeter of the stadium singing “Where’s your European Cup?”, as the local touts do their surreptitious work just yards from a ticket office .
Of course, it’s glistening and monied at the home of the Premier League champions, but the old-school smell of British football still lingers with the aroma of chips from a nearby van. It might not be Preston’s spud bags and parched peas, but it’s enough to warm City fans making their way into the ground as the evening chill seeps in.
The work done on the pitch by Pep Guardiola’s men was radiant. No European Cup yet, but another domestic honor remains on their radar after a first-half blast from the sublime Riyad Mahrez got the ball rolling. Then Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden sent City in the clear, and Chelsea’s fans booed their team off at half-time.
The second half did little to question the hosts’ dominances, as those in the away end must have been hoping their trains home were going to be on time so their debate over Graham Potter’s suitability for the job could continue.
For the manager in the home dugout, the appeal of the FA Cup magic remains undiminished. “It is recognized everywhere across the world as the most beautiful domestic tournament there is,” Guardiola wrote in his program notes. “I always remember watching the FA Cup final as a young boy in Catalonia and feeling the importance of the occasion.
“When we won it in 2019, it was one of my best memories of my time here at City. We want to win it this season and, believe me, we will do everything to make our dream a reality.”
For Preston, Wednesday, Walsall and City, the dream lives on. While Huddersfield, Newcastle, Stockport and Chelsea supporters must wait another year before talk of the cup can resume. They may span four divisions between them, but they have that in common at least.
(Photos: Greg O’Keeffe and Getty Images)