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It's hard to detect FA Cup magic on Tyneside
THE magic of the FA Cup? Not at Newcastle United. There has been plenty of fevered reaction apparent on Tyneside this week, but almost all of it has related to the fall-out from Demba Ba's move to Chelsea rather than anticipation ahead of this afternoon's third-round tie at Brighton.
Amid mounting concern at Newcastle's perilous position in the bottom half of the Premier League and Alan Pardew's desperate need to secure an attacking replacement for Ba, the club's entry into the FA Cup has slipped under the radar.
Should their interest in the competition come to an end later today, though, you can rest assured it will not be deemed insignificant any more.
The FA Cup matters to the Magpies, partly because of the club's heritage as six-time winners, partly because it is one of only two domestic trophies they can realistically win every season and partly because their recent record has been such an intense disappointment.
Premier League survival is absolutely imperative, and next month's Europa League last-32 tie with Metalist Kharkiv promises some welcome exotic glamour. To a large extent, though, the success or failure of the second half of Newcastle's season will be determined by their performances in the FA Cup.
“When I was little, we watched the FA Cup on the television in Holland,” said Magpies midfielder Vurnon Anita. “It is no longer as big for us as the Premier League, but I have noticed that in England it is still a very big competition.
“The cup in Holland is nowhere near as big. It is nothing like as big as the FA Cup, it is not like that in Holland. It is considered a secondary competition, although it is the easiest way to qualify for European football.
“It is not taken as seriously in Holland as it is in England, so I hope I can help us by going to Brighton, getting a win and giving us a start in a great competition.”
Anita was still an Ajax player when Newcastle crashed out of last season's FA Cup at the hands of Brighton, but today's return to the Amex Stadium will evoke unhappy memories for the players who were involved in the fourth-round defeat.
Alan Pardew has certainly not forgotten the intense disappointment he felt as he left the south coast, although he should perhaps have been prepared for it given that his first experience of the FA Cup as Newcastle manager ended in an even more humiliating 3-1 reverse at Stevenage.
Pardew's only FA Cup victory since taking over on Tyneside was last year's third-round success over Blackburn, yet when he signed his eight-year contract earlier this season, he admitted one of his major ambitions was to triumph in the competition.
“You only have to look at my history in the FA Cup to know how I feel about it,” said Pardew, who has lost in an FA Cup final as both a player with Crystal Palace and a manager with West Ham United. “I was brought up on the FA Cup, it is very much part of my football fabric as the football person I am.
“I just haven't had much luck in it, but I hope that can change. It is a glamorous, fantastic competition.”
As well as offering a route into the fourth round, today's game also provides an opportunity for a much-needed morale boost ahead of a run of league games that could go a long way towards determining where Newcastle finish this season.
After today's trip south, the Magpies take on Norwich, Reading and Aston Villa, a sequence of matches that could ease their relegation fears considerably or plunge them even closer to the abyss.
They could do with heading into that run having ended a run of four straight defeats, so Pardew will have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to selecting his starting line-up.
On the one hand, he could do with resting and protecting some of his key performers, but after last year's embarrassment, he cannot afford to take too many chances against a Seagulls side that is ninth in the Championship.
To further complicate matters, Fabricio Coloccini and Papiss Cisse are set to be rested in order to protect minor knocks, while Cheik Tiote is unavailable as he has joined up with Ivory Coast ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations.
“There are one or two young players I will bring in, and I might change one or two to freshen things up a bit,” said Pardew. “There is a good chance Sammy (Ameobi) will play because I thought he did well when he came on against Everton and hopefully he will carry that into Brighton. But we need to win games and get momentum.
“When I look back to my experiences in the FA Cup, you need a bit of luck. In the early rounds when I was at Palace, we got absolutely battered by Rochdale, but we won and eventually made it to the final. How we won that game I'll never know, so you need an element of luck. Last year at Brighton, we didn't get any breaks, so maybe we're due some this time.”