NEWCASTLE UNITED supporters might well be the only group of fans in the country who do not look forward to FA Cup third-round day.
As if endless replays of Ronnie Radford scoring in the mud for Hereford United are not enough to get the stress levels rising, more recent memories of embarrassments at Stevenage and Brighton are guaranteed to send shivers down the spine.
If nothing else though, at least the misery caused by those moments proves that the FA Cup still matters on Tyneside. That certainly won’t be the case everywhere on a day that used to be one of the undoubted highlights of the domestic football calendar.
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Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert claimed he could “probably do without the competition” earlier this week, a statement that caused considerable controversy, but one that could hardly be deemed a surprise given the way in which the status of the FA Cup has been widely diminished in recent seasons.
Many chart the competition’s regression to the time when Manchester United refused to defend the trophy and opted to compete in the World Club Championship instead, but the decline has been even more dramatic in recent seasons with a host of Premier League clubs fielding what are effectively shadow sides in the early rounds.
There will be plenty of below-strength teams on display today, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that the majority of games will be played in front of an attendance that is lower than the league average for the home side in question.
That will be true of Newcastle, although an anticipated gate in excess of 30,000 is not to be sniffed at, and while Alan Pardew will make a number of changes for the visit of Cardiff City, most will be enforced because of injury or suspension.
The Magpies manager has to perform a delicate balancing act given the need to improve on an FA Cup record that has been nothing sort of wretched in recent seasons, but having experienced the drama of the cup final as a player, the former Crystal Palace midfielder concedes that things are not what they used to be.
According to Pardew, much of the blame for that lies at the door of the footballing authorities, who have dictated that today’s game is Newcastle’s fifth in 15 days. It has been a punishing schedule, and given that FA Cup third-round day arrives at the end of it, Pardew feels it is inevitable that something has to give.
“The devaluing is down to the scheduling, and they really need to look at that,” he said. “The FA Cup falls right on the back of the Christmas programme, and I think that’s wrong.
“I think that needs looking at. It’s not fair on the Premier League managers, and I sympathise with a lot of the teams down the bottom of the league. They’re going to be looking at their survival, which financially is massive.
“Fortunately, we’re in a good position and can attack the game, which we will. But we’ll still use some fresh faces because of the nature of where the game falls. That needs to be looked at if people want the FA Cup to go back to its former glories.”
Pardew has come up with two potential solutions to the fixture pile-up, although it is doubtful that either would be embraced by the authorities.
The first would see the removal of the fixture that is traditionally played between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, with it being switched to August or September instead. That would mean three games in around ten days over the festive period.
Pardew’s other option would see the FA Cup third and fourth rounds played on successive January weekends, with any replays taking place on either the Tuesday or Wednesday in between. That would create an ‘FA Cup window’ that might ignite renewed interest in the competition.
“For me, the game between Boxing Day and New Year needs to be got rid of,” he said. “I don’t think it needs to be in the programme, and then the FA Cup would fit all right. The game around the 28th was put in there because of the holidays, but that’s irrelevant now. We’d fill the stadiums whenever we had that game.
“Playing on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I have no problem with that, and we all love those games. But the one in between needs to come out, and then the FA Cup would sit okay.
“You could also change things around in January to create an FA Cup period with two games in a row. Would that work? I don’t know. But where it sits now is certainly a problem.”
Third-round weekend has certainly presented a problem during Pardew’s reign, with the Magpies boss overseeing a 3-1 defeat at Stevenage in 2011 and a 2-0 reverse at Brighton last year.
The Stevenage game was a considerable embarrassment, but at least Newcastle could claim to have been caught cold by a genuine FA Cup shock. Last year’s capitulation at the Amex Stadium was a much-less romantic affair, with an injury-ravaged Newcastle side containing the likes of James Tavernier, Mehdi Abeid and Nile Ranger coming up short despite their Championship opponents not even playing all that well.
“I thought Stevenage was as low as I could get as a manager until the Brighton game last year,” said Pardew. “I simply didn’t have a good enough team to put out that day, and I feared what might happen before we even started.
“I don’t have that this year. I feel we’ve got a team that’s going to win, and I feel confident I’ve got enough players to get through.”