… and this weekend was one of those times, as the annual Football Association Cup tournament entered Round 4 … and what a round it was, featuring so much of what soccer fans like most about ‘FA Cup’ competition, its often-unlikey matches and its sometimes-surprising results.
For some fans, it brings out the best of English football, being open not only to the well known teams of the Premier League, but also teams of the Football League as well as teams from the successive leagues, going down the steps of the English/Welsh ‘league pyramid’ … “from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams” … and with it, the possibility of those unlikely matches and surprising results I mentioned. It’s opportunity for the little teams, the ‘minnows’ to become giant-killers … and that happend more than once this weekend, in Round 4.
It was not the best of weekends for teams from the top-tier Premier League. Oldham Athletic FC (Football League One, the third tier of English football) knocked off PL’s Liverpool … Leeds United FC (currently playing in the Championship League) defeated PL’s Tottenham-Hotspur … Brentford Soccer Club (playing in Football League One) played PL’s Chelsea to a draw … and Premier League’s Norwich City and the Queen’s Park Rangers also fell to minnows.
What a great weekend of competition! It reminded me of something a publisher of mine once told me. He was also our paper’s sportswriter and he loved the sports beat. He cautioned me more than once that – whatever the statistics might indicate, and whatever the pundits and prognoiticators might say in advance of a game and its outcome - there’s a good reason they go ahead and play the game anyway … just in case.
He’s right … and that’s good reason to watch FA Cup. Sure, chances are the tournament champion will be a Chelsea or a Man U, but you never know … there’s always that chance – slim, I’ll admit - that it could be a Luton Town Hatters (a non-league side) or a Milton Keynes Dons.
It’s related to one advantage English soccer has over American football … tournaments such as FA Cup that encourage interaction and improvement among all the teams of all the leagues, top-to-bottom, and even non-league teams. It’s related to what I think is another advantage the Brit football has over the Yanks’ … the concept of relegation and advancement in the leagues. Some leagues end their season at the end of regular play, while others have a championship tournament. However they do it, the top two or three teams from each league advance to the next league up … while the bottom two or three teams are relegated, taking their place in the next league down.
The practice of advancement and relegation means that competition is keen not only among teams at the top of the league’s standings who are seeking to advance, but also among teams at the bottom of the league’s standings who are seeking to avoid relegation. And as the teams move, so do the fans …advancement is an occasion for ecstatic celebration, while relegation ca bring tears to the eyes of the faithful. The leagues receive annual infusions of fresh blood and enthusiasm, while the up-and-coming teams enjoy increased revenues and their players enjoy increased exposure, salaries and opportunities. And while some are relegated at the end of their first season in a higher league, others stay and even move up and establish themselves. As far as I know, all of the current Premier League teams had their days in the lower leagues, and even no league at all, over the past 130 years or so.
To me, it’s a great system … but it would never work in American football. We don’t have the league pyramid structure to support it. And even if we did, I doubt team ownership would accept it … and even if they did the first attempt to relegate a team would be tied up forever in litigation by that team, by its host city, by the city’s chamber of commerce, the team’s fan association, whatever.
So, I’ll just enjoy American football as it is, and English soccer as it is. The Super Bowl takes place this next weekend, while the fifth round of FA Cup takes place the weekend of February 16. I plan on watching and enjoying both!