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Football | FA Cup

Nikica Jelavic @ Getty Images

Everton buck cup trend



There was a time in English soccer when former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly's famous quote that football was more important than life or death was never far off the mark, particularly when it came to the FA Cup.

Whatever trials and tribulations were being endured in the league, players and managers scented the whiff of Wembley Way and the chance to write their names in folklore.

FA Cup third round weekend was traditionally the time when the minnows would dream, the sleeping giants would rouse themselves and the big guns would set their sights on the world's most famous piece of sporting silverware.

Quite what Shankly would make of the mindset that has seeped in to modern day clubs is probably not printable, although he would be nodding his approval from above at fellow Scot David Moyes, even if he is the manager of Everton.

It was considered noteworthy on Monday that Moyes sent out a strong line-up for their third round trip to fourth tier Cheltenham Town -- a tie the Premier League high-flyers duly won 5-1 with a minimum of fuss and bother.

Noteworthy because, however much the FA Cup is hyped, it now plays second fiddle for many top flight clubs who make no apology for prioritising mere survival inside the cash-machine that never stops giving - otherwise known as the Premier League.

"It's great to see the quality that Everton showed and the respect they showed the FA Cup. It showed the quality of the club, the manager and the squad," Cheltenham's manager Mark Yates said of his side's plucky defeat.

While other managers say the right things about the history and tradition of the FA Cup, the truth is that exiting in the early rounds is not the kick in the teeth it once was.

Premier League strugglers Newcastle United, already hit with injuries, rested their top striker Papiss Cisse for the trip to Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend and went out with a pathetic whimper, losing 2-0.

Wigan Athletic, in the middle of their annual relegation dogfight, made nine changes from the side that lost to Manchester United on New Year's Day for the visit of third tier Bournemouth and needed a late equaliser to draw 1-1, although manager Roberto Martinez may view a replay as an inconvenience.

Stoke City, Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion also shuffled their packs with varying degrees of success while Swansea City started their thrilling 2-2 draw at home to a surprisingly full-strength Arsenal side without leading striker Michu, although the Spaniard did come off the bench to score.

Premier League leaders Manchester United, who have not won the FA Cup since 2004, began at West Ham United with Robin van Persie, Rio Ferdinand and Antonio Valencia on the bench and needed Van Persie's sensational late equaliser to keep them in the hat for the fourth round draw.

In defence of United, Manchester City and Chelsea the size and quality of their squads enable them to shuffle with only a small loss of quality and recent history shows that the so-called big guns usually lift the Cup in May.

LOWER PRIORITY

Premier League clubs are not alone, however, in treating Cup football as a "bonus" rather than a priority.

Cardiff City, runaway leaders in the Championship promotion race, went down to minor league Macclesfield after manager Malky Mackay changed his entire starting line-up - a precaution against the burn-out they suffered last season after losing to Liverpool in the League Cup final.

It was the day's biggest upset yet one that will be erased from the fans' memories should the Welsh club reach the Holy Grail of the Premier League.

It all begs the question of what is regarded as success and whether fans are prepared to sacrifice the odd "memorable" day for the humdrum task of preserving the status quo.

When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger sets out his goals at the start of the season, the pecking order is the league title followed by finishing in the top four to guarantee another Champions League campaign. The FA Cup and the League Cup follow.

Fans love seeing another piece of silverware added to the trophy cabinet, however, and Arsenal's quarter-final defeat to fourth tier Bradford was a bitter pill for many to swallow, especially as you have to scroll back to 2005 for the last time the club could properly celebrate anything.

The League Cup, often regarded as a consolation prize by the big clubs and hardly worth the bother for the smaller ones, takes centre stage this week with Chelsea up against Swansea on Wednesday and Aston Villa facing Bradford later on Tuesday.

With a day out at Wembley Stadium in front of 80,000 the prize for the winners, the intensity of both ties will no doubt be in the "Shankly" mould while millions of envious eyes will be glued to their TV sets.

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