In being a highly evocative and childishly thrilling break from the norm, the FA Cup third round is the closest thing to Christmas that football can offer. John Motson, avuncular and burrowed into his sheepskin coat, is our Santa Claus. The parka-clad future squaddies that mob Ronnie Radford as he celebrates his iconic, arrowed equaliser for Hereford are the kids who storm the stage as Slade mime to Merry Christmas Everybody; both examples a hotchpotch of joy, flares and terrible haircuts.
Both dates owe much to nostalgia and folklore and best of all the greatest day in the football calendar is perfectly scheduled to arrive just as the decorations are being boxed away for another year and festivities are being missed. That can’t be a coincidence. Our spirits deflate as we head back to the humdrum everyday grind of work only to be immediately thrust back into a magical fantasia.
In order to fully enjoy Christmas and the Third Round ‘proper’ it is necessary to blank out the negativity that has come to permeate each, polluted by doom-mongers whose souls are deficient of purity.
Christmas, many proclaim, is too commercialised these days, a charge that is equally levelled at the Emirates sponsored tournament of today that no longer pits postmen against household names but rather averagely paid professionals against extortionately paid megastars.
“It all starts too early, doesn’t it”: that’s another we hear as the shops stock selection boxes in September and in a similar vein yer da will loudly tut at the Merseyside derby and Manchester United vs Derby taking place on Third Round Eve.
Then there is the more general complaint that neither is as meaningful or special as they used to be.
The latter accusation particularly riles. Of course Christmas and its sporting cousin the Third Round lack the magic of yesteryear, precisely because they’re in direct competition to the Christmases and Third Rounds of our childhoods and frankly nothing is going to stack up to them. That’s when the magic was real. That’s when we believed in Santa and a Mickey Thomas pile-driver past a flailing David Seaman had us whooping in hysteria and later had us riveted to an extended Match of the Day in our pyjamas.
That was when memories were born that would enrich us forever.
Thomas’ incredible 25 yard free-kick ensured that the team languishing at the bottom of the fourth tier overcame the title holders of the First Division. Should Forest Green Rovers be hosting Chelsea this weekend and a similar remarkable upset occur how would we respond? By taunting Chelsea fans mercilessly on Twitter and laughing our heads off, that’s how. Which is fine but let’s have this right – fundamentally the FA Cup hasn’t changed. We did. We grew up and got a little rough and gruff around the edges.
That’s why we can look forward to a veritable nostalgia-fest in the days ahead, indulging in familiar images of Radford wheeling away, arms aloft, and Matthew Hanlon’s giant-killing of Coventry for Sutton United; of the much-missed Tony Gubba’s voice raising an octave as he declares Thomas to be a ‘magic little man’.
It’s all designed to take us back to the innocence of our past, an innocence that should never be forgotten and adds meaning to the present.
Such sentimentality may jar with the modern age for some but certainly not for me. And not because I cling to a sepia-tinged bygone age when the draw for the fourth round was conducted on the radio the following Monday lunchtime but because the Third Round of the FA Cup remains an enchanting, fascinating and special occasion. It may be different now but that’s because of me, not it.
When I awoke on Christmas morning this year I didn’t race down the stairs hoping to find a BMX in the hallway because I’m no longer eight. When I opened my eyes though and felt the whoosh of excitement as realisation dawned as to what day it was I still darted from my bed.
The same goes for this weekend. A Merseyside dust-up; Boro vs Sunderland; Arsenal going to Forest and Newport v Leeds. I couldn’t give a fig about weakened line-ups. It’s the Third Round proper of the FA Cup: January’s reward for it being January. Bring it all on.
I may even dig out an old pair of pyjamas to watch the highlights in. Just for old time’s sake.