Rewind back to early January and in the days leading up to the third round of the FA Cup you might remember the comments made by Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert. He said that most Premier League clubs could “do without” the world’s most famous domestic cup competition from featuring on their fixture lists, effectively shunning it as inconvenient and unimportant. The general (and widely accepted) view nowadays is that the more progress made in the cup competitions, the greater the chance that the league form will suffer due to the amount of fixtures piling up and the greater physical demands on the players.
Whilst that view has an element of truth in it, very few see the true benefits of what an extended cup run can bring to a club’s overall season. Look at the four semi-finalists in this year’s FA Cup. All four sides, despite representing three different divisions, are having good seasons or are at least in a rich vein of form. Arsenal, whilst be being the strongest side left in the competition (with all due respect to the other three teams), are in the hunt for the Premier League title. Hull City are having an excellent season on their return to the top flight as they’re in no immediate relegation danger and have maintained a mid-table position for the most part.
As for the two sides who have done their fair share of giant-killing to represent The Football League at Wembley, Wigan’s cup heroics have coincided with a much improved run of league form which has made them a real contender for the Championship play-offs. Sheffield United have beaten four teams from higher divisions in four successive rounds but have still managed to string together a club record winning streak which has lifted them away from the relegation zone in League One to the top half with the play-offs not being too far away either.
Therefore there is definitely evidence to suggest that, rather than the cup proving to be an inconvenience, it can prove to be a catalyst for improving a team’s fortunes if approached in the right manner. Up until that third round weekend, Sheffield United were having a particularly dismal campaign and Wigan’s season was proving to be ultimately forgettable. Whereas Arsenal and Hull’s respective seasons haven’t been derailed by their cup progress. You could argue that Arsenal’s title challenge has faded away slightly as they now appear to be third favourites but they’re now the clear favourites to win the FA Cup. Having gone nearly ten years without winning a trophy, I’m sure the vast majority of Arsenal fans would be delighted if they were to win the FA Cup this season.
At the end of the day, winning is winning and it becomes a habit. Winning also breeds confidence and this leads to more wins. For a team having a poor season, as Sheffield United undoubtedly were, the cup offers a chance to boost the team’s confidence levels. For the Blades, winning at Villa Park was a huge turning point in their season. Since then, Nigel Clough’s men have believed that they can beat anyone. Having knocked out two Premier League teams, they almost expected to beat the two Championship teams which they faced since then.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out like this in that league and cup form aren’t always in positive correlation to each other. Wigan are attempting to defend the trophy but they are doing so as a Championship side having been relegated last season just days after their famous day at Wembley. However, that is the only time it has happened. Despite this, the FA Cup still seems to be a low priority for most clubs at the higher echelons of the English league pyramid. For every example of a team whose season has gone downhill as a result of their FA cup progress, there are many examples of teams who’ve gone from strength to strength due to their run in the competition. This is certainly true for this year’s semi-finalists who have managed to rekindle a bit of the cup’s magic in the process of reaching this stage.