The FA Cup is a tournament that makes heroes out of the most unlikely people. It is a tradition that makes giant-killers out of teams that most people outside of England have never heard of, and which affords the mighty and the humble alike a shot in the limelight. This is a tournament that is unlike any soccer competition that takes place in the United States (US) today. The feeling and the heart of soccer can be found in the FA Cup, however. The extended community and connections that form out of support for a local team can be found here. You don’t have to know the players, or even the teams, to find something to appreciate in a competition like the Cup.
The 3rd round in the tournament begins Saturday. It is a little too far into the tournament for Americans checking it out for the first time to see all of the FA Cup hometown heroes that emerged in the early rounds. There are, however, still some underdogs left in the contest to capture the imagination and inspire support. Everybody loves a Cinderella story. The fascination with March Madness in the US is enough to illustrate how much Americans love to root for the little guy doing big things. When a complete unknown takes down a higher seed in an upset game, it destroys brackets but inspires devotion in fans of the game. This soccer tournament can have the same effect. Cinderellas are giant-killers, and the game is very different, but the FA Cup captures the inherent desire of fans to see the unlikely become heroes, if only for a round.
The Brackley Town FC from Northamptonshire, which is northwest of London, were a first round upset story. The men on this squad exemplified the spirit of the FA Cup. For a night, they made a noise that made fans around the world stand up and watch. This was the first time that Brackley Town made it into the second round of the FA Cup in club history. With the support of an entire town in the middle of nowhere, these part-time players went toe-to-toe against heavy favorites, Gillingham FC, and won.
The players of the Brackley Town squad almost all have day jobs. They are the guys you work beside during the day, then cheer your brains out supporting that night. They are easy to love because you know them, or someone just like them, and you want to believe you could be them. On the night of the match, goalie Billy Turley was out on suspension. Back-up Alistair Worby stepped into what seemed like an impossible situation, but he had the whole team behind him and the nerves to show his mettle under pressure. He made a finger-tip save in the final minutes that was beautiful, and preserved the 1-0 score to give them the win.
Fan favorite, Elliot Sandy stole the show and won hearts with his post-match antics. He was chased away after sneaking a touch of the FA Cup trophy. He explained to the world in his interview that he was excited because he had never seen it before. His genuine excitement for the game was contagious when seen in contrast with the consummate propriety that surrounds many Premier League personalities. He is infectious, and this is what the FA Cup is about. It brings out the fan in everyone.
While the Brackley Town boys will not be playing on Saturday morning, the teams that are offer the chance to see that spirit played out by slightly less unknown underdogs. In fact, many of the clubs that are in the Championship and the Premier League are beset either by injuries or exhaustion after the Christmas holiday schedule. The FA Cup matches will provide an opportunity to see players that even fans of those leagues do not get the opportunity to see often. These are the days that they get the chance to shine as teammates are rested.
The Queens Park Rangers (QPR) are one of those sort-of underdog teams. They are contenders for the Championship spots that will make them eligible for promotion to the Premier League, and they have all the hallmarks of a small-town team that is reinventing itself as a world-class contender. While none of these players are flipping burgers at a day job, they have a charisma as a team that makes you want to cheer for them. When they make it up to the Premier League level again, it will be hard to watch them without wanting to see them succeed in a kind of David and Goliath sort of way. Saturday’s match against Premier League club Everton will provide a preview of that future possibility. QPR will be sitting several first squad regulars, but midfielder Joey Barton is sure to have loads of crowd support that will be infectious. Not exactly Cinderella, but fun to watch and get behind nonetheless.
Grimsby Town, one of three non-league teams playing in the third round, will be fun just for the sake of saying it. They will be playing on Saturday, as well, and it will be a true underdog experience to watch if they are able to pull off a victory. They could have half the country rooting for them just for the feeling of getting behind the little guy. This is what this tournament is all about. The FA Cup makes for some unlikely heroes, but some great stories.
By Jim Malone