The Sweeper: Is Leeds v. Manchester United Proof the FA Cup is More Important than Ever?

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Billy Bremner's Statue at Elland Road

Henry Winter thinks the FA Cup is gaining relevance as the money English football tips even farther to the Top Four in the Premier League, and points specifically to today’s third round FA Cup clash between Leeds United and Manchester United as proof.  He writes, “in a sport where the gap between haves and have-nots makes the Grand Canyon look like a tiny fissure, where the Premier League dominates the daily agenda, the FA Cup actually acquires greater importance, not less significance as many of its critics contend. It generates funds and publicity for those outside the privileged few. It’s showcase time.”

Perhaps that’s why the Guardian/Observer is leading the pack with no less than three opinion articles on today’s upcoming clash between the former top division rivals, currently separated by two divisions.

Richard Williams:

Ten years ago this weekend the fans could revel in their identity as Leeds United stood proudly at the top of the Premier League, looking down on Manchester United and facing the future with absolute confidence. But tomorrow, when Leeds travel to Old Trafford to meet their old rivals in the third round of the FA Cup, the two clubs will be separated by 42 places.

Paul Wilson:

There’s a big game taking place at Old Trafford this afternoon. The television cameras will be there, the biggest crowd of the weekend will turn up even if the occasion is not quite sold out, and at the end everyone will want to know the score. Which is remarkable, really, given that Manchester United are playing at home in the third round of the FA Cup against a team two divisions below them.

Rob Bagchi:

We haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1981, a 28-year gap that has been a weight on Leeds’ supporters shoulders. In some ways the game is a twitch on the thread, a memory of what it used to be like and a chance to rekindle the days when we took them on as equals.  For once, however, after [Leeds manager] Simon Grayson’s skilful rejuvenation of a moribund club and with everyone focused on promotion from the purgatory of three years in League One, we are rather more preoccupied with getting a bigger monkey off our backs.

Bagchi’s piece is the strongest, putting to rest any notions of a once-”romantic” rivalry by reminding us of incidents like hundreds of Leeds supporters loudly chanting Don Revie’s during a moment’s silence commemorating Matt Busby’s passing in 1994.  He also puts the fixture into a proper footballing context; Leeds manager Simon Grayson clearly thinks promotion is a sweeter pie than progress in the FA Cup, giving the lie to Henry Winter’s notion that the FA Cup is “as important as ever,” as well as Paul Wilson’s claim that “at the end, everyone will want to know the score.”

While the FA Cup is often good at providing writers with a big v. small, rich v. poor pre-match narrative for games like Leeds v. Manchester United, it’s fixtures like these, as Grayson’s league ambitions demonstrate, that are becoming more and more exercises in nostalgia, a search for a lost and sometimes best-forgotten past, rather than the substantial competitive fixtures they may have once been.

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Richard Whittall writes A More Splendid Life.

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