For much of my supporting life, the football season had two magical moments: the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup (the Third Round PROPER, of course) and the actual games of that round.
The draw is still special to me. I always know the number of our ball – generally 27 to 29 – and some of the others. I hold my breath when one of the top teams is drawn at home with us still in the hat (the bag, I know); my ears prick up when a minnow is drawn out and may be hosting us.
As a statistician, one of my favourite stories was a couple of years ago when the rehearsal draw paired Man United with Man City. Then the actual draw paired….Man United with Man City.
My delight at being drawn at home this time was quickly tempered by seeing the number of the next ball. I didn’t need the solemn voice of the compere to announce Manchester City; as Shakespeare put it:
Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
So dull, so dead in look, so woebegone,
Drew Priam’s curtain in the dead of night
And would have told him half his Troy was burnt:
But Priam found the fire ere he his tongue.
After a little reflection, I could summon up my usual optimism. Man City’s minds will be on other priorities – the more immediate trophy prospect of the League Cup, the Premier League title, and of course the big prize that’s eluded them, the Champions League.
We may pick a team mindful of the visit to Stoke four days later, but the mood of our camp is upbeat, we’ll be keen to keep up the momentum in front of another full house, and there’s no pressure on us.
What’s changed is how I feel about the game itself. In the past it was a central day of the season, and wherever City were playing we’d be there without fail. That’s taken us to Yeovil and Sheffield Wednesday, and many points between. I remember a game at Derby’s Baseball Ground without a blade of grass on the pitch (and possibly the longest ever wait to get out of the car park). Triumphs and disasters all tasted and digested to the full.
This time, my strongest feeling is the hope that none of our players gets injured. The importance of staying in the Premier League, especially this year, is such that I can’t pretend to care over-much about the outcome. It’s a bit like the difference between watching City and watching England.
It would be nice to progress, of course. But I’d give up our place in the Cup for three points at Stoke without a moment’s hesitation. In fact, I’d give it up in a heartbeat for one point at Stoke.
The idea of having a blank Saturday at the end of January – a winter mini-break for our players to re-charge their batteries – has a lot of appeal. We entertain Spurs at Carrow Road three days after the Fourth Round – wouldn’t it be helpful if they had a tough game that weekend while we were resting and preparing?
I’m sorry. Like many, I’ll bemoan the devaluation of the Cup and yearn for the old days when it was closer to our hearts. Yet it’s my attitude that’s behind the devaluation. Darn.
One attraction of being at Carrow Road this Saturday is to welcome, possibly, a new signing or two. I’m not being drawn into who that might be – especially Italian defenders – but I’m optimistic about this window being a positive one for us.
We’re clearly trying to do business early, but it’s easier said than done. Steven Naismith would be a terrific addition in my view, and noises from the different camps suggest it’s a real possibility – but Everton have a League Cup semi-final in addition to the normal January programme, and are reasonable in wanting to keep him until at least the middle of the month.
I’m confident we’ll have new signings by the time the window closes (sorry, ‘slams shut’). Let’s give them our best support and show them they’ve come to the right place – as we’ve clearly done with Matt Jarvis.
If Robbie Brady is anything to go by, the players we’re now prepared to pay big fees for should be worth watching.