FA Cup fifth round: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 17th February 2019 6:35

1) Since the beginning of 2003/04, a season during which they reached the FA Cup final, Millwall have won 31 FA Cup matches and reached the quarter-finals four times. They are the great modern FA Cup overachievers.

To put that statistic into context, Millwall have reached four FA Cup quarter-finals in 15 years. Liverpool have reached three. That is a remarkable record, one that offers evidence both of Liverpool’s odd relationship with the competition in recent years and Millwall’s ability to produce a performance far greater than the sum of their parts against bigger and better opposition.

 

2) It seems a little like damning with faint praise to commend Millwall supporters for not being violent or racist before, during or after a match. But given the scenes in round four, when supporters were filmed brawling in the streets and delighting in racist chants, there was mercifully no repeat of either on Saturday.

We have had bad press recently and rightly so,” said manager Neil Harris after the victory over AFC Wimbledon. “We need to be better in society. Today Millwall are being talked about for being in the last eight of the best cup competition in the world.”

Harris is right, and hopefully the message finally sets in. Millwall is a wonderful community club that does a huge amount of good but will never shake their stereotypes for as long as the club attracts a certain type of supporter. The club reacted appropriately to the scenes during the Everton match, and has stressed that any fan proven to have partaken in such chants will be banned for life. Good riddance.

 

3) If Millwall are the FA Cup’s great overachievers, QPR must surely be bestowed with the opposite crown. Between 1997 (think Trevor Sinclair and that bicycle kick against Barnsley) and 2019, QPR had failed to win a single FA Cup tie outright.

This season was different. Steve McClaren’s side beat Leeds United in the third round and then dispatched League One promotion chasers Portsmouth after a replay. A televised home tie against Watford gave QPR a fighting chance of reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1995. Typically, they passed up the opportunity. After rejuvenating QPR following a miserable start in charge, McClaren has now lost five league games on the spin and QPR have slipped to 18th.

If you were looking for a defining image to represent QPR’s relationship with the FA Cup, look no further than Toni Leistner’s comical miss in the final minutes of Friday evening’s tie. After somehow managing to stab the ball over the bar, Leistner lay in a crumpled heap, holding onto the goalnet as his teammates all held their hands over their heads. At least in every other year supporters didn’t even have to bother getting their hopes up.

 

4) Pep Guardiola might feel that he cannot win. If Phil Foden starts for Manchester City and plays badly, it is because Guardiola has not given him enough minutes. If Foden starts for Manchester City and plays well, it is proof that Guardiola must pick him more often.

Yet picking Foden in the Premier League is difficult. Manchester City have David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and even Bernardo Silva to fill that role of advanced creative central midfielder with licence to drift forwards and backwards, left and right. City are in the middle of a title race that will be decided by fine margins, and mistakes could well be costly. Part of a young player’s development is being allowed to make mistakes that are inevitable. Can Guardiola risk damaging a title bid to play an 18-year-old just because he’s clearly sodding brilliant, when he has other sodding brilliant players?

But therein lies the difficulty for every academy player at an elite English club. Foden is clearly ready to play Premier League football, comfortably City’s best player on Saturday, but he has still not started a top-fight match while Jadon Sancho has started 21. Good one Foden for backing himself to make the grade at the Etihad, but I won’t apologise for being desperate to see more of him.

 

5) It sounds more than a little patronising to praise Newport County for being beaten 4-1 at home, but anyone who watched the match will consider Michael Flynn’s side worthy of their own section. The build-up to the match may have sold a side that could be promoted to League One as a collection of pub landlords, butchers and policemen, but that only reflected the vast financial gap between the two clubs. Manchester City made a host of changes and picked a starting XI that cost over £300m in transfer fees. Flynn picked two players in his XI that had commanded a transfer fee – together they cost £50,000.

And Newport did frighten City, albeit after being kept at arm’s length for most of the match. Padraig Amond’s 89th-minute goal briefly gave them hope of an astonishing comeback, only for Foden and Riyad Mahrez to extinguish that glimmer of light.

But that’s not really the point. Newport reached the fifth round for the first time in 70 years, and Flynn estimates that the club will make an extra £1m thanks to their cup run. Most importantly, who knows how many young people in the community have been inspired by County’s run, and have had a lifelong affinity forged with their local club. That’s your FA Cup magic in action.

 

6) A word too for Manchester City’s behaviour post-match, which really helps to make this sort of occasion. Flynn spoke on the evening of the game and revealed that Guardiola had invited Newport’s players into the away dressing room after the game to converse with the opposition. Guardiola himself sought out Flynn to spend some time with a manager who clearly impressed him. Flynn recalled how Guardiola told him “you should be proud, you are doing a fabulous job, and good luck”.

It is easy to dismiss – or at least be cynical – about gestures like these, but they really do make a difference. Just because you are employed by a state-owned sporting behemoth does not mean that the little things should be ignored. Good on City and Guardiola. As Flynn himself said, he and his players will cherish that time for the rest of their careers.

 

7) Can anyone give me a good reason why Raheem Sterling was booed by the Newport County supporters more than any other Manchester City player? And is there any justification for Sterling becoming the Premier League’s pantomime villain, other than the very obvious and very depressing?

It is not just Newport County, you understand. I heard the same thing from Burton Albion, Southampton and Leicester City supporters. Sterling is booed because Sterling is booed, supporters hardwired to follow the lead.

To those who underestimate the power of national newspaper front pages, think on. A young, black footballer had the temerity to leave Liverpool and the temerity to buy his mother a house, and he was (and subsequently continued to be) lambasted by tabloid front pages because he was a soft target and an easy sell.

That same subsection of the industry cannot raise its arms in exaggerated innocence when Sterling is then racially abused (physically and verbally), and it cannot do the same when Sterling is judged different to every other player by opposition supporters. They made this happen, because they used Sterling as a pawn in a grubby, greedy game.

 

8) It’s all a question of perception. After Monday night’s tie at Stamford Bridge, Javi Gracia will be in charge of the fourth highest-ranked team left in the FA Cup. Watford have never won a domestic cup competition. Gracia and his players have a shot at Vicarage Road immortality.

But let’s not pretend that Gracia is flying the flag for treating the EFL Cup and FA Cup with wholehearted respect. Watford have played five domestic cup matches this season, and Gracia has made 48 out of a possible 55 changes to his starting XIs from the previous league match. The key to avoiding criticism lies not in picking your strongest team but in making sure that those in reserve get the job done. With Watford already safely ensconced in Premier League mid-table, it will be interesting to see if Gracia picks a full-strength team now his team are one win from Wembley.

 

9) One manager who already has altered his FA Cup strategy is Nuno Espirito Santo. Nuno has picked his first-choice central defenders for each of their FA Cup ties, but at Shrewsbury Town in the fourth round made changes across midfield and attack and almost paid the price. Late substitute Raul Jimenez scored an equaliser at the death to force a replay. Nuno picked a similar side in the home game and again saw his side have to come from behind.

Against Bristol City on Sunday, a different approach. The back five was again first-choice, but Joao Moutinho started in central midfield and this time Jimenez was also picked to start. Nuno is aware that only Chelsea/Manchester United and Manchester City will be ranked higher than them in the quarter-finals. Get a good draw, and Wembley really is a possibility. He’s taking it seriously.

“We don’t separate the competitions,” Nuno said before the game. “It doesn’t matter what competition we’re involved in, it doesn’t matter where you’re going to play the opponent. We spend the same time, doing the same things, trying to go to the last detail which can help us compete better.”

Having lost two domestic cup finals with Rio Ave in Portugal, Nuno knows that adding a trophy to his CV will only improve his growing reputation. When Jose Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United, I touted Nuno as a potential replacement. I certainly wouldn’t have him at four times more unlikely than Gareth Southgate.

10) The FA Cup can easily be an unwelcome distraction for teams fighting relegation, with Wigan Athletic’s 2013 triumph the obvious example. Matches in the final weeks of the season use up great energy resources. Prolonged FA Cup participation means rearranged league games played in midweek, which can increase fatigue.

But there is another train of thought, and it is one that Chris Hughton has fully signed up to. Brighton have taken six points from a possible 33 in the Premier League to fall from mid-table comfort into relegation trouble. If Brighton still have most of the bottom half to play at the Amex, that can easily be a double-edged sword.

Hughton is hopeful that FA Cup victories can actually ignite Brighton’s dismal league form. “I am hoping the momentum of this cup run can push us on in our league,” Hughton said after beating Derby. “We haven’t been that bad in terms of level of performance but the last three games we picked up one point.”

It’s a nice idea, but none of the teams currently below Brighton have any cup distraction and have all had a week of extra -often warm-weather – training. Does that give them an advantage?

 

11) Yves Bissouma has endured a difficult first season in England. It has taken him longer than he might have liked to settle in the Premier League, mostly used as a substitute by Hughton. Bissouma was hardly playing low-level football at Lille, but a bottom-half Premier League central midfield is a difficult place for a young player to find his feet. The Malian has started only nine league games after a £15m move. He might need to bulk up a little to cope.

But bugger me there is a gem of a player in there if Brighton keep the faith. Bissouma is what your coach as a kid would call a ‘Rolls Royce footballer’, sauntering around the Amex pitch as if he was up against underage players. His passing his crisp, his protection of the ball exceptional and his turn of speed from a standing start far too good for Derby County. He will surely have a crucial role to play in Brighton’s survival bid.

 

12) For Frank Lampard, the first big test of his credentials. An FA Cup run was an enjoyable side mission during his debut season as a manager, but Derby must now mount a promotion bid. Lampard’s club demands it.

Previous Derby County managers have been sacked for failing to earn promotion. This club has not finished outside the top nine in the Championship since 2013 and yet Lampard is the sixth permanent manager in that time. The message is pretty clear.

And yet all is not completely rosy. Lampard has spent £15m on permanent transfers this season, and also added Harry Wilson, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Andy King’s wages as part of loan deals. They currently sit seventh, outside the playoff places.

Derby’s other recent trick is to fall away at the end of the league season. In 2017/18, they won four of their last 16 league games. In 2016/17, five of their last 18. Given that Derby have only taken 14 points from their last ten Championship matches, Lampard will hope that his team have already suffered the blip. A repeat of their late-season form will see Derby’s faith in their new manager tested.

 

13) Derby County are very, very bad at playing teams from higher divisions in the FA Cup. They have won just one of their last 23 FA Cup games against teams from a higher division, drawing six and losing 16.

 

14) If Newport gained plaudits despite defeat, AFC Wimbledon’s FA Cup run ended in damp squib. There is clearly no shame in defeat to Championship Millwall, but beating West Ham was Wimbledon’s great story. They never threatened a repeat on Saturday. The result also means that AFC Wimbledon have lost more home games in all competitions this season than any other club in England’s top four divisions.

For Wally Downes, thoughts must turn to what increasingly looks like a hopeless bid to avoid relegation. AFC Wimbledon are seven points adrift at the foot of League One, and relegation would be a sad occasion for this phoenix club. Wimbledon have never been relegated, nor finished in the bottom four of any division. Both of those records will surely change in 2018/19.

 

15) On the quiet, Roy Hodgson is back doing an excellent job at Crystal Palace. On December 8, his team lost 3-2 at West Ham to make it five points from their last ten Premier League games and supporters worried whether another Palace manager was going to fail to make it through an entire season.

Since then, Palace have beaten Leicester City, Wolves, Manchester City and Fulham in the Premier League and beaten Tottenham in the FA Cup. On Sunday they brushed past Doncaster Rovers with the minimum of fuss. Relegation is looking less likely by the week.

This is only the second time since 1995 that Palace have made it to the FA Cup quarter-final. If you don’t want to see Hodgson copying Alan Pardew’s sexy, sleazy Wembley dance then I’m afraid we can never be friends.

16) There is not much to be cheerful about if you’re a Swansea City supporter. The club is stuck in Championship mid-table, and feels like years rather than months since they were in the Premier League.

Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, Swansea’s American majority shareholders who purchased their stake in the club in 2016, deserve plenty of flak for the manner in which the club passed up their USP and in turn lost their way. There are doubts as to whether Swansea can ever get that back.

But in Graham Potter, Swansea have their diamond. At Ostersunds Potter created a team that was capable of punching way above its weight, and in south Wales he is doing exactly the same. Despite having to promote players from the Under-23 squad and coping with the loss of a host of key players due to a firesale of high earners, Potter is keeping Swansea’s head above water.

Last season, Swansea reached the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in over 50 years. Now in a different division, with a very different squad and under a different manager, they are there again. In 2018/19, that is a far more impressive achievement. They are damn lucky to have Potter.

Daniel Storey

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