Thursday 18 February 2021

The Unholy Espirito of the FA Cup

Thirty minutes or so into Wolves vs Southampton last Sunday (14.02.2021), Amazon Prime commentator Peter Drury (he's been called worse) suggested that the home side had "an hour to vindicate that prioritisation", having just gone a goal down to Southampton in the Premier League.

The prioritisation that Drury referred to was the decision of Wolves manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, to play a weakened Wolves side at the same venue against the same opposition three days before on the grounds that it was only an FA Cup match.

An hour after Drury's countdown, Espirito Santo held his assistant in a long, warm and Covid-unaware embrace as the final whistle blew on a 2-1 win for his side, at which point the vindication was presumably reached. After all, the overhauling of Southampton's lead meant that Wolves were now ten points from safety in the comfort of 13th place in the table. Job well done, Espirito Santo Ghost might have whispered into the ear of the assistant, and perhaps also "Who wants to go to fricking Wembley anyway?"

Yet, the path of the vindication was not a straight-forward one driven only by fresh legs and minds; Wolves were, to better trained eyes and heavier wage packets than mine, on the right end of two strange penalty decisions that once again exposed the impotence (and point) of VAR and left Southampton ruing their luck - though hopefully not their principles.

Ralph Hassenhuttl's 2-0 win at Molineux on Thursday was their second win against a Prem team in the FA Cup this season and hints at a more positive approach to the competition from a manager who was  enraged at having to take part in a replay last season. Granted, no one wants to go to Tottenham if they can help it, but to show such scorn was an insult to the club's 1976 triumph when, as a Second Division team, they upset the odds, if not the country, by beating Manchester United.

Perhaps if Southampton were more wary of relegation, as was the case last season, then maybe they would be adopting the Espirito Santo philosophy too, but at some point you have to think of supporters. Fans themselves are brainwashed, talking up survival over Wembley, but is consolidation, 15th, 16th in the table worth the sacrifice? Most clubs get relegated, it's just a case of when. Wigan diced with death for about 10 years until going down in 2013 - the year they won Cup against Mansour's Man City in 2013. OK, perhaps the two developments are linked, but memories and history were made. Wigan also beat City in the FA Cup in 2018 when in League One. 

'Ah, League One, there you go, you see', Espirito Santo might wag a finger, or Burnley's Sean Dyche or Eddie Howe (former weakened side overseer at Bournemouth, now a Championship team again), "League One", mate, League One.' But, while a good cup run doesn't necessarily bring on relegation, is it that bad to drop out of the PL? My team never has, so I'm not qualified to surmise, but Southampton themselves and Sheffield United have, like Wigan, been in League One in the last ten years; Man City too, just over 20 years ago. And for all that Wolves and Burnley are keeping it real in 13th and 15th, Southampton will be playing their South Coast rivals Bournemouth (who parted company with Howe at the end of last season's relegation and may have Thierry Henry in position soon) in an FA Cup quarter final. The winner is then one game from proper-earned Wembley and, if luck favours them and they avoid Man City in the last four, have a plausible chance of reaching the Final against them. 

In all likelihood City will win the Cup, probably as part of another domestic treble, and though the current oil-engineered version  are not as vulnerable as Roberto Mancini's side in 2013, there will at least be hope and excitement for whichever underdogs plays them (hopefully not Chelsea or Manchester United). Otherwise you just have reality, and who on earth wants that?                               

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