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The Magic of England's Domestic Cups Is Far From Dead

The magic that made the cup special is something that many cynics have said is long gone - lost in the bygone days of Ronnie Radford and Hereford United, Jim Montgomery and Bob Stokoe at Sunderland and Wimbledon's infamous Crazy Gang. For a time, such pessimists were probably right...

The FA Cup is the world's oldest club competition of its kind anywhere in the world, tracing its origins back to Victorian England in the 19th century. For years it had a pull unlike any other national tournament, creating iconic memories filled with supreme pride and plenty of plucky underdogs.

However, the magic that made the cup special is something that many cynics have said is long gone - lost in the bygone days of Ronnie Radford and Hereford United, Jim Montgomery and Bob Stokoe at Sunderland and Wimbledon's infamous Crazy Gang. For a time, such pessimists were probably right.

English football changed dramatically in the 1990s with the advent of the Premier League era. From 1992, the level of money suddenly being pumped into the sport at the elite level was unlike anything that had ever been seen in English football before. The teams at the top of the new Premier League got better and better, largely leaving the rest behind. As a result of their far greater superiority, the best kept improving and began to exert a real dominance, not only where the league was concerned, but extending to the cups as well. Upsets, certainly in later rounds, were suddenly not so common and the finals were often contested by two 'giants'.

Between 1996 and 2007, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal held an exclusive stranglehold on the FA Cup, winning all 12 finals between them. The same four clubs won 20 out of 24 finals from 1989 to 2012. A domestic double, normally notoriously hard to achieve, was always the mark of a truly great team. In the first 105 years that the FA Cup and Football League existed together, the double had only been won five times. Between 1994 and 2010, however, three Premier League clubs completed domestic doubles on six occasions between them. Any chance of a dramatic and charming underdog triumph was seemingly a thing of the past.

If there was a sense that some of the magic and romance of the FA Cup had been lost, the last few years have been reason enough to believe the competition has recaptured its old charm.

The 2007/08 competition saw Portsmouth crowned victorious, beating Cardiff in the final. The south coast club were the only Premier League team in the semi-finals, easing past West Brom to get to the grand showpiece event at Wembley. Barnsley were the fourth team in the semis, having miraculously beaten Liverpool and later Chelsea, who reached the Champions League final that season, to get as far as they did.

Such a renewed trend has continued and this season alone sees only Arsenal of the Premier League's traditional 'big boys' in the semi-finals. Hull City triumphed in their quarter final to reach the last four of the competition for the first time in 84 years, while Sheffield United join them, despite their lowly status as a League One club.

This campaign, Wigan Athletic have reached the semi-final for the second year in a row. In 2013, they sensationally won the cup for the first time ever, beating Manchester City against all the odds on a memorable day at Wembley. Coming up against City in the quarter finals this season, the odds were stacked against the Lancashire club even more, especially after having been relegated to the Championship after last year's triumph. Yet the magic of the FA Cup prevailed once more and City, despite all their vast wealth, were left wanting for a second time. People could argue that the games didn't mean much to City, but nobody wants to lose a final and the FA Cup remains important for Manuel Pellegrini's 'five trophies in five years' objective.

Big clubs are no longer having things all their own way and the repeat instances of smaller teams reaching semi-finals, finals and even winning them, show that the renewed 'magic', so beautifully exemplified by Wigan, is not just an isolated phenomenon.

The League Cup, while not often regarded in very high esteem compared to the FA Cup, has also begun to yield some of the traditional underdog romance. The country's secondary tournament presents smaller clubs the chance to win a trophy and the early finals were often contested and sometimes won by lower league teams. It too reflected an air of 'big club' Premier League dominance in the first decade of the 21st century as elite level teams began taking it more seriously.

Since 2011, however, clubs that might be considered 'small' have begun to make more of an impact . Three years ago, Birmingham won the trophy, beating Arsenal in the final. A year later, Cardiff, then in the Championship, forced a penalty shootout with Liverpool. Last season saw Swansea win their first ever English trophy, having beaten Chelsea over two legs along the way, while Bradford, who were playing in England's fourth tier, defied the odds on numerous occasions to reach the final. This season, Sunderland surprisingly, but deservedly, reached the final, beating Manchester United in the semi-finals.

There is still a view, however, that cup competitions have become much less important to managers and their clubs. Earlier this season, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert controversially commented that Premier League managers, certainly those concerned with fighting relegation, would be happier and better off without the FA Cup. However, it seems that Lambert remains in a small minority. José Mourinho has described winning the competition as one of the "high moments" of his career, whilst Roberto Martinez, who masterminded Wigan's victory, said it is "unique". It is high praise indeed, especially coming from foreign coaches and just goes to show that the cup is still extremely valued by most.

It takes a special team to win a league title, putting together consistently good performances over the course of a whole season, but any team is capable of putting a good cup run together and for most clubs in England the domestic cups offer the only realistic chance of silverware. For that reason alone the cups still hold a unique and unrivalled attraction for fans, players and managers.

Whilst the pull of such competitions may have faded for a brief period, the renewed exploits of clubs like Wigan, Sheffield United, Bradford, Hull, Stoke and Swansea, have proven that the magic of England's domestic cups is certainly far from dead.

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