Michael Walker: FA Cup provides shelter from stormy league campaigns

Perception that tournament has been devalued does not apply to all ahead of fourth round

A groundsman looks out across Carlisle United’s flooded Brunton Park pitch earlier this month. The ground plays host to Everton in the FA Cup. Photograph: PA

A groundsman looks out across Carlisle United’s flooded Brunton Park pitch earlier this month. The ground plays host to Everton in the FA Cup. Photograph: PA

 

The FA Cup has been called many things over the decades and of late some of the descriptions have been derogatory. The general feeling that the cup has been unprotected by the authorities and devalued by commerce and the pincer instinct of the Premier League is easy to understand.

For some, though, the cup still represents an old-fashioned shot at glory, for others in this fourth round weekend it is a refuge. Here’s a quartet of clubs seeking shelter from other storms.

Carlisle United

(11th in League Two)

In normal times you can walk from the town centre of Carlisle to Brunton Park. It takes about 15 minutes. But these have not been normal times in Cumbria, at least not how the county understood ‘normal’.

So much rain fell that between November 28th and January 23rd Carlisle United could not stage matches at Brunton Park.

In human terms, the town suffered greater losses than football, but one of the enduring images of the floods caused by Storm Desmond was the aerial view of Brunton Park submerged in brown water.

Along Warwick Road, which runs beside the ground, houses were boarded up. Dinghies were in use. It was cold and smelly too. Carlisle is geographically isolated anyway. Now this. The place felt waterboarded.

“Home” games were played in Preston, Blackburn and Blackpool as the club waited on the water to subside and insurance to arrive.

Finally, last Saturday, on a new pitch – the last one drowned – Carlisle United were back. They faced York City in League Two and 7,461 turned up. The average attendance last season was 4,300.

Players and staff had thrown themselves into helping the town and it looks like the town has reciprocated. Twenty years ago 7,400 was Carlisle’s average. Fans might be coming back.

Having made just over £100,000 in prize money in getting to the fourth round, there is a £144,000 TV fee for live transmission of Sunday’s game at home to Everton. It’s a start.

The game is all but sold out and Carlisle have a chance – they drew 1-1 at Anfield in the League Cup in September, losing on penalties. And the weather forecast for Carlisle on Sunday? Rain.

Portsmouth

(5th in League Two)

Eight years ago, Portsmouth won the FA Cup. Nwankwo Kanu scored the only goal. It was enough to beat Cardiff City – captained by Stephen McPhail.

One of the prizes was European football. Portsmouth hosted AC Milan the following season, which means Ronaldinho can always say he scored at Fratton Park. But less than two years after winning the cup, Portsmouth entered administration. They were relegated and two years later were relegated again. By 2013 Portsmouth were in League Two.

There they remain, season three in England’s fourth division. Paul Cook, once of Sligo Rovers, is the ninth permanent manager since Harry Redknapp left and the club is now owned by supporters rather than the assortment of characters dressed up as “businessmen” who came before.

There were close on 18,000 of those supporters at Fratton Park last Saturday to see Portsmouth lose 1-0 to Oxford United.

It’s a long road back, as finishing 16th last season showed. But fans distressed and disgusted by what went on in recent times are showing admirable patience.

There is a debate amongst them, and those who run the club, as to whether they can afford the £500,000 to buy Sheffield Wednesday’s Caolan Lavery. Some say it’s a step too far.

Those finances are placed in another context by neighbours Southampton: their £4 million for Charlie Austin is small change.

And then there’s Bournemouth, today’s opponents.

When Portsmouth were winning the cup in 2008, Bournemouth were being relegated and placed in administration. Now the cup draw has brought Portsmouth a derby, a minor windfall and some respite before the 600-mile round trip to Morecambe on Tuesday night.

Bolton Wanderers

(24th in the Championship)

It took Bolton two games to squeak past non-league Eastleigh and when they did you could hear the relief. Not only did it mean a break from despair – Bolton had one win in 22 before overcoming Eastleigh – it meant income.

And Bolton Wanderers need income. Bolton’s debt, accrued under the largesse of “kettle magnet” Eddie Davies, is at the £170 million level. Davies would like to depart and will write off money owed providing there are credible new owners. Dean Holdsworth, once a Bolton centre-forward, is part of a consortium showing interest.

They need to be quick. Bolton have until February 22nd to find £2.2 million in taxes. It’s the Monday after the fifth round. If they don’t, administration looms and that brings a points deduction which would almost certainly confirm relegation to the third division.

Last week some land near the stadium was sold off to enable January’s wages to be paid but, even so, manager Neil Lennon said: “I’ve got staff who are struggling to make ends meet. That’s not a great scenario. Some of us are having a whip-round.” Shola Ameobi has offered to play for nothing.

The cup draw brought Leeds United and 7,000 Leeds fans, all spending hard cash that Bolton need. They will travel from Yorkshire to the ground where Leeds were relegated from the Premier League 12 years ago.

Leeds, there’s a club that could talk to Bolton about climate change.

Everton

(12th in Premier League)

Bill Gates visited Goodison Park this week, though not to announce a takeover. It was a charity exercise.

Everton manager Roberto Martinez might feel he is overdue some. He is bearing the brunt of supporter irritation that Everton are punching below their weight.

He is entitled to note, and he does, that in the past three games Everton have been on the wrong end of three refereeing calls: John Terry’s offside equaliser for Chelsea; Ashley Williams’s blatant handball for Swansea; and Raheem Sterling’s over-the-line cross for Manchester City.

That last one, on Wednesday, knocked Everton out of a possible League Cup final against Liverpool. Sterling’s cross changed the game. Everton were 3-2 up on aggregate, there was 20 minutes left.

But Evertonians viewing the broad landscape of the season are not hearing Martinez. They are too busy pointing at under-achievement. They see their own club’s talent and Leicester City’s 18-point superiority. They remember last season’s 11th place.

Martinez’ Everton position requires protection. Standing in the rain at Brunton Park on Sunday might not be the obvious place to seek it. Maybe he should have a word with the referee beforehand about what this cup-tie means to him and Everton: shelter.

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