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A Different League

The Magic of the Cup

By Matty LongPublished 4 months ago 6 min read

I first started the idea behind this little series a while back, and I always wanted to ask North East football fans about their opinions on cups.

Little did I know then that not only would Newcastle end up in a League cup final, but Newcastle and Sunderland would face their first derby in almost seven years in the third round of the FA cup, only for Newcastle to then get through to the fifth round for the first time since … Steve Bruce actually.

I say this because I am writing this following an FA cup weekend that threw up some incredible football. I was happy Newcastle won, but it was a very average performance. More of a formality, someone said. It was incredible however, to see semi-professional club Maidstone United beat Ipswich Town - not only a huge English club and a championship side, but a championship side sat at second in the league, on route to promotion as I write. We also saw Manchester United face Newport County, a game that at one point stood at 2-2, and it was nice to see Norwich equalise at Anfield for five minutes.

On top of all this, Wolves drew West Brom, resulting in the first Black Country derby in front of fans in over a dozen years. The levels of violence and disorder on display have caused me to question everything I said in my previous article about football rivalry. But I’ll put that down to them having to wait nearly twice as long as the North East based fans had. Their last derby had been during COVID, as had Newcastle’s last cup run before last year, when we were knocked out the quarter finals by Man City on my birthday (28 June!). Rubbish. It was a stark contrast to my experience at the Hawthorns, just before COVID, when we went through. But behind closed doors games and their effects on the game is something I will discuss in a later article, for now I just want to focus on what cups mean to passionate fans who have gone through ups and downs.

Prior to the weekend, and prior to recent success in cups for North East teams, I think it would be fair to say that the phrase “the magic of the cup,” was very much dead. Certainly in the North East. It’s commonly applied to the FA cup, although I feel it can be used to describe the league cup too – think Northampton humbling Liverpool in 2010 – not entirely sure it applies to the now Bristol Street Motors trophy, though. Sorry Mackems. If you googled the phrase before the weekend, you would mainly find articles either stating that it is dead, and most people I asked felt the same. Cups are a distraction. Cup ties never sell out. You never play your first team in a cup tie. They’re a chance to let the younger players have a go, etc. Fans of both clubs agree:

“We’ve had a few good runs like the 2014 League Cup final and more recently winning the Pizza Cup, but I don’t really pay attention to the cup. Most teams these days see them as training exercises or an opportunity to get minutes in young/fringe players legs and only bother putting a decent team out in the last 16 … I would rather us concentrate on finishing top 10.”

“I remember waiting for a metro home at Haymarket in about 1985 and Brighton had just beaten us in the FA Cup. I was visibly depressed and a stranger looked at me and said ‘get used to it bonny lad, I Newcassel for ya, won’t change.’ Stayed with me those words did. Still, every year we dream and there’s fun in that.”

Stick with that last line for a minute. I love the cups. At every level. They remind me of what football really is and was, before it became a multi-million pound industry. It was a cup game that got me back into the sport. And yes, generally the big teams win them, but, contrary to seemingly popular belief, the cups are more than just the final. They’re a chance for smaller clubs to prove themselves, they could even save a club from administration, theoretically, when you consider the financial gain. Although there aren’t any examples of this that spring to my mind for obvious reasons, there are more realistic stories of a similar ilk. For example, consider the aforementioned Maidstone United, who folded in 1992 after financially difficulty, were reformed around their youth team, and subsequently became a semi-professional club, being in the FA cup in 2023. And now they’ve beaten Ipswich Town. Goalscorer Lamar Reynolds returned to his day job as a bus driver the next day. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

But this series is focussed on Newcastle United and Sunderland. Whatever their ups and downs in recent years have been, these are still big clubs, and whereas a run in the FA cup is enough to live in fans memory for years to come for some clubs, magic for these clubs would be winning. As you get closer to Wembley, this really comes alive, as it did for Newcastle in 2023, and Sunderland in 2014 (who've since visited for EFL trophies and play-offs). Think Trafalgar square takeovers:

It can reignite other brilliant aspects of football fandom too. Just the mere fact that I mentioned that Sunderland’s last run was 2014 is probably enough to make a fan mention that they last won a cup in 1973, four years after Newcastle’s Fairs cup victory. And then of course, it can result in derbies when you’re in different leagues, as it did this season. Even the EFL trophy match in 2019, where Sunderland drew Newcastle’s under 21s, attracted a large crowd of about 16,000 due to it being the closest thing to a full derby in years. Sunderland went on to win the EFL trophy two years later, when it was known as the Papa John’s Pizza trophy. This technically, is their latest trophy, and when Newcastle were ‘Carabao’ league cup finalists, one person I surveyed reacted with “Energy drink cup, pizza cup, same difference.” Nice healthy rivalry kept alive. One Sunderland fan even said of the former EFL trophy run (where they lost on penalties), that it made him realise:

“It doesn’t matter what the competition is, Sunderland at Wembley is always massive – and you can enjoy it a bit more than a play-off final, where there’s more to lose.”

Cup runs are also a chance to prove your mettle. Neither team was doing so, either. Their last major finals were after a period of being nowhere near the top clubs. Sunderland finished 14th the same year they went 1-0 up against Man City in a league cup final (losing 3-1), and, yes, Newcastle had recently been taken over and finished qualifying for the champions league last season, but I won’t be the first to say and nor do I think I need to break it down that this was not because of the Saudi money, and instead down to one man who united the players, the fans and the city together, Eddie Howe.

Howe should, and I believe will, keep pushing this season for that trophy, despite what it might do to the team’s league position. Because when it gets to this level, I think Howe is a man who understands fully what it means to fans. And they love him for it:

“Eddie changed things last year. For fans I think this is our best chance of winning something. Just one cup in our lifetime. The FA Cup has traditionally held a big place in our club history. It would be magnificent to genuinely compete and to finally win a trophy under Eddie Howe.”

The last manager to take us (even further at the time of writing) through such an FA cup run did not receive quite the same level of praise. Consider the following, written by a fan who I surveyed shortly before last season’s semi-final victory against Southampton that led us to Wembley:

“Absolutely ecstatic. It’s been a long time coming and I fully intend to reap the rewards and enjoy the fruits of many years supportership whilst the club floated adrift in the annals of ineptitude under the aforementioned useless cabbage heed and fat **** ... we’re a football match away from Wembley. As I write, that’s tomorrow night. What a turnaround. We are massive."

A stark difference in opinion. About a man who crossed the Tyne-Wear derby divide. And one worth exploring. But that is going to have to be an article in itself. Please stay tuned.



About the Creator

Matty Long

Jack of all trades, master of watching movies. Also particularly fond of pizza, country music, watching football, travelling, and tea.

X: @eardstapa_

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock4 months ago

    Ah, Matty, you may turn me into a football fan yet, though I still have little idea what you're talking about with derbies, cups & rivalries.

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