Last January, in this piece, I reflected on the way you feel when your team is knocked out of the FA Cup. This weekend, just like the equivalent weekend last year, my team (Leeds United) were knocked out in the 3rd Round. Today’s 2-1 defeat at QPR did not feel anywhere near as bad as last year’s defeat by the same scoreline at Newport County. Commiserations to fans of Leicester City. Today it was their team’s turn to lose 2-1 at Rodney Parade. In the 12 months since Leeds lost there I had forgotten that it’s the name of Newport’s ground but it might stick in my mind now.
Looking at the results of the teams immediately above and below Leeds you might think that there was some kind of tactical withdrawal going on this season. The current top three in the Championship (Leeds top, Norwich City in 2nd place and Sheffield United 3rd) all exited the Cup this weekend. Norwich and Sheffield United were beaten at home by lower league opposition (Portsmouth and non-League Barnet respectively). In the Premier League (the division above the Championship, as I’m sure you know) three of the bottom four teams also left the competition at the first available opportunity. They too were beaten by lower league sides: Huddersfield lost at Bristol City, Cardiff City lost at Gillingham and Fulham lost at home to Oldham. The only team in the bottom four of the Premier League who didn’t lose were Southampton. They drew at Derby County (currently sixth in the Championship) and will have to replay in mid-January. It’s a game that both clubs could do without.
Whatever the result of the replay, 7 of the 10 clubs occupying the places from 17th in the Premier League to 6th in the Championship will be able to “concentrate on the League” for the rest of the season, focussing on relegation or promotion without the distraction of a cup run. West Brom and Middlesbrough (4th and 5th in the Championship) are the only teams who went straight through to the 4th Round.
I am reminded of January 2002. Leeds were leading the “Barclaycard Premiership” (as the top division was known back then) and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the 3rd Round by Cardiff (who were a lower-league team at the time). This retro-looking piece from the BBC brings it all back to me: Rio Ferdinand substituted early on, Michael Duberry coming on to partner Jonathan Woodgate in defence (“The pair have not spoken since Duberry gave evidence against Woodgate in his trial for affray, but they played well together”) and an early goal by Mark Viduka. Just like today, it ended 2-1. It didn’t seem too bad at the time but it prompted a run of poor results that saw Leeds slip to 5th in the table long before the end of the season, and miss out on the Champions League by one place for the third time in four seasons. (Newcastle finished in 4th place, having beaten Leeds home and away.) This year my sights are set much lower, as they have been for the last 14 years, hoping for promotion back to the top tier. After the team’s three successive defeats since Boxing Day I hope that Leeds are able to “concentrate on the league” for the rest of the season and stay at the top till the final game of the season, at Ipswich in May.