It’s that time of the year again. The FA Cup Third Round. The zenith of discussion about how the FA Cup has lost its magic and appeal. Moany nostalgia aside, it’s quite obvious to anyone who watches football that the world’s oldest domestic football cup doesn’t provide the same kind of financial incentives that a good Premier League finish, or a sojourn into European competition.
Much of the discussion, however, comes from the perspective of people who watch the game on that big screen across from their sofas. I’ve now watched a match from each of the nine rounds of the cup so far. I can confidently say there is still plenty of magic to be had. My bit Third Round wizardry came from Craven Cottage where the victors of my Second Round game, Oldham Athletic, visited Premier League strugglers Fulham.
Competition: FA Cup Third Round
Ground: Craven Cottage
Refreshments: £5 (Coke and Twix)
Why Fulham v Oldham
Firstly, the elephant in the room. Oldham’s victory over Maidstone back in December was distinctly lacking in magic on the pitch. The League Two side ground out an away win against a limited non-league outfit currently fighting to maintain their status one level below the Latics. Off the pitch, however, it was considerably more enjoyable. Oldham’s fans had travelled in reasonable numbers – limited by the allocation offered by their non-league hosts of course. They were nosy though.
So Oldham’s lively fans were one reason for following their FA Cup journey for at least one more round. Secondly, Craven Cottage is often considered one of the best away days in the Football League. You can see why. It’s in a nice part of town, by the river. You get a nice big away section as well as a friendly welcome from the home fans who are a little more laid back than many of their neighbours in the capital. Visiting fans can essentially have their way with the Cottagers in the atmosphere stakes, shake their hands after the game and then be wished ‘a jolly good trip’ back home.
This would be my second visit to the ground Fulham have called home since 1896. My first was almost exactly nine years ago for another FA Cup Third Round tie against League One side, Swindon Town. That was a pretty dull game. I was hoping for better from Oldham but I didn’t have potential ‘cupset’ down on my list of reasons for making the trip west.
FA Cup pedigree
Oldham’s best FA Cup performance is three trips to the semi-finals. In two of these, they came up against Manchester United, in 1990 and 1994. On both occasions, they took the Red Devils to a replay but ultimately lost at the second attempt at Maine Road. Their other visit was a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in 1913. In recent years their highlight was a Fourth Round home win against Liverpool in 2013 that was followed by a Fifth Round exit at the hands of Everton.
Fulham have managed to go a step further in the cup than their opponents. In 1975, while still a Second Division club they were gloriously defeated 2-0 by the mighty West Ham at Wembley. I say it was glorious, I wasn’t alive, but I imagine it was. Since those heady days, they’ve only made the semi-final once when they lost 1-0 to Chelsea in 2002. More recently they lost a Quarter Final replay to Spurs in 2010.
Latics come, see and conquer
Oldham fans came to this game in good numbers. Around 4,000 to be, not entirely, exact. Many were strolling along the river on the walk from Putney Bridge, the closest station to Craven Cottage. Some were also having a look around the ground as others took to their seats early to begin their excellent repertoire of songs. The rest were stood around the refreshments stands in the away end, staggered at the cost of £3.50 for a bottle of popular soft drink and £1.50 for a chocolate bar. Or maybe that was just me.
You might wonder how I knew this. To get to my seat in the Riverside Stand I first had to run the gauntlet and pass through the away section. Everyone was in good spirits back there though, so much so that a couple of visitors alerted the sniffer dogs to potential packages that they may or may not have been carrying or recently consumed. I quickly made it out of the frying pan and into the comfy armchair next to the roaring fire that is watching Fulham at home.
As was largely expected Fulham had benched key players like Mitrovic, Sessegnon, and Schurrle. I was, however, located pretty close to the VAR screen that the ref could use to check the accuracy of his choices later on. Billy the Badger did his lap, leftover New Year’s delicacies were passed around and the game began. The visiting fans were in fine voice throughout. Balloons floated about and the late afternoon sun reflected off several foil replicas of the FA Cup. It was like the old days that everyone talks about.
The first half was lively enough without any real incident. The Oldham fans continued to empress the locals and their team had just enough of the ball to keep their hope alive. They gave a good reception to caretaker manager Pete Wild, who stepped in last minute to lead the side after the Latics had sacked Frankie Bunn just after Christmas. Wild, the interim academy manager, had reportedly bought a ticket in the away end and was ready for a large one before being summoned to the dugout by his boyhood club.
Things began to happen just after the break. Dennis Odoi, always good value for a variety of reasons, volleyed Fulham in front. It prompted even more noise from the Oldham fans but it appeared at the time to be a perfectly timed goal for the Premier League side. Ayite was then clean through for the hosts but his shot went wide. The Latics hung in there and were soon rewarded.
Sam Surridge, on loan from Bournemouth, who was impressive against Maidstone came on and the game began to change. It was Surridge who levelled the scores after Sessegnon gave away a penalty shortly after he came on. The away end erupted, blue and orange smoke filled the air.
Mitrovic warmed up and a chance to be the hero fell into his lap. As he was preparing to come on on Tom Cairney went down in the box. It looked soft and was referred to VAR. The VAR official confirmed it was a penalty although the referee never made it as far as the screen to check. Mitrovic trotted on and promptly missed the penalty. The game was still alive.
Then it all happened. Another loanee, this time from Wigan, Callum Lang got on the end of a cross the head Oldham into ecstasy, thankfully not the kind that can be located by sniffer dogs. The away end went wild and everyone lost themselves in talk of giant killings. Ranieri looked frustrated but not all together like he’d be crying into dinner. The billboards reminded people that Spurs were the next visitors to Craven Cottage and the relegation battle was ongoing. The Oldham fans on the other hand likely neither knew or cared who their next league opponents would be.
Oldham drew Doncaster away in the next round meaning their run of three successive appearances in the South East comes to an end. Here’s hoping they get through Rovers and return. I’ll miss them.