MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Pretty Damn Magical
We almost got the moment. In some other, better universe, Neil Kengni's long shot doesn't crash back off the crossbar; instead it clips the underside, bounces down, and then back up into the net. Joe Hart looks confused. Jose Mourinho glowers. And Marine, of the Northern Premier League Division One North West, take the lead against Tottenham.
Okay, so that version of this game probably ends with a comfortable Spurs win as well. There's only so much that the imagination can do against football's pitiless meritocracy. But at least we'd have had a good chuckle to warm the winter night.
And this game, the FA Cup's greatest ever mismatch in terms of league positions, had everything else. Everything but the crowd. Merseysiders hanging over the garden wall with glasses of fizz; a man taking his cardboard cutout of Jurgen Klopp for a walk; Carlos Vinicius hammering the ball into the net from 0.000001 yards, like a sulky older brother putting his siblings in their place.
The FA Cup is a football competition. There's a trophy and everything. But it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a machine for generating occasions such as this, for pinching together two distant parts of the pyramid. For forcing the great and the good to confront the small and the singular. There's more than one way to be a football club, and just because some are bigger and win more doesn't mean they do it any better.
We often look for the magic in the results, but if magic is the business of creating wonderful things that shouldn't really exist, then Gareth Bale strolling around outside your window seems pretty damn magical.
Marine's 2019-20 season ended early, nulled and voided during the first lockdown. The 2020-21 season is suspended until early March, with another cancellation likely. It seems that steps 3 and 4 may lose more than a full year of competition, gate revenue, and prize money. And such unpredictability is dangerous: the non-league ecosystem is delicate enough at the best of times. Locked turnstiles lead to folded clubs.
That Marine were able to ship more than 20,000 virtual "tickets" for their game against Spurs suggests that there is plenty of affection for non-league on special occasions; this now has to be matched by serious, long-term, government-led strategy. Otherwise, when the next January rolls around, and the one after that, we may find that the opportunities for magic just aren't there.
Even More Magical
Ah, there it is. One giant, freshly slaughtered. The third-best coach in the whole wide world, pacing up and down as the opposition brings on a reality TV star at 3-0 up.
The first half was close. The second half, however, was not: Crawley Town rolled over their illustrious opponents, who quickly acquired that glazed "I don't want to be here" look that characterises upsets like this. Leeds were exposed, they were caught cold, they were half-asleep: football's language seems to have been built with the third round's dark January days in mind.
Obviously trying to work out what's going on with Leeds at any given point is a tricky proposition: they have their way, they play it, and results come and go as leaves on the wind. But Bielsa, respecting the traditions of the competition, made a whole load of changes to his usual first team, and in the process perhaps demonstrated why he doesn't change his first team often.
The absence of Patrick Bamford looked particularly stark: there's having a small squad, and then there's having apparently just one functional forward. Down the other end, Kiko Casilla endured a very public nightmare, which was both amusing and karmically satisfying. On occasions such as this, where neither side would ordinarily be the choice of the neutral - Moneybags Crawley vs. Dirty Leeds - we can at least all come together and enjoy the funniest possible result.
Crawley Town's English defender Jordan Tunnicliffe (L) celebrates after scoring their third goal during the English FA Cup third round football match between Crawley Town and Leeds United at Broadfield Stadium in Crawley
Image credit: Getty Images
Not Very Magical At All, Really
As with Spurs, we almost got the moment: Kepa Arrizabalaga contriving to chuck one in before recovering to keep it out. But that was more or less it, as a strong Chelsea line-up kept the magic very much at bay. After the game, Morecambe manager Derek Adams credited his opposite number with showing the cup "a great deal of respect". We suspect Frank Lampard might have had ulterior motives.
Chelsea, with their league form wobbling, needed a win. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, taking their time to settle in, needed a performance. And so Lampard picked a line-up that wouldn't have looked too out of place in the Premier League, and Werner and Havertz got their goals, and everything went to plan.
In a way this game sums up this deeply weird season. Morecambe hadn't played since Boxing Day, thanks to a rash of positive covid-tests at the club, and their captain was absent in isolation. But this has been a season of getting football done wherever possible, even if not sensible, and so Derby played the kids, Villa played the kids, and Morecambe turned up rusty and underpowered and got blown away by a multimillion-pound line-up with a point to prove.
One postponement from the whole round looks, from a certain angle, like a tremendous success. But there comes a point where fulfilling the fixtures because they have to be fulfilled starts to look less like sport and more like accounting. If we're getting football done just because the football has to get done, then how much does the football really mean?
IN OTHER NEWS
If we had to pick a single genre of goal, we'd be sorely tempted to go for "full-back absolutely smacking it on the angle". Like this effort from Danilo. Most pleasing.
The last (and, indeed, only other) time a side from the fourth tier put three unanswered goals past a team from the top tier, it was Aldershot against Oxford United back in 1987. Magical stuff that hardly anybody saw: an opportunistic price hike kept the crowd down to just under 2,000. Nine pounds, they wanted! Nine! To stand on the terraces! Nine!
Well beaten they may have been, but the quiet spectacle of Marine vs. Spurs was still the highlight of the weekend. Here's Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian exploring the entanglement of club with community.
When my daughter was little, I took her to watch Marine AFC play. Thrilled by the revelation that it was socially acceptable to shout your head off on the terrace, she yelled: Come on you football match!! She never uttered a truer sentiment. For a few blissful moments the crowd behind her took up the chant. It was empowering.
West Ham are off to Stockport to complete the third round. And then, rather excitingly, we get the draw for the fourth and the fifth rounds at the same time. Not sure how they'll cope with the postponed Southampton-Shrewsbury game there. Might need brackets.
And Ben Snowball will be here to absolutely smack home tomorrow's Warm-Up on the angle.