It was time Saturday for the big boys to enter the FA Cup. It also is usually the time when the little minnows — clubs outside the Premier and Football Leagues — are supposed to dutifully step aside.
Two of the four non-league sides which remained, however, failed to receive the script and another has the chance to attain club glory on Sunday. It’s part of the beauty of the FA Cup.
Saturday’s winners, both from the fifth-tier Conference Premier league, claimed victories from Championship clubs. While Luton Town topped a struggling Wolverhampton side before nearly 10,000 inside their home Kenilworth Road by a 1-0 score, another club sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world.
Macclesfield, which, with Hereford, were relegated from the Football League last season, stayed close with Championship leaders Cardiff City on its home turf. An 85th-minute goal from Matthew Barnes-Homer produced dreams of a lucrative replay. When he converted a penalty three minutes later, however, the potential extra money was forgotten and the Moss Rose stadium erupted, as the Silkmen were headed for Sunday’s fourth-round draw.
It’s results such as these, and the eight-win run of seventh-tier Hastings United, which ended with a 4-1 loss to fourth-place Championship side Middlesbrough, that make the FA Cup special. It’s seeing a stadium, usually occupied by several thousand people for a league match, filled to capacity. It’s watching the devotion of fans who will travel to far-off places to show their support. More than 1,000 Hastings’ supporters traveled nearly 300 miles to watch their club at Middlesbrough.
Another Conference Premier side, Mansfield Town, sought to claim another top-notch victim Sunday, but the stories of the FA Cup often include controversies. In this case, Luis Suarez (he of the 9.7-scoring dives) hit what appeared to be an intentional hand ball into the goal for what become the deciding score in a 2-1 Liverpool victory in the Field Mill stadium. The loss ruined what would have been a super weekend for Stags’ manager Paul Cox, who was married on Friday and had his 41st birthday on Sunday.
Are further dreams ahead on Jan. 26 when Luton goes to Norwich City and Macclesfield hosts either Wigan or AFC Bournemouth? One only need to look to 2011 when Crawley Town nearly forced a fourth-round replay with Manchester United when a stoppage-time shot grazed the crossbar at Old Trafford. Crawley won promotions that season and last season; it now contends for a playoff position in League One.