Fans young and old poured onto the field, holding aloft replica FA Cups made of foil and yellow-and-blue scarves, headed to embrace their players.
Right then, as gleeful supporters of third-tier team Shrewsbury filled the playing surface of the Montgomery Waters Meadow Stadium after seeing their team fight back to draw 2-2 with likely English champion Liverpool, it was utter mayhem.
The famous old competition was alive and kicking once again.
Comments by Jurgen Klopp a few minutes later showed the true status of the FA Cup, however. At least for England’s bigger clubs.
“We will not be there,” the Liverpool manager said of the replay that will be staged at Anfield on Feb. 4 or 5. “It will be the kids.”
Leading what will be a virtual third-choice Liverpool team that night will be Neil Critchley, the coach of the under-23 side.
Klopp will be on vacation, too, like his senior players.
It is the latest blow to a 149-year-old competition around which there is much nostalgia and sentimentality — the words “magic,” “romance,” and “giant-killing” are typically part of the FA Cup lexicon — but which, for many, is now an afterthought, even a hindrance in an increasingly packed soccer calendar.
For some teams in the top half of the Premier League, the FA Cup is mainly used an opportunity to give fringe players a run-out to keep them happy and sharp, until the latter stages when a full-strength lineup might be picked if they have advanced. For most of the teams in the bottom half, the season is all about Premier League survival so progress in the FA Cup isn’t especially desirable.
“It’s just logic,” Burnley manager Sean Dyche said after his much-changed side lost to Norwich 2-1 on Saturday. “It’s not about the FA Cup — I’ve had great times in the cup as a player — but the Premier League is so powerful now and our part in it is so important.”
Even teams in the second-tier League Championship can be more concerned with securing promotion to the lucrative Premier League, or avoiding dropping into the third tier, than a cup run.
Liverpool’s treatment of its replay against Shrewsbury is a new twist in the FA Cup story because of the introduction this season of a “winter break” for Premier League clubs, giving them two weeks off in February to recharge.
Yet fourth-round replays in the FA Cup fall in that two-week window, giving managers a problem.
Expect Tottenham’s Jose Mourinho and Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl to be there for their teams’ replay, with Mourinho in particular seeing winning the FA Cup as a chance to salvage something from Spurs’ disappointing season. It was refreshing to see both clubs field full-strength lineups for the 1-1 draw on Saturday.
Klopp, a coach who has repeatedly spoken out about the importance of player welfare and the madness of soccer’s crowded calendar, has other ideas.
“In April 2019, we got a letter from the Premier League where they ask us to respect the winter break and not to organize international friendlies or competitive games,” he said. “We respect that. I said to the boys already two weeks ago that we will have a winter break. We have to respect the players’ welfare. They need a rest — a mental rest and physical rest. That is what the winter break is about.”
So, for Shrewsbury’s players, the trip to Anfield will be more than just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience one of English soccer’s iconic stadiums. It is now a genuine chance to win there and reach the last 16.
Try telling the likes of Shrewsbury that the FA Cup is dead, and the club will point to those joyful scenes on Sunday after the game against Liverpool.
This was, however, a Liverpool team shorn of its best players. A makeshift team featuring a mixture of kids, reserves and players just back from injury (Fabinho, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren).
In a sense, Klopp got what he deserved by fielding such a weakened lineup, and probably doesn’t care given his priorities are winning the Premier League and the Champions League.
It all leaves the FA Cup in a difficult place.
Unwanted by many in the cold, hard light of the money-driven modern game. Cherished by others, the soccer romantics who don’t want to let tradition die. Also by the lowly clubs for whom broadcast money generated by an FA Cup run can do wonders.
Shrewsbury, for example, is set to earn about 500,000 pounds ($650,000) from getting a replay against Liverpool, with manager Sam Ricketts saying it would enable the club to buy better drainage for the playing fields and video-analysis equipment for the training ground.
For Shrewsbury, the FA Cup still does matter.
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