Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. It all starts here.
FA Cup third round. It should be the most romantic day of the season, when dustmen and plumbers come up against millionaire Premier League stars and rosy-cheeked cherubs invade the pitch at the final whistle in a glorious celebration of everything that’s still wonderful about football. Now it stretches from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, even teams outside the top level don’t seem all that bothered and television shows such epics as Sheffield Wednesday v Cardiff and Coventry v Oxford United.
We’re away at Middlesbrough and to nobody’s surprise and for even less reason it’s on TV. So it’s off to whatever the ground is called now to remember the far-off days of Paul Gascoigne, Juninho and Ravanelli. Thee were the days when Middlesbrough was, and I kid you not, listed as one of the top twenty most glamorous football areas in Europe, almost certainly by someone who’d never been there.
Now they’re permanently mid-table in the Championship and in the League Cup semi-finals next week. God knows what sort of team they’ll put out but it might include their new signing Finn Azaz. Only God and Unai Emery (they’re much the same thing) know what sort of team we’ll have representing us on the first step of our inexorable march to immortality.* There’s a couple coming back from injury who need a run-out, a few who need a bit of a rest and a few more who should be wanting to show how much they’ve got to offer but when they get the chance they hardly ever do. Playing in Europe has given us a better idea of how to manage a squad as well as experience in how to play in backwaters where civilisation has barely scratched the surface. As for the result, it’s inevitable.*
*You all know what year it is for.