As teams from across the league system meet and the quality throughout English football is demonstrated and celebrated, there are few weekends more enjoyable for a football fan than the third round of the FA Cup.
Before the games had even kicked off talk circulated particularly around the prospect of non-league Blyth Spartans. Playing week by week in the Northern Premier League, Spartans’ position in the seventh tier of English football made Blyth the smallest team to reach the third round of the competition, and so inevitably they became the focal point for an anticipated and much-romanticised underdog victory.
Walking out at home to Birmingham, an in-form side under new manager Gary Rowett, their first half performance fuelled that anticipation when a brace from Robbie Dale saw Blyth go in at the break with a two goal lead over the Blues, who made ten changes in line-up from their previous game. Rowett, who surely had some strong words for his team at half time, saw his side emerge from the tunnel renewed and freshly determined, and within six minutes Birmingham reversed fortunes with a quickfire treble. Lee Novak opened the scoring for the Blues, before Wes Thomas found the net twice in three minutes to take a lead they maintained for the remainder of the match.
Blyth, though, take enormous encouragement from a manful performance, challenging their vastly more experienced opponents throughout the match. Birmingham, meanwhile, might be pleased with their comeback, demonstrating the newfound resilient attitude imbued by Rowett.
Elsewhere, there were signs of another surprise win at Pride Park, where Southport put in a resolute performance to keep Championship title chasers Derby at bay. While the home side dominated play Southport held out commendably to maintain their position in the game, a demonstrable endeavour of teamwork and organisation keeping the Rams at bay. Keeping the play in front of them, sitting deep and marking Derby’s usually-effective forward options, Rams manager Steve McLaren required star men Johnny Russell, Jordon Ibe and Chris Martin to make the difference. With little room to pass in behind the Southport back line, coupled with the attention grabbing performance of goalkeeper David Raya Martin, it seemed increasingly plausible that one effective counter might see the Conference side grab a late winner. It was, however, a rare lapse in the back line that saw Derby clinch victory, when Johnny Russell found space to run into the penalty area. Luke Foster, attempting a last-ditch tackle, brought Russell down for a penalty, coolly finished by Martin. However, like Spartans, there are many productive elements to be taken from Southport’s performance that might sustain and build their confidence in the coming weeks.
Among other highlights, Bradford City took a well-earned draw from Millwall, an encouraging performance that similarly benefits the club monetarily, with the replay being played at Valley Parade, while Chris Hughton began his tenure at Brighton and Hove Albion with a win over Brentford, further proving the quality in English management alongside Rowett.
However, headlines were grabbed by League One side Sheffield United’s 3-0 win over QPR. Faced with an experienced team which featured top scorer Charlie Austin and a centre back pairing of Steven Caulker and Rio Ferdinand, Sheffield outplayed their top flight opponents and ran out winners courtesy of one from Marc McNulty and a brace by Jamal Campbell-Ryce. Restricting QPR to largely speculative efforts, Sheffield’s win was the standout underdog win of the third round.
Highlighting the level of quality that exists in all levels of English football, both in terms of players and managers, the FA Cup may continue to be one of the most entertaining competitions in the sport, pitting unlikely matches and with many sides exceeding expectations.
Which teams might build on earlier successes and progress further through the competition?