“The Magic of the FA Cup” is a phrase you hear tossed around the world of English football. And sometimes that magic is real — especially around early January’s Third Round.

The magic was real at Anfield

This year, as in all years, we had big clubs being upset, little clubs playing on big stages, enormous crowds making big impressions, drama all over the country.

What is the FA Cup?

A Primer for Americans

But magic can be elusive, and for the fan, luck is always involved. In my case, I had both good luck and bad. But this early January weekend is still one of the best times to come watch soccer in England. Here is my summary from a couple of games I saw, plus some of the ones I (sadly) missed.

Friday, January 5 — Merseyside Derby, Liverpool vs Everton

Scarf city outside Anfield

The moment I saw this fixture announced, I raced off to the website of my hospitality broker and jumped on a seat for myself. Seeing a game at Liverpool is hard enough; seeing a derby of any kind is special; but in the FA Cup, the away team gets two or three times the seats. So Everton come to Liverpool with 8,000 of their fans was something I simply had to see.

The package I used (for £125, or about $175) included access to a lounge before and after the game as well as a seat in the middle tier of the Main Stand, around the top of the penalty area. For a league game against Man U or another big boy, it’s easily twice that. And if I could afford it all the time, I would probably do it.

She said she loved my accent. Sigh.

This package, in the Anfield Code Lounge, is the perfect combination of comfort and good seats. The food (which you have to buy anyway) is frankly awful for the setting, and the whole thing doesn’t feel terribly exclusive, but it’s a warm and comfortable place to go and sit and have a snack and drink. After the game it’s a particularly nice place to relax while the crowds clear outside.

Another thing: they clearly have a policy of hiring lots of attractive young women to work this place. Seriously, it’s like a fashion model convention out there. It was almost awkward at times. I felt like a dirty old man. I wanted to explain to someone that young women aren’t meant to be decorations. I also rather enjoyed the whole thing. So I’m confused. Let’s move on.
But first, here’s the last bit of walking out to our seats. (Note how I just … barely … included the ladies on the right.)

“The Friendly Rivalry”

Kickoff of the Merseyside Derby, 5 January 2018

I had heard this phrase before, and I always wondered about it. I’ve seen the two Sheffield teams go at it, I’ve seen Ipswich Town and Norwich City go at it, and I have to say, this did feel a little different. I don’t recall people yelling “scum” or “cunt” at each other, and if the Everton fans sang “Your support is fucking shit,” I missed it. They did sing, “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” when Reds fans were quiet early on. I admired that one.

Still, the passion in the stadium was immense, palpable, consuming. And while they didn’t get perfectly on time with one another, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was certainly louder than the two previous times I had seen it (both Cup games, against lesser opposition):

But you will notice that the Everton fans booed the start of it? And they certainly kept singing throughout it, as you would expect.

Once the game got going, most of the noise came from the visitors in the Anfield Road End — at least, until Liverpool scored. That cranked things up. It went to another level after a little shoving incident on the touch line which, incredibly, didn’t result in a yellow card for anybody.

It’s pretty close quarters in these old grounds.

The Kop came alive after that, and the whole stadium began to boil with emotion. With different areas of the stadium singing different songs or in different time, the effect was one of a cauldron, of waves of sounds crashing against other waves, an immersive experience that must be felt to be understood. I was but a spectator — I can only imagine really being a part of it — but it was an honor and a privilege to be there. Best atmosphere I’ve ever seen in a football ground.

Meanwhile, I was making conversation with an Irish man next to me, mostly about Liverpool’s new £75 million defender, Virgil Van Dijk. It was his debut for the club, and he was winning headers all over the pitch, stopping attacks single-handedly, and distributing crisp passes. Such is the knowledge of a fanbase in England that his play became the topic of conversation in our whole area. Then we began to dream that he might score, and when he put a header right at the keeper, the “OH!” that resulted had a special buzz after it. That was the moment. Or so we thought.

Then, in the second half, with Liverpool up 1-0, this happened:

Now, watch that again and see if you can spot the dude on crutches down in the melee. The BBC went out of their way to highlight him. As a friend later said to me, “I hope he wasn’t out from work, claiming he can’t walk!”

But then, with only a few minutes to go and a replay at Goodison Park looming — and me planning to buy a plane ticket! — The Moment arrived. This Van Dijk might or might not go on to have a long, trophy-filled career at Liverpool, but however it comes out, they will always say, “On his debut, he scored the winner in an FA Cup derby with Everton in front of the Kop!”

I have a video, which was unfortunately cut short by my hand touching the screen again during the carnage. So I will leave it to your imagination, although the official highlights give a taste:

All in all, as my companions noted, we were living the English football dream. Others were doing the same, as well, all over the country.

Elsewhere on the Weekend: Magic (Almost) Everywhere

The Vitality at Bournemouth would have been rocking over the weekend.

My follow-on dream for the next day was to see Sunderland play at Middlesbrough. Now, my American readers might vaguely recognize those names, but the English among you will well know that this game is also known as the Tees-Wear Derby, one of the hotter battles of the Northeast. The two cities are just 31 miles apart.

It was one of three derbies that came out in the Third Round Draw, and I immediately set about trying to get a ticket. I haven’t been to Middlesbrough, and I love me a derby match. Alas, “Boro” put an embargo on ticket sales, offering them only to people who had registered online before the draw was announced. I understand — you want to reward loyalty — but I still called the ticket office and played the Desperate American Card. They insisted there was nothing they could do.

“We have to make sure there are no away fans in the home end,” she said. To which I could only think to respond (A) Who on Earth would attempt such a thing, and (B) Do I sound like I’m from Sunderland? I didn’t say either of those things — and I certainly didn’t mention I was once an Honorary Mackem. Instead I hung up, sighed, and made plans to go to Blackburn.

That would be to stay up north, check another club off the list, and do research for the book. But that’s for another post. First, let’s review what I didn’t get to see:

Boro beat Sunderland, 2-0. Poor Sunderland. As you watch these highlights see if you can feel my indignation at all those empty seats. (I do enjoy the homer announcers, though.)

I should have just showed up, stood in front of the ticket office with cash in hand, and fucking dared them to not sell me a ticket. Again, let’s move on.

Newport County of League Two knocked out Leeds United of the Championship. I never would have gotten a ticket to that, anyway; County’s ground, with the wonderful name Rodney Parade, holds fewer than 8,000 people!

Peterborough from League Two won at the Championship’s Aston Villa!

Bournemouth and Wigan played a dramatic, last-minute 2-2 draw.

MK Dons went and got a win at Queens Park Rangers.

Little Notts County won at Brentford, quite possibly with the goal of the round:

Little Coventry City took out Stoke City of the Premier League

Manchester City trailed at home at halftime to Burnley, which caused quite a stir around the country — and then scored four in the second half!

And that was all just on Saturday, while I was in Lancashire freezing my arse off. But we’ll get to that.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, as I made my way back to London to see friends there, Nottingham Forest went and beat Arsenal, 4-2, with an American defender, Eric Lichaj, scoring twice, one of which was another “goal of the round” contender, in front of an insane crowd at the City Ground.

A side story must be told here. Lichaj has apparently always wanted a dog, and his wife said “Get a hat-trick, get a dog.” Seemed safe with a defender. Well, he got two against Arsenal, then Forest earned a penalty, and he really wanted to take it. After the game, he told the BBC, “I won’t tell you what (the penalty taker) said to me, but he told me to go away.”

But then a campaign was launched — #GetEricaDog — and his wife reported being inundated with pictures of dogs, some from Eric’s Forest teammates. Finally, she had no choice— #EricHasaDog! And he named it Gunner, in “honor” of Arsenal.

I love the FA Cup.

As for me on this drama-filled Third Round Weekend … well, I went to Blackburn. Perfectly nice place, Blackburn. Met some lovely people. But let’s just say it, uh, lacked drama. You can read all about that soon. And you can read more about the “Magic of the Cup” here. And if you want to come over next year and get in on some of this, get in touch.

Read more of my English soccer stories.

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