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Getting into conversation with my Mackem dog walking mate ahead of the FA Cup clash – Interesting

2 months ago
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The FA Cup.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, it was the competition you wanted to win.

Forget about today’s obsession with the Champions League, this was the gig, from third round upsets at Layer Road to last four epics at Villa Park and Hillsborough, Terry Hibbitt imitating Joe Willock to find Supermac who duly obliged against the Clarets of Burnley at the Leppings Lane End.

All the kids I knew wanted to score the winning goal in the Final at a sun drenched Wembley Stadium on hallowed turf that more resembled a bowling green in the broiling heat, before collapsing in a glorious heap, Charlie George style.

On 20 July 1871, in the offices of the Sportsman Newspaper, the Secretary of the Football Association proposed to the FA Committee the establishment of a Challenge Cup, for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete.

The inaugural tournament kicked off in November 1871 with thirteen competitors and was won the following year, when Wanderers defeated the Royal Engineers by a solitary goal in the Final. Forgotten names from a bygone era.

Of course, the more familiar name of Newcastle United has been etched on the famous trophy six times, the most ‘recent’ of which was in 1955, after our 3-1 win against Manchester City at the Empire Stadium.

The following season, in defence of the trophy we’d won for the third time in five years, we reached the quarter finals, only to be jettisoned from the most famous cup completion in the world by our nearest rivals Sunderland AFC. They didn’t go on to win it, losing in the semi-final to Birmingham City who themselves lost in the FA Cup final to the team we’d beaten twelve months earlier.

We’ve gone close to lifting the famous trophy since that 1955 triumph, most notably in 1974 and then again 1998 and 1999, only to rock up Wembley way and lose all three of those finals, by an aggregate score of seven goals to nil.

What price we can go all the way this season? The fact we got to Wembley for the final of the 2023 League Cup and finished top four last season, suggests that is not a pipe dream.

This Saturday we play the Mackems in the FA Cup once again. It’s the first time in nearly 70 years and only the fifth time that we’ll have met them in the competition, having won two and lost two of our previous encounters against our neighbours.

When the draw was made, this seemed like a slam dunk. Since then, we’ve been dumped out of two other cups and our league form has nosedived to the extent that even a Champions League place come the season’s end seems a long shot.

So we travel the short distance to Wearside on Saturday, some of us fearing the worst. At least, that’s the considered view emanating from a straw poll that I conducted over the New Year weekend.

One person declaring “Let’s face it, it’s a free hit for them and I have a really bad feeling about it.”

Which got me thinking.

Surely it’s a free hit for us?

Strange as that might sound, I tested my hypothesis on a Sunderland supporting former colleague of mine who I saw walking his dog whilst I was out with the whippets on New Year’s Eve.

“You what?” was the retort from this season ticket holder of many a year but I was deadly serious when I said, “We win, and it’s expected. We lose and you’re still rubbish, whilst we’ll continue with our upward trajectory”.

Newcastle Fans Keys Sunderland

I got an immediate riposte from my Mackem acquaintance, words to the effect of, “What a load of tosh”, which is what I expected, but then hesitation and a look that suggested I might be right, it dawning on the geezer that if his team somehow manages to summon the will, or gets a slice of good fortune that enables them to register victory in the derby, that lot beating us next week changes rock all in the overall scheme of things.

Despite some of the pessimism, I am of the view that we will emerge victorious. We might need a replay even, but despite our recent niggles, I am confident that we will progress to the fourth round, whilst at the same time, drawing comfort from the fact that this really is a free hit for Newcastle United.

Of course, losing to Sunderland would be awful, but it would be exiting from a competition which holds our last chance of silverware this season that would rankle with me more.

By the way, and it’s always good to test the water, my Mackem dog walking friend was very downbeat when I asked about his side’s prospects of upsetting us. HTL.

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