Once again the past weekend was an FA Cup weekend so some of the emphasis was taken away from the gruelling 46-game marathon, or at least for some teams anyway. Following the Fourth Round matches that took place over the weekend, some ten Football League teams still remain in the competition (although the results of replays will inevitably reduce that number). This includes two sides who have the opportunity to create their very own piece of FA Cup history: Crawley Town and Stevenage FC.
For Crawley, the Fifth Round is becoming familiar territory – last season they reached the same stage of the competition and were only defeated 1-0 at Manchester United. This year, they’ve been drawn at home against another Premier League side in Stoke City, and will be confident of pulling off a huge upset to advance to the last eight of the competition for the first time in their history.
In the case of Stevenage, they’ve actually already made their own piece of history as advancing to the Fifth Round marks the furthest the team has ever progressed in the FA Cup. Their 1-0 victory over Notts County marked new manager Gary Smith’s first game in charge since the departure of Graham Westley to League One rivals Preston North End. Although there will inevitably be some that say that the team won’t be quite the same now Westley has gone, early signs appear to show it’s actually going to make very little difference and that Stevenage will simply just continue the good work that Westley started. They face Tottenham Hotspur in the next round, which will be one of the biggest matches in the club’s history and I believe you can pretty much bet your house on the fact that Stevenage won’t make it easy for Spurs.
A worthy mention also goes to Brighton & Hove Albion, who turned over Newcastle to reach the Fifth Round this year – no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. To progress further Albion will have to pull off an even more dazzling performance, as Gus Poyet’s men have been summoned to Anfield to face Liverpool who, after beating Manchester United, surely must be considered amongst the favourites to win the competition this year.
Also in the past week the Carling Cup Semi Finals were played, with Championship promotion contenders Cardiff City booking their place in the final after beating Crystal Palace on penalties. This is a tremendous achievement for Malky Mackay and his side, and they can now look forward to the possibility of the club lifting its first major trophy since lifting the FA Cup in 1927. Standing in their way are Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, who seem to be garnering a reputation as cup specialists this season. All the pressure will be on the bigger side, and Mackay’s men will not be fearful of their Premiership opponents. You don’t get to cup finals by accident, Cardiff are in this one to win just as much as Liverpool are. It will be a fantastic match at Wembley, and I’m sure Cardiff won’t disgrace themselves on the day.
With a reduced Football League schedule over the weekend, owing to the cup action, Reading seized the opportunity to move into the Championship playoffs with a 1-0 win over Bristol City, with former Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts scoring on his Royals debut. I think Roberts had become something of a forgotten man after being exiled in recent times at Ewood Park, so it was good to see him playing and scoring again.
The majority of the action in the Football League was played out in the lower tiers, with Charlton taking another step towards the League One title beating Exeter 1-0, with Danny Green’s fluke goal deciding the game. Huddersfield dropped points and both Sheffield sides were in FA Cup action, so the Addicks lead at the top increased to nine points. Carlisle United and Brentford suffered differing fortunes in the chase for the final playoff place in the division, as Brentford picked up all three points with a convincing 5-2 victory over Wycombe Wanderers and Carlisle found themselves on the wrong end of a humbling 4-0 defeat at Hartlepool United. At the foot of the table, Rochdale picked themselves off the bottom with a 3-0 win over Bury. The result still leaves them in the bottom four, but just one point from safety.
In League Two, Cheltenham Town took full advantage of neither Crawley Town or Southend United being in action by moving to the top of the table with a 3-1 win at Macclesfield. Shrewsbury Town closed the gap on the automatic promotion places with a 2-0 win at local rivals Hereford United. Accrington Stanley moved into the playoff places with a 4-3 win against Gillingham, while both Oxford United and Burton Albion missed out on an opportunity to move up the table by playing out a 1-1 draw. Further down the table, Bristol Rovers’ revival under new boss Mark McGhee continued with a 2-1 win over Bradford City, Aldershot Town scored for the first time in seven matches to beat AFC Wimbledon 2-1, and Dagenham & Redbridge moved out of the bottom two with a 3-2 win over Rotherham United. Plymouth drop back into the relegation zone after a 1-0 defeat to Port Vale.
The drama in the Football League will continue throughout the week. Tuesday night sees matches with a big effect on the top of each of the three Football League divisions, with Southampton taking on Cardiff in the Championship, MK Dons meeting Sheffield Wednesday in League One, and Southend United clashing with Swindon Town in League Two. On the same night the transfer window will slam shut, so no doubt clubs will be scrambling around both on and off the pitch to make sure they are in the best possible position as we move into one the critical final phase of the season.
You can’t win a league in February, but you can certainly go some way to losing it.