The Magic of the FA Cup: Like a Rigged Calculator


There is no such thing as magic.

At my company’s tenth anniversary party a couple of years ago, I saw a magic trick that has stuck with me. In it, he asked one of my colleagues to enter a series of numbers together in to a calculator. Things like her date of birth, phone number, house number, etc. He then got her to add, multiply, subtract and divide them together. To our dismay, the answer came out as the date the company was formed.

Our minds were blown. How could he possibly have managed to get those numbers, of which he had no prior knowledge whatsoever, and come up with such a specific date?

Simple. The calculator was rigged to give that date, no matter what.

What some call magic, others see as logic that our brains simply don’t compute. Something seems extraordinary, unexplainable, so we roll with it. Logic can explain essentially everything (even why the X Factor still exists), but if we let it, life would get kind of boring.

The Magic of the FA Cup is exactly this.

Just like the magician with his calculator, there really isn’t any “magic” with the world’s oldest club tournament. Sure, there is the occasional shock, but there is always a reason for it. Sometimes it’s because one team is simply more motivated for the tie than the other. But usually, it’s just that football is a sport in which either team has the opportunity to win, and therefore does. It’s not asking a canned tuna to win the London Marathon. It’s two sets of professional footballers competing.

Why, then, did I travel from London to watch Eastleigh vs. Bolton Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup?

On the always excellent Football Ramble podcast this week (seriously, check it out), they discussed how the FA Cup 3rd Round weekend is the highlight of the footballing calendar. I find it hard to argue with that. Pitting teams against each other who wouldn’t normally play, it’s something completely different from what we see week in and week out. Even in a Premier League season as unpredictable as this, every game is still competed between two massively profitable businesses featuring internationally renowned superstars. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.

On Saturday afternoon, on the outskirts of Southampton, this couldn’t have been further from the case.

Little Eastleigh, with their 5,000 sold-out ground, volunteer staff and ploughed-field pitch, were hosting the football institution of Bolton Wanderers. Eastleigh have been performing well this season, Bolton are having difficulties on and off the pitch. This was it, the Magic of the FA Cup in action. We could smell an upset.

The game was almost called off, such was the state of the pitch. The wind was howling through the tiny stands, the rain pouring and the pitch cut up before the players had finished their warm ups. In other words, perfect British football conditions.

All of this put together meant that it didn’t feel like two teams from different divisions. They felt like different eras.

The game itself lived up to pre-match expectations. Eastleigh played like a team high on confidence, Bolton, a team without it. The Wanderers’ players looked like they knew the FA Cup almost entirely exists now to see a team like them lose to a side like their opponents. The upset was on.

Despite Eastleigh’s control of the first half, it wasn’t until the 53rd minute that they took the lead. Their tricky-yet-lead-booted winger Jai Reason turned his man and whipped a delightful cross in to the Corridor of Uncertainty. Not only would this make for a great comedy-horror film, it’s also an incredibly difficult place to defend. This was evidenced when Dorian Dervitte steered the ball past his own ‘keeper.

The upset was definitely on. The Magic of the FA Cup, indeed.

From there, Eastleigh pressed on. The crowd was pumped knowing that they were witnessing a real, Magic of the FA Cup story. The Silverlake Stadium was rocking, which seemed pretty dangerous given the temporary nature of the stands. This was the time for the Spitfires to press on and grab a second, their disconsolate opponents all but ready to pack up and go home. In the biggest game of Eastleigh’s history, a historic result started to feel inevitable.

However, Bolton didn’t seem to have read the script. As nerves began to take over the stadium, the big boys took control of the game. Eastleigh missed a couple of gilt-edged chances, and Bolton got to grips with the game. With just three minutes left to play, they equalised.

From the moment Darren Pratley tucked the ball home from close range, the air was sucked out of the stands. The rest of the game was played in a vacuum; the final whistle greeted by polite applause, rather than the raucous cheers you might have expected. The upset never came.

Hey, that guy knows what he’s talking about.

It was a totally logical game. The smaller team were ready, motivated, psyched to play their larger opponents. They took the game to them, and got their goal. But as the game progressed, the Championship-side fought back and, using their superior skill, managed to get a draw. It totally made sense, even if it wasn’t exactly the “magic” we had come to expect.

In reality, the bigger team normally wins. It’s rare that the smaller team will triumph, but it happens every now and again. It’s the complete opposite of magic in this regard. We just hope that it will work out, and every now and again, somehow, against all odds, it does. For this reason, “magic” isn’t the right word.

The word we’re looking for is “romance”.

The Magic of the FA Cup Rating: A Shola Ameobi cameo substitution.

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