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Paulton Rovers vs Norwich City in the 2009-10 FA Cup First Round.
Paulton Rovers, who play in a league eight divisions below the Premier League, played host to then League One side Norwich City in 2009.

Clive Tyldesley’s view of the FA Cup

ITV Sport’s commentator and football pundit gives us an entertainingly sideways look from the commentary box at the romance of the Cup.

I saw more dramatic football matches in last season’s FA Cup than I did in the Champions League and World Cup finals put together. Ok, so neither Lionel Messi nor José Mourinho trod the Cup boards, and there were no vuvuzelas. But if there is an argument for saying that the quality and the standing of the oldest cup competition of them all has been compromised by some of the gigantic monsters that have grown up around it, the basic ingredients are still the same. Nothing beats knockout football.

When Aston Villa trailed Crystal Palace 2-1 with three minutes of their Fifth Round tie remaining, the very last thing that Martin O’Neill needed was a replay in Carling Cup final week. Well, the very last thing … except a defeat. O’Neill’s heart is much bigger than his head, and when Stiliyan Petrov scored an unlikely equaliser, the Villa manager leapt higher than the Wembley Arch. They may talk the talk about the realistic place of the Cup in their weighty priorities but, the moment they stare a Cup exit in the face, the bursting pride of real football men envelops them. Nobody goes out of this competition without a fight.

On the coldest night of the football year, I saw the eventual finalists come within a couple of minutes of making their apologies in a Third Round replay at Coventry. If any team in the world had an excuse for feeling sorry for themselves that Arctic January evening, it was Portsmouth. Footballers in general may be overpaid, but not when they don’t receive a pay cheque at all. Pompey had a 90th minute equaliser scored for them by a Coventry defender, and Aaron Mokoena’s 120th minute winner to thank for their eventual progress. Wembley seemed an awful long way away before either of those.

When the first of those two goals was scored, my co-commentator Andy Townsend and I looked at each other in disbelief. If you were listening carefully, you may have heard the cursing under our shivering breath. Frozen toes, tingling fingers, Rudolph-red noses, icy motorways, fog forecast ... and some (actually committed, if rather) stupid defender had extended our night by half-an-hour. Thanks, mate! We were thanking him in the May sunshine, though. Portsmouth lent so much to last season’s Cup tale. They gave it the annual romance.

Read More: Andy Townsend's view of The FA Cup

That romance began for me last season at a place I had never heard of before. Paulton is near … er well, nowhere really! It’s a commuter town for Bristol and Bath ... well, when I say town, I mean village. And Paulton Rovers is the village centre. Technical preparations for ITV’s live broadcast of the First Round tie against Norwich City were interrupted by a wedding reception in the clubhouse the night before the game, and the village firework display on the pitch the night after. Thursday’s yoga class had been postponed to accommodate a press day.

To call Paulton Rovers friendly would be condescending. They were friendly, gracious, accommodating, competitive, ambitious and a hundred other things besides. Their chairman had survived a heart attack by the skin of his teeth a few weeks earlier, their manager was a seriously-successful businessman. The team was in the 8th tier of English football, their pride and joy at hosting the game was top tier. Football puts communities on the map and gives them identity. The FA Cup gives those communities a stage.

In the second round I visited Staines Town. I wasn’t altogether sure about the ‘character’ dressed as Ali G who found a way into every camera shot, but wouldn’t you just know it … Staines’ star striker was one ‘Ali C’ … Ali Chabaan. Respect! From the wonky scaffolding that passed for a camera and commentary gantry (most of the vertical ladders I’ve climbed in my life have been in the cause of the FA Cup!), I could not only see the match against Brentford, but also a neighbouring allotment. All afternoon a dear old boy pushed his wheelbarrow back and forth in search of the perfect marrow. The magic of the Cup was lost on him. Ali C equalised in the 79th minute.

The Second Round also took me to Kettering where Jermaine Beckford’s late goal spared Leeds United’s blushes. His next Cup goal knocked out Manchester United at Old Trafford. That Sunday lunchtime tie was as good a game as you could wish to see … particularly if you were not a Man U fan. The television audience was spectacularly high as Fergie—Rooney, Berbatov and all—slipped out of the Cup to a lower division team for the first time in his reign … to a lower division team named Leeds. It was as good a game as it was a story.

But there was better to come. Reading were the ITV heroes of Round Four, holding then beating Liverpool—at Anfield—with Shane Long’s late headline-stealer. I saw Jermain Defoe end the Leeds adventure with a stunning replay hat-trick in another cracker at Elland Road, not to mention Darren Ferguson taking on Chelsea in his first home game in charge of Preston North End … someone at ITV was choosing the right games!

Read More: The FA Cup Giant Killers

In the Fifth Round, I witnessed the prickly enmity between Southampton and Portsmouth in a South Coast derby that ended 4-1 to Avram Grant & Co, but might easily have turned the other way. The next afternoon, I not only saw O’Neill’s high jump celebration at Crystal Palace, but also Neil Warnock’s outrage at the corner-that-never-was that led to Villa’s equaliser. That 2-2 draw was the most engrossing game I saw all last season … in England, Spain or South Africa … I think!

Or was it Villa’s quarter-final win at Reading …? 2-down at half-time when O’Neill delivered a rollicking to his troops that could be heard in Newbury, and John Carew plundered a second-half hat-trick that turned the game around and sent Villa to a Wembley semi-final against Chelsea that they will be forever convinced they could have won if only the World Cup Final ref had pointed to the spot at 0-0.

‘If only’ … the catchphrase of this and every FA Cup season. How many ‘if onlys’ were there really in the tactically-enforced surroundings of the Champions League and World Cup last season? Not nearly as many as the FA Cup annually provides with a tantalising guarantee.