by Matthew Harris
“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.” Well, there were half a dozen Englishmen starting for Millwall. However, the League One team smelt the blood of their top-flight opponents, Bournemouth, instead, finishing up 3:0 victors in Saturday’s FA Cup encounter. The Cherries might well feel flattered that I am referring to A.F.C. Bournemouth as a ‘giant,’ but they have been putting in some impressive performances in the Premier League this term, not least their 3-3 draw at home to Arsenal last Tuesday. Sitting a comfortable ninth in the table, Bournemouth on paper should have been the favourites against struggling Millwall, forty-four places below them. This was, however, a completely changed Bournemouth 11 compared with the starting line-up which faced Arsenal. While this might be Eddie Howe’s way of coping with the back-end of the fixture congestion of December and early January, it reopens the debate about whether Premier League sides do—or should—field their strongest 11 in domestic cup competitions. What about other teams, such as Southampton, who have had to play four competitive games in 11 days; are they really expected to be able to field their strongest team in each game, such as their FA Cup match against Norwich in which they drew 2-2? To spare injuries and burnout, managers must make judgement calls about the strength of the opposition, importance of the game and tactical requirements, amongst other factors. Eddie Howe would have hoped that the team he put out to face Millwall would have been strong enough to at least force a draw. Even so, financial pressures and the excitement of the Premier League could easily make it the priority for some managers over and above other competitions.
Where, though, does this leave the act of ‘giant-killing’? Can it really be said that teams like Millwall are slaying giants when they are faced with much-changed line-ups? In other words, are ‘smaller’ teams like Beowulf fighting Grendel, or are these top-flight teams like Scooby Doo monsters that seem terrifying but are unmasked at the end of the episode? When an arguably ‘second string’ Manchester United (well, a side which allowed the seemingly exiled Schweinsteiger to get on the pitch) can roll-over a Championship side like Reading 4-0, perhaps ‘true’ giants are teams which can rotate and dominate. Perhaps, then, the term ‘giant killing’ has been devalued when it has been extended to any lower league team beating a team from a higher division. Whichever way you look at it, there is still a lot of romance in the FA Cup, for it is a massive morale-booster to win over a side 40-plus places ahead of you in the English league hierarchy, even if some of the starters are not regulars.