Fifth-round draw leaves competition wide open
14 February ~ There is an unusual feeling developing around the latter stages of the FA Cup this season. The top four clubs in the Premier League will all be involved in the fifth round this weekend, a situation that would normally mean the majority of other clubs writing off their chances of reaching Wembley. Yet Arsenal host Liverpool while Chelsea travel to Manchester City, leaving the other 12 teams to believe they can navigate a route through two more games to the national stadium for the semi-finals without major upsets. Nowhere can this surprising turn of events be felt more strongly than in Sheffield.
Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United have won seven FA Cups between them but none more recently than 1935. This is the first time since 1993 (when both were in the Premier League and they met in the semi-finals) the two Sheffield clubs have reached the fifth round in the same season and only the 11th time in their collective history – five of those were in the 1960s.
United have the harder task in front of them to reach the quarter-finals as the League One strugglers host Championship promotion-challengers Nottingham Forest on Sunday. It's a fairly local encounter between clubs whose dislike of one another may be surprising to outsiders not aware of the history between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire miners, as well as some particularly fractious matches in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Forest haven't lost since November and will take the game seriously, backed by a sell-out travelling contingent.
Yet United's best performances have come in the FA Cup this year, offering a bright spot in a dire season spent battling to avoid a drop to the fourth tier just seven years after being in the Premier League. They have travelled to Aston Villa and won convincingly, before drawing with Fulham at Bramall Lane. The replay at Craven Cottage may have been described as "possibly the worst match of all time" by the Guardian's Jacob Steinberg but the Blades won it, so they won't care. They have knocked out two Premier League teams and, despite manager Nigel Clough insisting they need to concentrate on league survival, they seem to relish playing without pressure in the Cup.
Wednesday head into the weekend with a different outlook. A 3-0 defeat to Wigan at Hillsborough ended the Owls' 11-game unbeaten run but those results under new manager Stuart Gray have been enough to give Wednesday breathing space from the Championship relegation battle. They are now nine points ahead of third-bottom Charlton, who also happen to be their opponents at Hillsborough in the Cup, and Wednesday's fans are eager for a first quarter-final appearance since they lost 2-0 at home to Wimbledon in 1997.
Hindering the Owls will be a full treatment room, with the influential José Semedo (a midfielder who was already filling in at centre-back because of injuries) added to the growing list of absentees. Midfielder Gary Gardner has been signed on loan from Aston Villa and defender Adedeji Oshilaja arrived from Cardiff City to plug the gaps but Gray has so far done an excellent job with a threadbare squad and Wednesday's results have belied their low league position since he took over.
The whisper on every Sheffielder's lips is one of a Steel City derby in the quarter-final with a Wembley place at stake but, no matter who they end up drawing if they get through, fans in the city rarely feel out of their depth. Such are their crowds, even matches against higher-league opponents, barring perhaps the "big four", feel more natural than glamorous (even if they haven't regularly played them in recent years).
Should both Sheffield clubs stumble – and they often do when it starts to matter – this year's FA Cup is so finely poised, with four all-Premier League ties out of the eight, that it may not take huge shocks for Charlton, Forest, Brighton or Wigan to quietly make their way into the final. Even Southampton, Sunderland, Cardiff, Everton, Hull and Swansea will look at the teams left and get excited about this being their year to win it. It will all end with a Chelsea v Arsenal final, then. Tom Hocking