Friday 23 January ~
Whoever writes the presenters' scripts for ITV Sport will have their work cut out on Saturday. At 5.15 the channel will be showing the Man Utd v Spurs FA Cup fourth round tie. It will have looked like an obvious tie to select for live coverage when the draw was made – and it might still attract respectable viewing figures given the fanbases of both clubs. But it's going to look like a reserve game. Man Utd are beset by injuries, to the extent that Darren Fletcher could be selected at right-back, possibly with Ryan Giggs on the other flank, while Spurs' manager will be fielding what he describes "the weakest team I can find". That means that they will be very weak indeed given that the first choice team is joint bottom with only three points from their past six games.
Harry Redknapp has apologised in advance for disrespecting the FA Cup with some of the special pleading which comes as second nature to him: "The squad is just not big enough to keep playing all these games. Everything is secondary to the Premier League." But Spurs' squad is anything but small – it's enormous, having been steadily added to for several seasons with no discernible pattern to the buying. Redknapp's proposed solution to his super-sized staff is to buy as many, if not more players than he ships out. He liked to call this "freshening up the squad" when he was at West Ham. Indeed, in the days before the transfer window, Redknapp rung the changes to the extent that 134 players came in or went out of the Boleyn Ground in seven years, an average of 19 players a season.
Despite Redknapp's proclamations over the last week, several Premier League managers are sheepishly admitting they may "give fringe players a chance" or "prioritise survival". This is, of course, a sign of the times. TV money means that a continued Premier League place is much more financially important than an FA Cup win and TV scheduling demands mean a full fixture list is taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday. With the bottom of the league as tight as it is, it is unsurprising that this season has such low levels of interest in the FA Cup on the part of many managers and not just those at the bigger clubs, for whom Wembley finals are a long way down the list of priorities.
Message boards all over the country are riven with dispute on whether their clubs should field weakened sides. Younger fans who have watched most of their football since the inception of the Premier League argue (with justification) in practical terms, and of the virtues of survival. So it is left to older supporters to reflect on the now-diminished prestige and long-gone romance of the Cup. With the size of the average squad and the current level of player acquisition taking place in the transfer window, however, Premier League clubs should be perfectly able to deal with the games ahead. But the FA are likely to turn a blind eye to Redknapp's plainly expressed disrespect for their flagship competition. After all, he works as a "Family Football" ambassador for the primary Cup sponsor – energy company E.ON.