Paul Lambert made some comments about not prioritizing the FA Cup this week, and that did not sit well with many fans. If you're new to Aston Villa, or football in general, you may be wondering why there has been so much uproar over what is decidedly a second-tier goal to winning the league. Thus, we've assembled a primer so that you can get to know the ins-and-outs of the oldest Football Association competition in the world.
What is the FA Cup?
Start with the big questions, huh? The FA Cup -- or the Football Association Challenge Cup, as it is officially known - was first played in the 1871-72 season. In that first cup Wanderers beat Royal Engineers 1-0 to take the title. That first tournament involved fifteen clubs, including Scottish side Queen's Park. It was the idea of FA secretary Charles Alcock, who thought that the organization should have some sort of competitive prize.
So it starts this weekend, right?
AVFC and the FA Cup
AVFC and the FA Cup
Well, for Aston Villa and the other Premier League teams it does. But you may notice that this is the 2013-14 FA Cup primer, meaning it began last year. This year's competition actually began on the 16th of August in the Extra Preliminary Round, in which teams from levels 9 and 10 in the football league pyramid competed. That was the first of the qualifying rounds. There are six rounds of qualifying before the tournament itself actually begins. Why so many? Because 737 clubs were accepted for this year's competition.
Okay, this seems confusing. How is this whole thing structured?
I'm glad you asked! Depending on your place in the English football pyramid, you enter the competition at a different stage. Aston Villa (and all other EPL and Championship teams) are entering in the Third Round Proper. Before that we had the Extra Preliminary Round, the Preliminary Round, First-Fourth Round Qualifying, and the First-Second Rounds Proper. All rounds are knockout. Lose and you're out. Win and you stay alive.
Between the EPL and the Championship, 44 new teams will enter the competition in this round (reminder: it's the Third Round Proper), and that brings the total number of teams still alive in the tournament to 64. That's the same number as the main portion of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, and might give you a clue as to why the FA Cup is so popular.
Why is it so popular?
If you were paying attention, you saw that this tournament was knockout. In theory, a team from the 10th level of the English football pyramid could win the entire tournament. And it's this "David v. Goliath" potential that makes the FA Cup so thrilling. As in the aforementioned March Madness, everyone loves to see a smaller team take out a giant (well, except for the fans of the giant). In fact, in Villa's first match, I imagine many would be delighted to see League One side Sheffield United win.
But if you're looking for the ultimate underdogs to root for this year, check out the Kidderminster Harriers, Macclesfield Town, and Grimsby Town: the lowest remaining teams, harking from level five of the pyramid (to put that in perspective, remember that there are 64 clubs left in the tournament, and if we go five levels down there are 116 clubs total. These three have vastly exceeded expectations).
The other thing that makes this tournament so fun is the fact that the higher-ranked teams don't automatically get home-field advantage. In fact, Kidderminster will be hosting League One side Peterborough United, Macclesfield Town will be hosting Championship side Sheffield Wednesday and Grimsby Town will be hosting Championship side Huddersfield Town. Playing at home could help propel these teams forward and give us the ultimate dream of a Premier League side traveling to their stadia, which hold a combined 22,638 fans.
So it's pretty easy to see why this tournament is so beloved. However, the giant-killers rarely end up winning it all. Since 1980, when level 2 West Ham beat top-flight Arsenal, no team from outside the top-flight of football has won the cup.
And what about Aston Villa, what are their history in the cup?
Aston Villa are one of the most decorated clubs in FA Cup history, having won it seven times. Unfortunately, the most recent of those was in 1957. In the past three years, Villa have been especially dour, being knocked out in the fourth round by Millwall and Arsenal in 2012/13 and 2011/12 respectively, and the fifth round by Manchester City in 2010/11. If you're willing to go back one year further, Villa did make the semi-finals, where they lost to Chelsea 0-3 at Wembley.
Want more on Villa in the FA Cup? Matt's Holte History series has detailed cup runs several times, and all of the articles are great reads.
So what happens on Saturday?
Aston Villa will play Sheffield United. If there is a tie, the clubs will play the match again (usually rather quickly) at Sheffield United's grounds. Regardless of what happens, the Fourth Round draw will occur on Sunday. If either team has won on Saturday, their name will be put into the pot. If there was a draw, it will go in as both teams, and the winner of the replay will face whoever that slot gets drawn against.
Will I be able to watch it?
So far as I can tell, the match will not be televised. Nevertheless, there are often streams that pop up unexpectedly, so look for those. If all else fails, there's AVTV with Jack Woodward giving you radio commentary.
What should I reasonably hope for from Aston Villa?
Paul Lambert has made it clear that he doesn't think that his club has the depth for a long cup run, and I tend to agree. Especially with the recent Libor Kozak injury, it would be tough for Aston Villa to keep players rested for the all-important goal of staying in the Premier League while still winning in the cup. That said, it's always possible that Villa could continue to get good draws, and play teams who are beatable with young players. If Aston Villa could make it to the quarter-finals, I think you could see a shift in emphasis, and Paul Lambert might actually try to win it all.
It certainly would be fun to see, but don't hold your breath. Let's just enjoy the FA Cup while Villa are still in it.