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Jan 21, 2013

All hail the FA Cup

Few of us like Monday, but The Fifth Official does, for it brings with it a chance for him to point the finger and laugh. Here he pulls out the pretty, the puzzling and the downright pig-ugly from a week brimming with potential victims.

Plastic Fantastic

This classic FA Cup weekend was a triumph for the unfashionable, the ridiculed and the small (not counting Darren Bent, Rafael Benitez and Aaron Lennon). At Carrow Road 4,000 Luton Town fans went bananas as the FA Cup threw up the first truly stellar giant killing of the Premier League era as The Hatters became the first non-league team to knock a top-flight side out of the FA Cup since 1989. And that was just for starters.

For fans of a certain age, the name of Luton is synonymous with a plastic pitch and big old fashioned superstars like rapier-elbowed giant Mick Harford and Steve 'Fozzie' Foster; players who would dunk chips in beer and brown sauce before kick-off and stick a couple up each nostril to chew on during breaks in play; players who would head-butt first and ask questions later; stalwarts of the big league. Sadly, in the intervening years, the place has become more famous for being the bleak home to London's fifth best airport, which isn't really anywhere near London.

And while most of this generation of Luton's mad Hatter fans had only travelled to Norwich to get out of a town several times voted the UK's worst and escape the Blue Square Bet Premier for a day, they jumped into the FA Cup 5th round hat sweatier and more beer drenched than one of Fozzie's trademark headbands after ninety minutes running up and down the plastic pitch. Next for them is Millwall, denying us further giant killing madness for another round, but you'd fancy them to win at home on the crest of this wave.

Fake Plastic Reds

On to another former big club - Oldham Athletic I mean, not Liverpool - with a plastic pitch who evoked the 1980s and bullied the Reds into submission at the coldest ground in the land, while the sideways rain smashed into the Rochdale Road End and threatened to launch some highly paid lightweights into the Atlantic Ocean.

Bologna born Fabio Borini didn't fancy it, Jonjo Shelvey was reluctant to get his hair wet and Liverpool relied on the likes of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing to drag it back from 3-1. With that quality on the pitch, there could only be one winner, and there was. Oldham march on for a crack at the other half of Liverpool.

Being forced into bringing elder statesman Steven Gerrard on to inject some passion into this tie is far from ideal for Brendan Rodgers. The closest they had come to passion prior to that had been Martin Skrtel and Brad Jones working the Oldham doorman routine on an over zealous Robbie Simpson, as if he'd just spilt kebab juice and mint yoghurt on their Sunday best. This is one in the eye for Brendan's brave new Liverpool, who some say are one player away from being Premier League title contenders, but who still seem to be about as consistent as the bilge flying out of Neil Warnock's mouth in press conferences this week.

War-knocked out of the Cup

Aforementioned trash talker Neil Warnock forged an unlikey bro-mance with former arch enemy Andre Villas-Boas in the lead up to this one; it was verging on unbearable as Warnock the Animated came out to the press with his undying love for Mr Low Tone Robot Villas-Boas, saying his Tottenham team were the best coached side in the known universe, and that he really liked the Spurs boss now he had relaxed a bit.

Warnock appeared to be trying to sell his new pal AVB some cheap gold from Leeds market on the touchline before the game as the two chuckled and cavorted like a pair of old friends. Masterminded by another prize plonker, El Hadji Diouf, a Luciano Becchio-less Leeds then dismantled Tottenham and put themselves within spitting distance of FA Cup glory, and suddenly AVB wasn't so puffed up with all the hot air that Warnock had blown up his rear. El Flob Diouf of course goaded the Spurs fans on his way off, reminding us all what a class act he is.

Warnock has never had problems saying what he thinks, about sewer rats or anything else. On the week's obsession with the Swansea ballboy gently nudged by Eden Hazard, he rightly noted that young Charlie Morgan had obviously watched a lot of Didier Drogba to learn that level of simulation, and implied he deserved a gentle kicking for it. Meanwhile, Aston Villa defender Matt Lowton has revealed he was taught the shady practices of tactical ballboying when he was an apprentice at Sheffield United. His teacher in this dark art? Neil Warnock of course.

Darren Dented

Which leads nicely on to the next former giant dumped out of the cup. Paul Lambert had heard from on high this week that he wouldn't be sacked if Aston Villa do get relegated this season, a huge Randy red neon sign that his team are neck deep in the do-do. After this latest lower league mugging he may well be dreaming of the chop.

Millwall's manager Kenny Jackett had certainly noted that Villa's Matt Lowton and friends crumpled at corners quicker than Darren Bent's international reputation as a footballer. They duly dumped the hapless Villains out of a second cup in four days without needing much more than a couple of direct set pieces.

As for Bent, Lambert may have played him in the hope that a good performance would get the January spenders twitching. But he's so out of fashion that if he was a pair of jeans, he'd be stonewash with a big rip across the butt-cheek. Unbelievably, after Dazza left to 'further his international career' at Villa, a move back to the Stadium of Light isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Southampton and Stoke seem to be the other clubs interested in offering him a lifeline back into the big time. Funnily enough, 'Arry's stayed quiet at QPR.

Laurel and Mancini

Sadly the Manchesters failed to capture this relighting of the FA Cup fire as they turned in regulation victories while minnows were clawing at the big cats' faces elsewhere.

But City's trip to Stoke did allow some new insight into the David Platt/Roberto Mancini dynamic. There are times it seems like the two have descended into a Laurel and Hardy otherworld and never more so than when Vincent Kompany hobbled off in the first half. Platt sketched and scribbled 'Garcia to Centre Back' furiously on his pad of paper, while Mancini howled at the moon and started gibbering 'Mario, Mario, Mario' before Platt drew him a picture of a shiny trophy to calm him down.

Eventually, after City had been down to 10 men for almost the rest of the half, a bemused Gael Clichy was given the nod to come on. Platt later appeared to celebrate Pablo Zabaleta's winner as being the direct result of this tactical masterstroke, while Mancini roared 'See, I told you Platty, Mario score!'.

Elsewhere, there were sighs of relief for Arsenal and Chelsea while plenty of unfashionable northern teams eased into the 5th round, when we can salivate in anticipation of the next set of Billy Big Boots to come a cropper. God bless the FA Cup.

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