The Saturday of the FA Cup’s Third Round is always a special day, a rural day.
The distance travelled from one location to the next—the expanse of ground traversed—lends something of the pastoral to club football’s oldest cup competition, as does the open air of venues with names such as New Meadow, Victoria Road and Valley Parade.
If Arnold or Wordsworth had written about football, this would have been their inspiration.
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Here—in the land, in the villages—is the real “magic of the cup.” The on-field upsets and unlikely heroes might help shape the narrative, but the bucolic is the setting and the radio (many of these matches are only broadcast by radio) the sound-track of this halcyon day. It’s an idyll as ancient and poetic as to be holy.
Eastleigh is this year’s arcadia. Built on a First-Century Roman road, the town takes its name from East Leah—“Leah,” according to the University of Bristol’s Ben Lennon, being an Anglo-Saxon word referring to “a clearing within a woodland.”
Appropriately, Eastleigh Football Club play their home matches at Ten Acres, which shoves up against a row of fir trees. Presently fourth in the National League, they’re the lowest-ranked participant remaining in the 2015-16 FA Cup and on Saturday will host Championship outfit Bolton Wanderers.
Bolton, despite being just three-and-a-half years removed from Premier League football (they progressed to the UEFA Cup’s Round of 16 in 2008), have struggled to pay their players this season, and a lack of morale combined with Ten Acres’ hard, rutty pitch could see them upset by their eager, unlikely hosts.
Eastleigh—a rather young enterprise by English football standards—have never been this far in the FA Cup. Bolton—among the country’s oldest clubs—have won it four times.
And while their coming together may lack the cache of a top-flight match-up, never-mind the cameras, it brims with the tournament’s legendary magic, its charm, its lyricism and its whimsy.
So, to a lesser extent, do the following encounters:
Exeter City vs. Liverpool
The cathedral city of Exeter—also a former Roman outpost—will kick off the Third Round of the FA Cup when Liverpool visit St. James Park on Friday. City have failed to beat the Reds in five previous meetings, most recently in 2011 when Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez and Andy Carroll tallied for the visitors in a 3-1 win.
Everton vs. Dagenham & Redbridge
Everton last won the FA Cup in 1995 and were runners-up to Chelsea in 2009. On Wednesday they beat Manchester City 2-1 in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal and will be looking to have more cup success on Saturday when they face Dagenham & Redbridge for the first time competitively. Daggers, who play in League Two, are one of the youngest clubs in the Football League—formed in 1992—and last reached this stage of the FA Cup in 2012, when they took Millwall to a replay.
Northampton Town vs. Milton Keynes Dons
MK Dons became the youngest club in the Football League upon their relocation from south London to Buckinghamshire in 2003. But in their previous incarnation as Wimbledon their “Crazy Gang” beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup in 1988—Lawrie Sanchez scoring the famous winner. On Saturday Dons will visit Sixfields for an appointment with Northampton Town—possessors of one of more medieval-themed crests in the English game. The Cobblers last reached this stage of the competition in 2006.
Huddersfield Town vs. Reading
This is the quintessential FA Cup tie. Both Huddersfield Town and Reading compete in The Championship and played to a 2-2 draw in November at Madejski Stadium. This time it will be Reading making the 200-mile journey into rolling, valleyed West Yorkshire. Last January when they made the trip at the same stage of the FA Cup they prevailed 1-0 at John Smith’s Stadium. Nick Blackman, who has since joined Derby, scored the only goal in the 69th minute.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter