FA Cup dreams come at a cost for Football League giant-killers

COMMENT
By Oliver Platt

Oldham Athletic had conjured another memorable FA Cup story. The modest League One club from the North West, more used to playing in front of crowds of 4,000 at Boundary Park, had toppled one of the region's great powers in Liverpool by channelling the kind of guts and determination that allowed their manager, Paul Dickov, to forge a playing career at the top level.

They had even supplied a perfect cup hero. Matt Smith, the towering striker who scored two goals and terrorised full international centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates, had given up on a career in professional football and turned out for a host of non-league clubs while studying for a degree at the University of Manchester before he was spotted by Oldham.

Then came the question that popped the feel-good bubble. To the incredulity of neutrals who had enjoyed the classic giant-killing, Dickov's job was on the line. "It's awkward," said chairman Simon Corney. "We will have to chat about it. Paul has his own decision to make.

THE GIANT-KILLER'S CURSE

LEAGUE FORM DURING CUP RUNS
OLDHAM'S LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
1
1
8
MK DONS' LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
2
2
6
BRADFORD'S LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
3
3
4
LEEDS UNITED'S LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
4
1
5
LUTON TOWN'S LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
3
3
4
BRENTFORD'S LAST 10
WON
DRAWN
LOST
4
4
2
"Days like this are great but the biggest thing is about staying in this division. There will be fans who say 'How can you get rid of him after this?' just like there were fans last week saying 'How can you keep him?'"

Oldham lost their next game against Walsall and Dickov left the club. Caretaker boss Tony Philliskirk has since engineered a 3-1 defeat of MK Dons but still they remain mired in the League One relegation zone ahead of their latest glamour tie at home to Everton on Saturday.

They are not the only club that has enjoyed cup success to be struggling elsewhere. Oldham's victory against MK Dons was the third consecutive loss Karl Robinson's side had endured since they dumped QPR out of the FA Cup before they finally salvaged a point against Doncaster on Tuesday.

Robinson, only 32, has won a host of admirers for the attractive style of football he has developed in Milton Keynes but after making the playoffs twice in a row, the Dons were expected to push for automatic promotion this season. Instead, they lie 12th, having won just two league games since their cup run began in earnest with a 2-1 triumph over AFC Wimbledon in the second round on December 2.

Perhaps the most notable example of cup excitement derailing a promising league campaign has shaped up at Bradford City. Astonishingly, Phil Parkinson's team will contest the Capital One Cup final with Swansea on February 24, but the enormous load that those additional games - as well as fixtures in other cup competitions - have added to their schedule is taking its toll.

Bradford have played seven games on the road to Wembley, and four of those have lasted 120 minutes due to extra-time. In the FA Cup, they required a replay, extra-time and penalties to beat Northampton in the first round before their subsequent tie against Brentford also went the same distance, only to end in defeat after the additional 30 minutes.

Parkinson has had to juggle his team for another three matches, including one that, yet again, went to extra-time and penalties, in the Football League Trophy. As early as December, when they suffered the FA Cup replay defeat against Brentford, the ill-effects were beginning to set in. "We decided with the board that we would leave some of our key players back in Bradford for the game because some of them really needed a rest," Parkinson said.

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It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Bradford's 3-0 victory over Wycombe on Tuesday was their first in the league in seven games since they beat Accrington on Boxing Day. Like MK Dons, the Bantams have slipped from a playoff position to mid-table and the boost at Adams Park came after Nahki Wells and James Hanson, who have lead the line so impressively in the Capital One Cup, were dropped to the bench.

The list goes on. Leeds have lost two and drawn one since they saw off Tottenham at the end of a January month that included three cup fixtures in addition to three outings in the Championship. Luton, who caused the biggest upset of the fourth round by dispatching Norwich, have an identical record in their previous three contests and also suffered a 3-0 defeat to Grimsby in the FA Trophy just three days after their day out at Carrow Road.

Brentford, who face Chelsea in a replay at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, have coped a little better but nevertheless tumbled from third to sixth in the past month. Tiredness is not the only factor - the sense of occasion that comes with a cup tie against a Premier League club is difficult to replicate when normal service resumes in the lower levels of English professional football.

Corney reflected on the harsh reality. "Much as I love my players, I don't want to see that effort once every six months when we play a big team," he said. "I want to see that every game because if we did that, we would be top six." In all likelihood, he will have to settle for enjoying these days in the sun because they have come at a cost.

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