The odds on Sheffield United reaching May’s FA Cup final at Wembley are, according to those supposedly in the know, six times longer than aliens being discovered before the end of the year.
But people forget that the bookies’ word, despite their marketing spiel, isn’t law. It simply reflects the market. I remember them saying something similar 25 months ago when United, then managed by Nigel Clough, were preparing to visit Colchester for a first round tie. Seven games and victories over the likes of Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa later, they faced Hull City in the last four. Yep, our friends working the exchanges got that one bang on. Sort of.
United banked over £1.1m in prize money alone for daring to dream. Repeating the feat this season would return exactly the same figure without taking sponsorship revenues and various other financial opportunities into account. A windfall not to be sniffed at for a League One club which receives a meagre £360,000 in annual solidarity payments from its top-flight counterparts.
Football should be about glory. Not hitching ride on the gravy train. But the possibility of doing both makes it even more baffling why many clubs in the bottom two divisions seem to lose their ambition at the third round stage. And plenty competing at Championship level for that matter.
Attendance levels and, all too often, team selections prove the world’s most prestigious domestic knockout trophy is losing some of its lustre. So what can be done to give it a polish and shine?
Well, using some of the spare cash sloshing around the game to subsidise entrance prices - £5 a ticket anyone? - would be a start. It would help cash-strapped parents bring their young children or relatives to a game and ensure the competition has a place in the hearts and minds of the next generation. Granting the winners a place in the Champions League - surely a more worthy achievement that finishing third or fourth in the Premier League? - might also help win over the doubters. Likewise, if rules forbidding wholesale changes are good enough for the JP Trophy then they are definitely fitting for a tournament which helped make legends of Sir Stanley Matthews, Bert Trautmann and Ryan Giggs.
But, I fear the slow demise of the FA Cup’s importance, is ultimately a generational thing. Sport and wider society now regards pound notes as the most respected measure of success. When teenagers can become millionaires without making a first team appearance, the value of medals or a place in footballing folklore has lamentably plunged.
The battle to restore the FA Cup’s importance is, therefore, a battle for the very soul of football.