For fans of a not too recent vintage the FA Cup has been a rich source of euphoric exhilaration over the years. In the Eighties, with Kenny Dalglish transitioning from Roy of the Rovers-like player/manager to full-time touchline denizen, there were two of the most enjoyable victories your scribe has ever witnessed. Liverpool beat their neighbours, Everton, in 1986 and 1989 with the club's greatest ever scorer and devoted Toffee terroriser, Ian Rush, grabbing a brace in both finals.
Later, as Gérard Houllier led the team out of the tumultuous and underachieving Nineties, Michael Owen struck twice in the dying minutes of the 2001 final to turn deserved defeat into victory and sicken Arsenal fans. Most recently, in 2006, Steven Gerrard was in superhero mode as Liverpool squeezed past West Ham on penalties to win Rafa Benitez a second major trophy in two seasons.
Ah, but there's the rub. How many of us still consider the FA Cup to be a major prize? As a man wary of the erosion of much that is good about the game, I was shocked to hear myself driving a podcast discussion about this very topic, of late. The general sentiment of my argument was that, for Liverpool at least, the FA Cup is merely a pleasant distraction this season -- a chance to test promising kids and examine the mettle of fringe squad players. I have begun to think of this most estimable of old pots in the same way as I do the League Cup. What is happening here?
Having enjoyed the run to the final in Dalglish's second reign, the reality was that the loss to Chelsea, although deeply unpalatable could have easily been endured had the side managed to secure Champions League football. The hierarchy of the competitions is now so pronounced that the gap between winning the title or claiming top flight European football and being victorious in one of the two cup competitions is now a yawning one. Bluntly put, the attainment of fourth place in the Premier League is an infinitely more attractive prize than winning the famous old trophy at Wembley in May. Everything changes.
Against this reality, the warbling of top flight managers this weekend about the magic of the cup will seem as hollow as it surely is. For most of them, obsessed with either the highest Premier League placement possible or avoiding expulsion from the Shangri-La of English football, this fixture is an unwelcome addendum to a hellishly busy Christmas schedule and a worrying opportunity for their best players to pick up an injury which might impair their club's chances in...the Premier League.
Simon Mignolet, a man who until recently had been basking in an almost unblemished reputation as the Redmen's latest custodian, has adopted a predictably Professional attitude to the fixture, whilst still paying lip-service to a competition which has loomed so majestically amidst all the club's former glories. Oldham Athletic, who last year embarrassed Liverpool at Boundary Park with a 3-2 victory, once more provide the opposition and Mignolet is sure the League One club will be salivating at the prospect of the Anfield tie, somewhat condescendingly claiming it will be a 'cup final' for the Latics.
"For them it is already a cup final. It is already a big game for them to look forward to and they will come here and try to show everyone what they can do at a ground like Anfield. We have to make sure we are professional and do a job. We want to win any game. That doesn't make any difference whether it is the FA Cup, Capital One Cup or any other games -- we try to step on and prepare ourselves and make sure we get out of the game what we can get out of it.
"I would always watch the FA Cup finals growing up in Belgium. It is a very important competition. It is a big opportunity as you can play at Wembley but that is far ahead of us. The next game is the most important one and before you get to that stage you have to win a lot of games and against Oldham it won't be an easy game. We have to prepare in a professional manner and make sure we are ready for it when it comes along."
Mignolet had a pleasingly quiet game against Hull on Saturday after, in the humble opinion of this scribbler, being at fault in successive games against Manchester City and Chelsea -- faults which ultimately cost his team points. However, if one is to adapt that line of thinking, the Belgian has already rescued a plethora of points for the Redmen, beginning with the two salvaged by his penalty save on the very first day of the season against Stoke. He is not a fretful character, it would seem, and his attitude is sanguine and phlegmatic.
"There is a difference between being hard on yourself and making sure you learn out of the things you have done before and make sure you look forward to the next game," Mignolet insisted. "You have to step on to the pitch with the right mind-set and so far that has not been an issue for me. The way I look at it is I don't get carried away with good performances and neither do I get down when things get a bit tougher. The win against Hull was exactly what we wanted after the performances in the Christmas period.
"It was very important to get back to winning ways. Hull are not easy opponents as you saw away from home but I thought we dealt with the game very well in the right manner, scored two goals and kept a clean sheet and that is what you have to do at home. We are back in fourth position now and we have to keep going. We can look forward to the Cup game on Sunday."
In that last sentence Mignolet subconsciously puts the whole thing into perspective. The Reds are back in the conversation for a seat at Europe's top table. Only now is it possible to enjoy the Oldham tie. I would wager there will be very little in the way of enjoyment in the range of emotions experienced by Brendan Rodgers on Sunday. Like many of us, he may watch this match through his fingers with a wince. The magic of the cup, folks. Don't you just love it?