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Matt Maher: Broadcasters fail to spot the chance of real magic of Cup

Walsall have every reason to be annoyed.

Walsall manager Michael Flynn celebrates
Walsall manager Michael Flynn celebrates

A week tomorrow, the Saddlers will host their most high-profile match in at least seven years.

The attendance for the visit of Leicester City in the fourth round of the FA Cup will be the largest since 10,525 were at Bescot to watch Walsall take on Chelsea in September, 2015. It will in all probability be bigger. Every ticket in the home end has already been sold.

And yet interest in the fixture does not appear to extend much beyond the Midlands. When the six fourth round ties chosen for live broadcast in the UK were confirmed last week, Walsall v Leicester was the glaring – almost inexplicable – omission.

Certainly, when the draw was made just minutes after Andy Williams’ dramatic stoppage time winner at Stockport there was a belief the visit of a struggling Premier League side to an in-form League Two outfit was nailed-on for TV selection.

The subsequent snub drew reactions ranging between apathy and anger from supporters and club officials. Had the match been chosen, the Saddlers would have pocketed an additional £110,000, a sum that could never be described as small change for a League Two club, not least during a transfer window.

The first instinct is to seek a logical reason why both the BBC and ITV overlooked the tie. In that respect, you could possibly put forward an argument the Saddlers were unlucky to land their biggest game for years in a draw not short on intrigue.

Of the six ties selected, Preston and Derby hosting floundering Tottenham and West Ham respectively and FC Hollywood/Wrexham v Sheffield United are perfectly understandable. Much as some will roll their eyes at Manchester City v Arsenal also being chosen, there was no way the broadcasters were going to ignore a showdown between the two best teams in the country. The magic of the Cup might still lie in giant-killings, yet there is always room for the heavyweight clashes.

Whether Brighton v Liverpool falls into that category, however, is questionable at best. Manchester United v Reading, by far the most egregious of the TV selections, certainly does not. Granted, there is a half-decent storyline with former United captain Paul Ince managing the visiting Royals. But the plain truth is the tie is among the Cup’s most common and dullest. This will be the fifth time since 2007 United have hosted Reading in the competition, making it even more frequent than United-Villa. The Red Devils, you won’t be surprised to learn, have progressed every time.

On the other hand, as a cynic might point out, it wouldn’t be the FA Cup without United on TV. Since 2005, all but one of their FA Cup ties (a 2017 clash with Derby) have been chosen for live broadcast. This particular meeting with Reading will be shown by ITV, who have four of the six fourth round selections.

That is something else which perhaps counted against the Saddlers, with the BBC – untroubled by the need to consider advertising revenue – plumping for the ties at Preston and Wrexham and ITV choosing three hosted by Premier League clubs, along with Derby-West Ham. Maybe the Saddlers have just been the victims of circumstance?

But it also feels fair to wonder whether a bit of regional bias hasn’t also come into play?

That is not to suggest any paranoia. No-one seriously believes the Saddlers have been ignored on purpose or there is an anti-Midlands agenda at play.

Yet historically, there has long been a feeling we have to shout that bit louder for attention round this way. This is hardly the first time they have been overlooked in the FA Cup. Both non-league Kidderminster Harriers and Stourbridge have recent experience, the latter when they knocked out Northampton Town in 2016, the former when they stunned Reading a little over 12 months ago.

Of course, it doesn’t help when our bigger clubs challenge so infrequently for major honours. Birmingham City remain the last to actually win a trophy, now more than a decade ago. As a whole, it makes us easier to overlook, compared to the north-east and London. We’ll never know, yet one suspects broadcasters would have given little hesitation in selecting a tie involving Salford, Rochdale or Leyton Orient (to name just three examples) against Premier League opposition.

Most of all, not choosing Walsall v Leicester suggests a lack of adequate research. It is hardly a tie wanting for storylines.

The Saddlers might not boast movie star owners but they are a club rejuvenated by an American takeover and in Michael Flynn have a manager with an impressive FA Cup pedigree, who has already seen off the Foxes once before. That 2019 win, when in charge of Newport, helped hasten the end of Claude Puel’s reign at the King Power Stadiun. His successor Brendan Rodgers won the competition two seasons ago but will be arrive at the Bescot on shaky ground after a season spent at the wrong end of the Premier League.

Quite simply, this is a tie possessing the right ingredients for an upset. It is more than worthy of a national TV audience.

Whatever frustration the Saddlers might feel at being overlooked, there is at least added motivation for Flynn and his players to ensure by the final whistle the biggest regret is felt by the broadcasters.

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