The FA Cup’s father was a hamster and its mother smelt of elderberries

Guy Lacombe walked out of the dressing room, his moustache twitching with rage. The beleaguered Monaco coach had a bone to pick. Someone evidently was about to be on the end of a tongue-lashing.

He spied the journalists in the mixed zone and the match officials warming down in the tunnel. “It’s all your fault,” Lacombe raged, pointing his finger at both of them. The 55-year-old knew his time was up. He was a dead man walking. The guillotine lay in wait. This was one defeat too many, a humiliation.

Just a few minutes earlier the Monaco players had walked off the pitch in Chambéry, their faces utterly disconsolate. This town was supposed to be famous for skiing not football. And yet its amateur team, a member of French football’s fifth tier, had remarkably forced extra-time then penalties and won 3-2 (the decisive spot-kick and ensuing scenes of surprisingly reserved celebration can be seen in the brilliantly shot video below...). While the Chambéry players celebrated reaching the last 32 of the French Cup for only the third time in their history, Lacombe caught a whiff of conspiracy.

Paranoia had set in. He sensationally claimed to have been the latest victim of a “populist drift” within the media and the game itself to see the little teams go through. After all, last weekend’s round of games in the cup wasn’t so much an occasion for giant killing as mass extermination.

A record 10 teams from Ligue 1 were eliminated at the first time of asking. No fewer than eight fell at the hands of lower league opposition and two more needed spot kicks to see them through. Imagine Motty’s little face had that happened in England. In terms of magic, the Coupe de France was playing David Copperfield to the FA Cup’s Paul Daniels.

With the world turned on its head and Lacombe now sacked, Frédéric Antonetti was hailed as an unlikely saviour after leading first division Rennes to a 7-0 win at home to third division Cannes. That’s more like it, wrote L’Équipe, who even went so far as to call his side “the heroes of Ligue 1.” Things were clearly getting quite desperate.

Asked to explain the woes of his fellow top-flight managers, Antonetti sighed: “You can see that the Coupe de France matches are very complicated when teams are coming back from a 10-day break and a week of training. It’s rough. The coaches are cannon fodder in this competition and I find it deplorable. It’s a shame to play the Cup in the first week of January. I defend my profession and I am perhaps the only one.”

So a lack of preparation was to blame, then? Well not if you take the case of Paris FC coach Jean-Luc Vannuchi, who started the domino effect a week ago today. Seemingly under no illusion as to the task awaiting his third division side who had been drawn against last year’s semi-finalists Toulouse, the bright young tactician gave each of his players a rather odd Christmas present before the winter break.

It was a USB stick on which there was a specific training regime to follow over the next week or so as well as footage of Toulouse’s last two matches in Ligue 1 against Caen and Valenciennes. The tactics were laid out in advance too. “The idea was that of leaving the ball to Toulouse,” Vanucchi explained. “Because they are less at ease when they have to take the initiative.” Paris FC were so well-equipped for the task at hand, it mattered little that a thief nicked off with one of their kit bags at Toulouse-Bagnac airport.

Vannuchi’s acute eye for detail paid dividends. Youssouf Touré’s opener looked a little untidy, come as it did via a long ball, but Paris FC’s second had its origin on the training ground with Stephen Vincent doubling his side’s advantage through a well worked set piece that caught Toulouse cold.

The match ended 2-1 and incredibly it was déjà vu for the home side who had lost to the same opponent by the very same scoreline three years ago. For Toulouse, the magic of the cup appeared to turn match day into Groundhog Day.

Of course, preparation alone isn’t always enough. Motivation can often prove the difference in knock-out ties and Wasquehal certainly weren’t lacking in that department. Like Chambéry, here was a team from France’s fifth tier. Before Saturday’s game against Champions League qualifiers Auxerre, the club’s president Gérard Vignoble, who also happens to be Wasquehal’s mayor, started an ugly war of words with Lille over the proposed use of their ground for the cup-tie.

Mindful of the fact that their own home has neither floodlights, or stands, Wasquehal felt Lille would graciously lend the club a stage on which to host a cup upset. They had after-all shared the stadium in Villeneuve d’Ascq, if only briefly in 2004. Lille, the Ligue 1 leaders, consented but begrudgingly and questioned whether Wasquehal would bring enough supporters to make it worthwhile. Needless to say, it didn’t go down well with Vignoble. 

“We have always lived in Lille’s shadow and Lille don’t respect us,” he scoffed. “They are profoundly incapable of interesting themselves in lower league football.”

Vignoble pettily brought up old history too, recalling how Lens rather than Lille had come to Wasquehal’s rescue when the club nearly folded in 1999. The reply he got from Lille president Michel Seydoux was entertaining if predictable. He was told in no uncertain terms that if there really is such a great relationship with Lens president Gervais Martel, then why not play at his house.

Wasquehal had done a lot of talking. It was now time for action. The odds were stacked against them, something Rémi N’Dong, the team’s defender, knew only too well having recently completed a master’s degree in finance. Ironically, however, for a team that included a pair of bankers, Wasquehal’s 2-1 win resembled a stick-up.

L’Équipe even likened it to one of France’s most famous heists, namely that of Albert Spaggiari whose robbery of the Nice branch of Société Générale in 1976 was known as the steal of the century. Auxerre had gone 1-0 up early doors only for Grégoire Debuchy to equalise after 81 minutes and David Coulibaly to seal a famous victory with an injury time penalty. It was pure smash and grab.

As fate would have it the draw for the next round pits Wasquehal against Lille. Smiling like a Cheshire cat, Vignoble now has his revenge while Debuchy will get to face his brother Mathieu.

And if that wasn’t enough for one crazy weekend, what with Montpellier, Saint-Étienne, Arles, and Valenciennes all having their pants pulled down and no doubt being taunted in Monty Python fashion, Sunday night delivered another surprise, not least because the headlines wrote themselves. Evian, no less, beat a watered down Marseille side on a waterlogged pitch to record a deserved 3-1 victory.

Looking pretty in pink, the Ligue 2 leaders’ found a hero in Kevin Bérigaud, the provider of an assist and a goal, who had once nearly been kicked out of the club after he received an eight-month ban for punching a Chambéry player in the final of the Rhônes-Alpes Cup three years ago. “I am happy for Kev,” said the club’s president Patrick Trotignon. “He must be happy. Happier than the others.”

As for Marseille, it has now been a month and a half since Didier Deschamps’ side last won a game against French opposition of any kind.

But let’s forget that for a minute, as the weekend undoubtedly belonged to the Coupe de France. One could quite easily be mistaken for thinking that the FA Cup has the exclusive rights to something as ubiquitous as magic. After all, this season’s promotional video entitled Pride, Passion, History, Giant Killing tells us repeatedly and quite convincingly too that the supernatural happens every year, even amid growing scepticism about its relevance.

Still, the likes of Stevenage, Notts County, Torquay United and Burton Albion all honoured its name at the weekend. They doffed their respective caps to the legends of Ronnie Radford, Bob Stokoe, Sutton United and of course the Crazy Gang. But the idea that the magic circle is closed to anyone from outside these hallowed borders is less to do with truth and more with illusion.

A worthy response would be a Gallic shrug and, believe you me, the French Connection is doing just that right now while also muttering under its breath that the FA Cup’s father was a hamster and its mother smelt of elderberries. Pah!

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