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Faded FA Cup glimmering again

In a televisual moment of perfect symmetry this weekend, the FA Cup's third round will kick off as "Downton Abbey" returns for its third series. One is a testament to fading English glory in which the rich and poor are thrown together amid the struggle to adapt to modernity. The other is a much-watched PBS period drama.

The FA Cup was founded in 1871 when FA secretary Charles Alcock envisioned a tournament in "which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete." Early winners included such fit-for-comic-book-sounding teams as Royal Engineers, Old Etonians and Clapham Rovers. The tournament made sense at its founding, yet has struggled to resonate in recent seasons. Though venerable, can its meaning be found amid the continental clutter of the money-driven game?

The Cup thrived during English football's more insular years, which stretched to as recently as the 1990s. Back when football was less global (and national team coach Bobby Robson could admit after scraping past Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup: "We didn't underestimate them. They were just a lot better than we thought"), the FA Cup final was the dominant feature on the British sporting landscape.

Much of this was due to the fact that the final, played amid the crumbling grandeur of the original Wembley, was the only fixture broadcast live on national television. A reality that automatically guaranteed the matchup to be considered the biggest game of the season. The entire day was broadcast to a voracious British public who feasted on every detail. Even the teams' early-morning coach crawl to the stadium through London's grimy streets felt as grand as the Duke of Wellington's army victoriously marching towards San Sebastian.

In my memory, the 1979 FA Cup final stands out as Liam Brady's Arsenal side defied Manchester United's late rally from two goals down. On a field soaked in sunlight, the Gunners' perma-permed striker Alan Sunderland struck a last-minute winner at the far post and wheeled away euphorically, as well he should have done. Watching the game at home as a boy, his achievement could not have felt more seismic if it had been epoch-changing.

Sunderland's was a goal that captured the old romance of the tournament. The victors knew they were the last men standing after a hard-fought slog through the shattered dreams of every team in every town in the nation. A journey that began amid the magic of the third round. The weekend in which non-league teams hosted top-tier giants, praying that the unreliability of their pitches and lack of luxury in the locker rooms could sufficiently unsettle their opponents to lead to their downfall.

That democratic value at the core of the tournament was to be its undoing. The qualities of "romance" and "magic" stood no chance in the gluttonous era of Premier League football, in which the lure of Champions League qualification and concomitant television revenue, sponsorship and branding opportunities created a reality in which fourth place felt more "trophy-like" than a real trophy.

Liverpool's Spice Boys sullied the Cup in 1996 with their cream-colored Armani suits suggesting they were there less to win, more to party. Manchester United emerged victorious on that occasion, yet three years later Alex Ferguson accepted an offer to skip the FA Cup so United could take part in the inaugural World Team Championship.

In "Downton Abbey" terms the FA Cup had become Lady Edith, rejected and relegated -- left to flounder like that other less prestigious trophy, the League Cup. Two pieces of flapping dead skin.

Shorn of its lustre, the FA Cup limped along. Premier League teams patronized tinier foes eager for a payday at the gate, sending out reserve XIs to win, lose or whatever. Average attendance slumped across the board. Last year crowds dropped even at non-league venues causing many to float radical notions for reinvention: introducing Premier League teams at a later stage, or offering the bone of a Champions League place for the winner.

Yet this season, the FA Cup feels different. With Manchester United leaving Manchester City seven points behind in the title race, City and Chelsea already eliminated from the Champions League, and a number of the usual suspects toiling in the race for third and fourth, the iconic trophy may find itself very much back in style.

Simply count the number of agendas victory would suit: Can Arsenal mute the deafening sound of the existential clock ticking for seven years and seven months since a Gunner last lifted polished silver? Might Roberto Mancini be able to salvage a modicum of pride in a worst-case scenario? Could Andre Villas-Boas claim victory by delivering Spurs' first FA Cup since 1991? Would Brendan Rodgers be able to prove Liverpool are inching toward being the "big club" he imagines them to be?

Fifth-place Everton are another fine case in point. The Merseysiders begin their campaign at Whaddon Road, the 6,900-capacity home of League Two's Cheltenham Town. With the prospect of a sold-out game coupled with live broadcast revenue, the Robins are guaranteed a $325,000 win whatever the result.

Everton need only remember the pain of last year's FA Cup semifinal exit at the hands of Liverpool to realize how important the game is for them. Back then, David Moyes talked about how a lack of trophies undermined his ability to call 10 years spent at Everton a success. Sylvain Distin, whose self-inflicted mistake cost Everton the game, admitted: "Right now, I need to keep my head straight. I'm not in a good place right now. I know I cost a lot of people the final and it's tough to accept." Iconic midfielder Tim Cahill could only mutter: "There are no words to express how sad we are for the fans."

I left Wembley that day and was swept along into a London paved with Scousers. Along the way, I encountered a Blues fan selling T-shirts proclaiming "Everton: Bitter, Twisted and Proud." After I enquired why he had been motivated to prepare such pessimistic jerseys ahead of the game, he shook his head and told me: "To win a trophy now feels almost impossible. Getting this far should be celebrated." Then, with words that captured just how much an FA Cup win would truly mean for the club and its fans, he added: "Being a lifelong Evertonian is to have experienced years of disappointment and yearning in which the actual moments of glory really are fleeting."

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.