Miles Starforth: Why Steve McClaren’s FA Cup teamsheet will be his most revealing yet

Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrates scoring the winner against Newcastle in last year's FA Cup third round
Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrates scoring the winner against Newcastle in last year's FA Cup third round

The BBC’s advertising campaign for its FA Cup coverage says “anything could happen”.

If only that were true with Newcastle United, a club which was once synonymous with success in the competition.

The club lifted the trophy three times in the 1950s and more recently reached the final twice in the 1990s.

It’s been a different story over the past decade.

That was supposed to change this season.

After all, owner Mike Ashley signalled a change in policy towards the cups in May.

Newcastle have never got beyond the fourth round of the world’s oldest cup competition since Ashley bought the club nine years ago.

Previously, the Premier League – and it’s TV riches – was all-important to the club.

That was the “priority”, fans were told.

By inference, cup success was NOT a priority, and run to the quarter-finals of the Europa League a few years back seemed to be the exception that proved the rule.

In May 2014, the club’s policy towards the cups was raised at a Fans Forum meeting.

Supporters were given this soul-destroying reply: “The board outlined research into Premier League clubs in relation to domestic cup competitions in the last five years, with Swansea City the only club outside the traditional top six to win a domestic cup and not be relegated in the same season (Birmingham and Wigan Athletic were both relegated).

“Independent research into the cost of relegation over the past ten years showed there is a 50% chance of not gaining promotion back to the top flight and a 30% chance of being relegated to League One or further.

“In addition, if clubs do return to the Premier League, it takes four years on average.”

United, under Ashley, didn’t do cups.

But the billionaire, in an impromptu TV interview before the final home game of last season, claimed the club would “definitely win something” under his ownership.

Not definitely maybe, “definitely”. That was a bold promise at a club which hasn’t won a major trophy since 1969 and last lifted the FA Cup in 1955.

So it was supposed to be different under Steve McClaren, appointed in the summer as Newcastle’s new head coach. Yet it would surprise few if McClaren – whose 18th-placed team is two points adrift of Premier League safety – fielded a weakened team on Saturday, despite a promise to name a “strong” starting XI at Vicarage Road.

Watford head coach Quique Flores, by contrast, can afford to have a got at the competition, as his ninth-placed side having already racked up 28 points.

Asked about the FA Cup after last weekend’s 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, McClaren said: “Yes, I’m absolutely confident we can have a go at that.

“We’ll play a strong team and every game is important.

“The FA Cup is as important as any other game. It’s another game we want to win.”

Context, however, is needed.

Here’s what then-head coach John Carver had to say a year ago before a third-round tie away to Leicester City.

“The one thing I will say is I’ll be putting out the strongest team I can get on the pitch to try to win the game,” said Carver.

“It’ll be nice to have a good run in the cup – I know what it means to people here.”

Carver, hampered by injuries, made seven changes at the King Power Stadium.

Haris Vuckic and Adam Armstrong, loaned to Wigan Athletic and Coventry City respectively this season, were among the starters, while Lubomir Satka and Callum Roberts came off the bench to make their senior competitive debuts.

It wasn’t a particularly strong team, but then again neither was that fielded by then-Leicester manager Nigel Pearson.

I don’t know how many more first-team players could, at a push, have started that game.

But I do know Carver, having just assumed temporary change in the wake of Alan Pardew’s departure for Crystal Palace, genuinely wanted to progress in the cup.

He knew what a run in the competition would have meant to the club’s supporters. Carver, though, had injuries to contend with – the list of unavailable players ran into double figures – and he erred on the side of caution.

The rest is history.

United went on to lose a dreadful game at the King Power Stadium – a goal from Leonardo Ulloa gave Leicester a 1-0 win – and things went from bad to worse from that moment on.

Seven months later, despite Ashley’s pledge, it’s complicated. Again. It always is with this club.

Relegation-threatened Newcastle are in a far worse league position than they were a year ago – they were 10th at the time – and McClaren can ill-afford to lose any more players to injury.

The club’s squad, as we all knew last summer, still isn’t strong enough or big enough to cope with the rigours of a Premier League season despite a £50million spend in the last transfer window.

Those tens of millions didn’t even touch the sides given the chronic under-investment of previous windows.

The target of a top-eight finish, set by managing director Lee Charnley after McClaren’s appointment, is all but unachievable with 20 games played.

There are even fans who think McClaren SHOULD field a weakened team in the Watford tie.

United are 18th in the league and two points adrift of safety.

Relegation is unthinkable given that a new multi-billion pound TV deal kicks in next season.

But unless the club signs at least one proven goalscorer, preferably one with Premier League experience, it’s hard to see Newcastle staying in the division.

Charnley – who appointed McClaren and oversaw last summer’s transfer business – couldn’t be under more pressure at the club.

So top-flight survival really is the priority.

That said, an early cup exit didn’t help Newcastle’s cause in the league last season.

And a cup run could at least inject some confidence, and momentum, into the team.

McClaren, like Carver before him, must make some difficult decisions.

Some changes are inevitable, though, as has been pointed out, United knocked then-Capital One Cup holders Manchester City out of the other domestic cup last season with a weakened team.

We’ll only find out just how seriously McClaren is taking the FA Cup at 2pm on Saturday, when the team is announced.

Before then, he won’t be thinking anything could happen. Instead, he’ll be asking himself what’s the worst that could happen.