It’s been Lincoln City’s day. And it will be their night, too. To become the first non-league side in 103 years to reach an FA Cup quarter-final is an achievement those players deserve to dine out on for the rest of their careers. Forgetting what the result does or does not do for the competition’s future, this was a game which lived up to its propesterous mythology; romantic, ridiculous, and impossible to forget.
In the coming days, the media will arrive. Sutton United, ahead of their game with Arsenal on Monday, have absorbed much of the national attention. Now, that will change: the press will march on Sincil Bank and the players, manager Danny Cowley, and presumably anyone who has ever flipped a burger within a mile radius will feel the collective love. Rightly so, too, because football doesn’t really do this kind of story anymore and, for once, it should be milked for all it’s worth.
But there’s another side to this: Burnley’s performance.
Maybe it’s melodramatic to say that this defeat will leave a permanent black mark on the club’s history, but neither squad rotation nor drifting focus can disguise what this was – an abdication of professional responsibility.
Cup shocks typically come from something hard to explain. Stars aligning, the wind blowing in the right way, and the Earth tilting ever so slightly on its axis. But was this really that? The chorus of boos that thundered down from the Turf Moor stands at full-time suggested no. This was one team outperforming another and, ultimately, having more respect for the game’s detail. Important blocks may have been made and Lincoln’s win might have been flecked with good fortune, but not in a way which suggested that fate was conspiring on their behalf.
The game’s decisive moment was also its most telling. It settled the tie, but also portrayed an alarming disparity in the two teams’ respect focus. A free header from the back of the penalty-box and then Sean Ragget’s uncontested leap to score the only goal; what a shambles. A wonderful moment, for sure, and one which will stay on rotation for as long as the cup remains in existence, but still one which Burnley and Sean Dyche should be deeply ashamed of.
There was no cosmic intervention anywhere within that sequence.
It’s assumed that better-paid players should always prevail and that performances like this one are unnacceptable on account of that privilege. But that isn’t why Burnley should never, ever have lost to a non-league team at home – or it’s not the only reason, at least. Consider the day-to-day advantages that a Premier League footballer enjoys: the quality of the pitches he trains on, the technical and tactical resources he’s exposed to ahead of each fixture, and even the facilities which shorten his recovery. Lincoln may not be an amateur team full of accountants, policemen and gravediggers, but the challenges they overcame today – beyond just those created by their literal inferiority – were substantial enough to cast their opponent’s own performance in a deeply unflattering light.
We like to believe in intangibles and would prefer to emphasise them ahead of more literal explanations. But tally all of Burnley’s advantages, create a rough sum, and then consider how it was that they were able to still able to lose. Dyche made changes and perhaps the hard labour of the Chelsea draw did show in today’s game, but the real X in the equation today was a lack of professionalism. Perhaps that’s a cold take on an afternoon which has made us all feel warm inside, but it’s still incontestably true: a non-league team in the quarter-final is a wonderful thing, but that involvement comes with an accusatory subtext. Last weekend, Burnley were rightly celebrated for their resistance, emblematic as it was of what a small side has been able to achieve in a big-club world, but this evening they must cover up and take the kicking that they’re due. An embarrassment, to themselves, their manager, and their fans.
Yes, Lincoln City’s players should be carried aloft through the streets and the story of this weekend should be told solely from their perspective, but those Burnley players are still due a night in the stocks. Supporters may no longer love the FA Cup, but they will always hate being humiliated in front of the watching world.