The FA Cup, which returns this weekend 141 years on from its first ever competition, has always been a welcome January visitor. Not that the Cup's sense of mud-bound sporting grandeur comes without a price these days. Undermined on all sides by English football's ceaseless financial expansionism, the Cup returns every year a little touchier about its shrunken domestic status, a little needier, ever more vigorously fixated on its past glories.
Yet the Cup remains a central fixture in English sport's seasonal calendar, enduring excitement about the approaching third round fuelled by a wider sense of winter ritual and sporting nostalgia. The third round is the moment when the big clubs join the survivors from the lower levels, the prospect of a giant-killing offering a post-festive treat to light the gloom of the new year.
There is perhaps a little more to the Cup this year. Football, which is always in crisis, has endured even by its own standards a notably crisis-ridden year.
Beyond the main business of pots and prizes, football in 2012 was characterised by a pervasive fug of racism, crowd violence and ever more inventive forms of basic unpleasantness. So much so that the appearance of the FA Cup, as 2013 rolls around, suddenly feels like a reservoir of old values and leathery integrity.
The Cup has already been forced to accept its own limitations. To yearn for its peak years – through the vast Edwardian attendances at Crystal Palace, the Coronation year final of 1953, and the grandeur of the 1970s, a time of long-haired pop-glitz, pitch-invading kids in parkas and a sense that the Cup really did represent a form of sporting ultimacy – is like pining for the return of the British Rail sandwich, or the analogue telephone.
The Cup cannot come again as it once was. Even its basic romantic currency, the giant-killing result on a mud-bound lower league pitch, is devalued. Managers and chairmen talk of a "payday" when the Cup pits them against Premier League opposition. A draw, and the double-your-money replay, is the dream result.
There is one outstanding third round tie this weekend – Liverpool's trip to the One Call Stadium, home of Mansfield Town of the Blue Square Bet Premier League.
For Mansfield manager Paul Cox it is the occasion of the season so far and perhaps of his own managerial career. "It's great for the town as a whole," Cox says. "Mansfield has had a bad time with the pit closing and businesses closing. A lot of people have put their faith in the football club as a shining light. The FA Cup is the best cup competition in the world and we're a nation that loves an underdog. It's what creates that feeling of romance."
Even here, though, there is an acceptance that the most tangible reward of playing a Premier League team, in a horribly precarious industry, is monetary. "The chairman will be cheering loudest if we get a win of course," Cox says. "But he knows the scenario if we get a draw. It would be massive for the club."
For all the sense of being fatally diminished, the Cup still seems oddly instructive. From its late-Victorian beginnings, as football began to grow as an economic force in the larger industrial cities, part of the Cup's power was that it still offered a sense of social mobility, a shot at glory that was available to all.
While football has, since the birth of professionalism, attracted much handwringing over declining standards, moral bankruptcy, and general financial chicanery, the Cup has retained its distantly ennobling quality.
In part this is to do with basic sporting meritocracy. Any team in the country can, in theory, win the FA Cup. Old Etonians were the last amateur side to do so (in 1882) but up until the second world war Corinthians, a team of amateurs who stood against foul play and refused to score from penalties as they were "unsporting" would regularly compete.
Amateurism, fair play, sporting meritocracy: football has never been particularly interested in any of these in practice. But at least, propelled by the sport's founding competition and the cradle of the modern game, there was some sense of higher values in the background, of aspiring to something beyond the moral annihilation of success at all sporting and financial costs.
The Cup will come and go this year as it always does and by the end of the coming weekend there may be no more romantic tales to tell for another year.
But it should perhaps be treasured a little more keenly than normal – as a moment in time distinct from the furiously marketeered successes of the Premier League.