A tragic end to the magic?
The FA Cup is unwell.
It seems to have picked up an illness that’s gradually weakening it year-on-year. It probably caught the illness when it failed to wash its handles after visiting the League Cup in hospital a few years ago. The symptoms are similar certainly – declines in attendance levels, a weakening of teams, reduced appeal etc. The doctors at the FA have been there before when the League Cup was first admitted. They gave teams involved at European level byes to later rounds to keep the bigger clubs interested, and reduced the number of games by eliminating two-leg ties in earlier rounds and eliminating replays in the hope of reinvigorating interest and halting the illness. The effects in that instance have been marginal at best. Which is why it is odd that the same therapy is being suggested as the magic cure to all of the FA Cup’s ills, with abolishing replays at the front of the line of suggestions to “improve” the tournament.
In the twenty years I’ve been a fan, many of my favourite moments have been in the FA Cup. Which is why it’s upsetting to see it in decline. This year has been no different. Home ties between lower league and Premiership teams have seen crowds nowhere near capacity. I saw Sheffield United vs Aston Villa in last month’s 3rd round, with the attendance falling below 17,000. 10 years ago that sort of game would have brought in a higher number. Both teams played their strongest teams, the game wasn’t on TV and ticket prices were substantially reduced – the stage should have been set for a much healthier crowd than what turned out. Other clubs have similarly reduced prices with little effect. The weekend saw a virtually full strength Man City take on Notts County in a half-empty Eastlands. Again, tickets had been largely reduced to try and encourage more people to go – the main effects being a likely loss of revenue for Notts County from the gate receipts.
The FA seem to think it’s simply a case of there being too many games, but really the reason why fans can no longer muster the same enthusiasm as they did in the past is that by and large the teams in the top 2 divisions on the whole aren’t that bothered. The Premiership consumes everyone’s attention. The teams fighting it out at the top or bottom feel they must rest their key players so that they can concentrate on more important matters – the need to finish in the top 4, or the fear of dropping out of the division, overrides the Cup. Man United overcame plucky Crawley by a small margin with their reserves, while over at Leyton Orient Arsenal’s reserves had to settle for a draw. The half-arsed approach to the competition by many of the top teams also cheapens the achievements of the teams they struggle against. I was delighted for Orient, particularly at a time when the Olympic Stadium award to West Ham threatens their future. But a draw against Arsenal reserves isn’t quite the same as a draw against Arsenal. It may be the case that the score would have been the same had Arsenal played the same XI that beat Barcelona – sadly we couldn’t find that out. The same could be said for the Man United game. Giant killing isn’t quite the same as it used to be. Deep down, the O’s fans will know this too. They will however be delighted at the prospect of the replay, and the crucial funds it will bring to the club.
Which brings me to the scrapping of replays idea. O’s chairman Barry Hearn made a passionate defence of replays this week. They are an important part of the FA Cup. For lower clubs, they can make a huge difference to both their prospects in and revenue from the competition. Scrapping them would be to the benefit of the big clubs, and the detriment of the small. Extra time rather than replays would likely favour the bigger teams due to the fitness levels their players tend to have. Smaller clubs would find away trips to the top teams altogether tougher. If the FA wants to reform the Cup, it needs to look at other more substantial changes, rather than tweaks that will worsen the competition.
A better option could be to simply space out the rounds and have the final in the first week of June. It is already a disgrace that this year’s final coincides with a weekend of Premiership matches – let’s return this to being the season-ending occasion it used to be.
Also, perhaps it is time to put the League Cup out of its misery and turn off its life-support…
- City Stroll to 5-0 FA Cup Win Over Notts County (nytimes.com)
- FA Cup Sunday, Open Thread: 4th Round Replay and 5th Round Action (epltalk.com)