This weekend is all about the FA Cup third round and although it’s “early doors” in the competition for some, it’s high time that the big clubs start to take the competition seriously again.
There’s some interesting ties at this stage: Bolton v Sunderland; Brighton v Newcastle; Crawley v Reading; Crystal Palace v Stoke City; Luton v Wolves; Peterborough v Norwich; West Ham v Manchester United; and Swansea v Arsenal.
But any game involving top Premier sides has to be treated with caution. The chances are that at Upton Park and Swansea, Manchester United and Arsenal will field “development” sides. If they do, then they deserve to be beaten. For clubs outside the top echelon, the competition still represents a stab at glory, a glimpse of the big-time and a day out at the now grossly devalued Wembley Stadium.
There’s many reasons why Premier League clubs should re-evaluate the competition. Firstly, it’s all about getting silverware on the sideboard. With so much emphasis on the UEFA Champions League, a top four finish is considered to be success, while the FA Cup and Football League Cup are merely seen as consolation prizes. In reality, only six clubs – at best – are capable of challenging for a place in the Champions League, so for the likes of Stoke, Fulham et al, the two domestic knockout competitions are their best hope of success.
Secondly, the thrill of knockout football should be seen for what it is – an elimination bout that tests the strength of two teams over 90 minutes. Moments of brilliance as opposed to the slog of a title chase. We remember cup finals if they are exciting or contain incidents that change the game. It also gives the smaller clubs a chance of a “one-off” triumph, something that has been the “bread and butter” of cup football for years. There’s genuine currency in this – why else would SKYSPORTS, for example, influence the fixtures to ensure that the highly-fancied clubs meet at the back end of the campaign, in order to give TV that “cup final” end to a league season? Since 1989, when Arsenal clinched the title at Liverpool, who were within seconds themselves of winning the title, the media has hankered for this type of finale. In other words, a cup final to decide the league championship!
Thirdly, the romance of the underdog is something that should be treasured in football. We all love underdogs, unless they are beating our own club, of course. Think back over the years and names like Yeovil, Hereford, York, Wrexham and Sutton United come to mind. There’s nothing like a “giant-killing” to remind us what the FA Cup is all about.
Finally, it’s also about cash. Cup-ties can be money-spinners, to use a well-worn cliché, and provide the smaller clubs with much-needed finance. The Premier clubs have an obligation to their junior colleagues to maintain the health of the game in Britain. They don’t realize it, but a thriving game from top-to-bottom will reap dividends. It’s no good being the only shop in the high street – people don’t warm to dereliction.
The FA, to their credit, have introduced some attractive prize money to the competition which, in the qualifying stages, means an awful lot to non-league clubs. But clubs at all levels need to be a little more honest when it comes to declaring gates that, in the FA Cup, have to be shared. Abuse at the turnstiles is something that has existed for years. Suddenly, when you have to share the gate, the crowd figure sinks well below average levels. This practice, called, I believe, “larkins”, has been going on for years, and everyone turns a blind eye. I have been at games when the gate is announced and the crowd laughs in acknowledgement, so it is widely accepted, and shouldn’t be.
But when it’s all added up, the glory, the cash, the element of surprise and then a grand day out at Wembley – note to the FA, scrap the semi-finals at Wembley and make it a 3pm kick-off – the FA Cup is still the greatest knockout competition in the world. Roll on, January 5.