FA Cup – still important, but no longer the national focus

THE poor old FA Cup can’t win no matter who turns up in the final. We become all nostalgic about the days when “Association Football Football Challenge Cup Final” used to appear in diaries as an “Important Date”. We long for the time when the BBC and ITV began their coverage of the final almost at the crack of dawn and newspapers had four-page supplements dedicated to the big day. Equally, we get misty-eyed about players being interviewed after the game with milk bottles in their handS, talking about the “best day of my life”.

Photo: Umbro CC BY-NC 2.0

The FA Cup final was almost part of the social calendar, although from that perspective, it is probably more the territory of “the set” than it ever was in the past. We believe the FA Cup final has lost importance, we have talked it down for the past two decades, but try and get a ticket and you’ll see how “unimportant” it is today. The media has, on one hand, done its best to dilute the competition but on the other hand, talks it up as if it were 1968 all over again. The truth is, there are underlying reasons why the FA Cup has lost something from the days when Frank Rea led the community signing from an improvised stage in the middle of the pitch.

The FA Cup was special between 1923 and 1992 because it was one of the few games that people could watch live on TV. It focused the attention because you didn’t often see a game as it was happening and “bread and butter” league games were not treated as an event. And because it was played at Wembley, where only the great and the good appeared, it attained a unique status. Like the Grand National, the Derby, cricket test matches, the Boat Race and Wimbledon, the FA Cup final was something that almost everyone would take some form of interest in, regardless of their feeling for the sport.

Wembley today is a intense commercial venture that has to be used, so the stadium is no longer out of reach, unless public transport plays up. There’s no twin towers, just an arch that could easily belong to any modern construction from a retail park to a motorway bridge or a river crossing. It has a very temporary look about it, unlike the old pillars of Empire.

But that’s not the FA Cup’s fault, we’ve become accustomed to having anything we want in modern society, whether we can afford it or not, and the competition, like many aspects of old England, has, naturally, lost some of its unique quality.

Some might say that the “romance” has been lost from the competition and we are certainly missing the gallant tales of the past. But if that means we don’t have too many of the stories involving tragic injuries on the fabled “lush Wembley turf”, then we should welcome that. As for giant-killers, it is true that we’ve mislaid some of that, although Lincoln City and Sutton United kept that flame alive in recent years.

Fred Keenor with the FA Cup, won with Cardiff in 1927. Photo: Jon Candy CC BY-SA 2.0

Sceptics moan that it is the same old teams in the final, year-in, year-out, but equally, they complain when “oh, it’s only Portsmouth and Cardiff, I’ve got no interest. If they knew their history, they would have been aware that Cardiff provided the FA Cup with a little slice of the “romance” they are always after – in 1927 when they took the cup out of England for the first time. Equally, the famous “Pompey Chimes” are a part of football’s folklore.

One of the modern gripes about the competition is that “the big clubs don’t take it seriously”. This is rubbish as since 1992-93, when the Premier was inaugurated, 22 of the 25 FA Cups have been won by five of the “big six” – Arsenal (8), Chelsea (6), Manchester United (5), Liverpool (2), Manchester City (1). Only three times, Everton 1995, Portsmouth 2008 and Wigan 2013, has the cup been lifted by a club other than this elite band.

This group has appeared in 24 of the 25 finals (the only one that didn’t feature a single club from the elite was 2008, Portsmouth v Cardiff). Furthermore, there have been nine all-elite clashes in the final, the latest one being this year’s meeting of Chelsea and Manchester United.

They don’t care too much then? Nonsense, what people are really upset about – with some justification – is that some of these clubs field weakened teams, which disappoint opposition fans and implies a little arrogance. Basically, they can do this because they know they can still successfully come through a tie with a less-than-full-strength line-up. This underlines the gulf that has developed between the very top and the rest of football society.

Such are the financial rewards of (a) the Premier and (b) the Champions League, that these competitions are the clear priorities for most clubs. Securing a top four place is more important than winning the FA Cup and if any gamble is going to be made, it will be in the knockout competition. But it seems to work, judging by the statistics.

In 2017-18, seven Premier League clubs made it through to the last eight. This is the highest number in the past five years and the second time in three years that this has happened. Looking across the competition this season, 10 of the last 16 were Premier clubs and six went out in the third round, four in the fourth round.

But what about the other divisions? Non-League had Lincoln in 2016-17, but there are signs that clubs beyond the Football League are finding it harder – in 2017-18, for the first time in 67 years, not a single non-league club reached round three. The last 10 went out in round two. League Two has not had a single team in the last eight over the past five years but League One has had four. The Championship has had five, the last being in 2015-16.

How different is that from the past? We took a five-year period between 1963-64 to 1967-68 and looked at the composition of the last eight of the FA Cup. In those five years, there were 29 teams from the top division, eight from the second, two from the third and one from the fourth (29-8-2-1-0) The last five years have produced 30-5-4-0-1. Not startingly different.

What has impacted the appeal of the FA Cup?

–       Overuse of Wembley
–       Too much emphasis on Premier survival and Champions League qualification
–       Large squads of Premier League clubs, enabling rotation and selective line-ups
–       Growing gap between Premier and leagues below
–       Multi-national teams and managers with limited respect for heritage of the competition

Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, every final has been all-Premier, but how do you judge whether a cup final is a “strong” event. One simple way to determine the quality is to calculate the average league      positions of the finalists. In 2017-18, it is likely to be 3.5 – based on United 2nd and Chelsea 5th. Last season it was 3.0 (Chelsea 1, Arsenal 5).

The best average is 1.5 which has been achieved twice in post-war football – 1985-86 when Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 and 2006-07 when Chelsea prevented a Manchester United double.

Six times since 1946-47 the champions have been beaten in the final – 1957 (United), 1977 (Liverpool), 1985 (Everton), 1988 Liverpool), 2007 (United) and 2017 (Chelsea).  There have been 24 occasions where the club finishing lower in the league has beaten a team placed higher. Some make a habit of it, Newcastle United’s three FA Cup wins in the 1950s were all against teams above them.

While culturally, results like Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 0 in 1988 have created waves, the biggest differential between underdog winner and loser has been 25 places, which has happened three times – Sunderland 1973, Southampton 1976 and West Ham 1980. The latter finished seventh in the second division, the lowest post-war placing of a FA Cup winner. If you were ask anyone which of these represented the greatest upset, it has to be Sunderland’s triumph over Don Revie’s side in 1973. In more recent years, Wigan’s victory over Manchester City, teams that were 16 places apart, was a major shock.

We’ve had precious few legends in recent years, but theories that top clubs don’t care about the FA Cup are not entirely true – the honours list does not lie. In the past, it could be argued that some of the top clubs did not devote their full attention to the competition, hence there were nine different winners in both the 1960s and 1970s and some major upsets (Colchester 1971 springs to mind), while there were five winners in the 1990s and also the first decade of the 2000s. What it does confirm is that English football’s polarisation continues, with the top teams more than capable of winning everything. One thing is certain, Chelsea and Manchester United will both have the “little tin idol” on their shopping list for May 19.

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