AS USUAL, the FA Cup third round brought with it heated debate about the way Premier League clubs abuse the competition. If we are truly honest with ourselves, the FA Cup used to be so important because of a number of reasons, but these have largely become null and void in the modern game.
Firstly, the FA Cup was the only game that the majority of the population would watch on TV. It was the only live match involving clubs, right up until the mid-1980s. It was considered to be an important date on the calendar, a day when the game dominated national TV and the newspapers were full of coverage, including supplements in the middle of their Saturday edition. It mattered. People invariably forgot who the league champions were, but they nearly always remembered the FA Cup winners.
Secondly, winning the FA Cup was one of those “Boy’s Own” moments, something we all dreamed of as kids. Wembley, the twin towers, the 39 steps to the Royal Box, the dodgy turf, the heritage, Wembley Way, community singing – all of these things added to the occasion and made the competition somewhat unique.
Thirdly, winning the Cup gave you a passport to European football, or to be precise, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, arguably the weakest of the three competitions, but nevertheless, the chance to rub shoulders with the continent’s top clubs.
Lastly, “romance”, an overused expression coined to describe the possibility of the unexpected happening. “Giant-killing”, the act of a minnow beating a giant. In the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, giant-killing had substance because if you knocked Manchester United out of the competition, it was a full-strength Manchester United, not a team comprising squad players or spotty wannabees.
Today, the third round, in particular, highlights that Premier clubs are willing to gamble that their vast resources will allow them to blood a few youngsters, give that bench-warmer a run-out and permit their cotton wool-wrapped stars a rest. It actually rarely backfires, but what’s a little arrogant about it all is that the public are cheated and the clubs who decide to devalue the tie are setting their own priorities above the good of the competition or English football.
The FA have very little power over this practice, but it might be a good idea to name a squad for cup competitions at the outset of the season, firstly to let fans know that if Liverpool are in town in the Cup, it might be a Liverpool XI rather than the full-blooded team. If a manager decides to field a weaker line-up, then be transparent – or better still, drop the admission prices.
As for Europe, the product has become “Champions League or bust” for the top clubs, who regard the Europa League as a secondary event, hence the process of fielding second string teams has extended to this once glamorous competition. And there you have it, football has become over-focused on two things – Premiership football at all costs and the Champions League. Everything else is unimportant.
Furthermore, the FA Cup and Wembley have lost their exclusivity. Wembley is no longer that dreamed-of venue for the very fortunate and the Cup is not seen as the holy grail – somebody recently complained that it looked “old fashioned” and that it needed to be bigger, more grand (rather like the gaudy, of-its-time Premier trophy). The towers have gone, but the stadium, for all its iconic history, was a dump with poor sightlines, overflowing urinals and sub-standard transport links. Today’s stadium is better on a number of counts, but it has no redeeming feature and you could be anywhere in the world. But most relevant is the fact that it is used far too much, it is not a special place, it has all the charm of a retail park or an aircraft hangar. And because, unlike the original Wembley, everybody has been there, so no mythology can build up. We all know what it’s like and there are better grounds in England.
Crowds are lower than league games at many FA Cup ties, but it is clear supporters are starting to twig that clubs are devaluing the competition, so they react accordingly. Also, with so many clubs dominated by season ticket holders, those in possession have to go to the effort of purchasing a cup-tie ticket. Many don’t seem to bother and opt to take a break. Perhaps clubs should factor-in cup games, in fact some probably already do. Interestingly, the modern trend is completely reverse to how the Cup was viewed versus league games in the past, which were seen as very much run-of-the-mill with the Cup providing a welcome distraction. There’s another thing to consider and it starts right at the beginning of the competition. Attendances are always smaller when the gate money has to be shared!
The belief that big clubs don’t take the competition seriously is not borne out by their success rate. Radio pundits were talking about the fact the competition could not possibly provide a Champions League entrant because “teams like Wigan win it”, but this is an absolute anomaly. In the past 30 years – yes, 30 years – only three clubs from outside the half dozen we now look upon as the “big six”, have won the FA Cup: Wigan 2013, Portsmouth 2008 and Everton in 1995. Moreover, only once in that timeframe – 2008 Cardiff v Portsmouth – has the final not involved at least one of the six.
The big clubs know the Premier League’s financial advantages provide them with enough power to take a calculated risk or two and still win through. More often than not it works – in the case of Jürgen Klopp’s development squad, spectacularly. It’s frustrating for the fans – just imagine how Everton must feel after losing to a Liverpool shadow team – but the elite clubs are merely exercising their right to use their resources wisely. As everyone keeps reminding us, “it’s a squad game these days”. OK, if that’s the case, then let’s be honest about it and stop pretending. Fielding a reserve team is unfair on the public, but if they know in advance that their Football League Cup or FA Cup (or indeed, Europa League) team is likely to be a weaker side, then supporters can make their own choices. They already are.